The biggest obstacle to enacting a state budget is the disagreement between the Senate and the House of Delegates over Medicaid expansion. But even if legislators could resolve their Medicaid differences tomorrow, Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said earlier today, they still would have to resolve a $400 million gap over other programs.
The second largest funding disagreement revolves around higher education, Layne told members of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia at a monthly meeting at Christopher Newport University.
According to data SCHEV distributed at the council meeting, the House Appropriations Committee has budgeted $218.8 million in additional dollars for education over the biennial budget between 2018 and 2020, while the Senate Finance Committee has allocated only $94.7 million in new dollars. Most of the gap can be traced to differences in three areas: funding for the Cyber X cyber-security education initiative, faculty pay raises, and financial aid.
Layne voiced no preference for either the House or Senate higher-ed budgets, but did say that Governor Ralph Northam’s two top priorities are funding the Medicaid expansion and setting aside reserves to bolster Virginia’s precarious AAA bond rating.
While the budget outlook for the current fiscal year, 2017-18, is improving, Layne said he is not willing to bridge the funding gap by assuming stronger revenues for 2018-19. Year-to-date personal income tax revenues are up about 6% this year, considerably ahead of the forecast 3.5%. The federal tax cuts appear to be having a stimulative effect on income. December saw a $200 million revenue jump, but he doesn’t know if that reflects a surge in income or a burst of early payments to take advantage of the state-and-local tax deduction before the new tax law eliminates it.
Other signs are favorable — revenue from the sales tax is up, as is the recordation tax on home sales — but Northam wants to dedicate any surplus funds to building up the state’s rainy-day fund.
The Standard & Poor’s rating agency has given Virginia a negative outlook on its AAA bond rating. “They don’t like to see one-time revenues pay for ongoing expenses,” said Layne. Also, he said, “they like to see bigger financial reserves” — 3% to 8% of revenues. The budget introduced by former Governor Terry McAuliffe put an additional $270 million into the reserve for a more than $100 billion two-year budget. The House budget would do less; the Senate budget would do more than the House’s.
Bottom line: However the economy performs for the rest of the fiscal year, there won’t be any loose purse strings to paper over the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget.
In other remarks, Layne opined on his philosophical approach to the budget. A big concept in the private sector is “fiduciary responsibility,” said Layne, who had been president of Virginia Beach-based Great Atlantic Management before joining the McAuliffe administration four years ago as secretary of transportation. If he violated the highest standards of care for a client, he could get sued or fired. He applies the concept of fiduciary to his job working for state government. His duty is to the citizens of Virginia.
Virginia citizens are paying federal taxes to pay for the Medicaid expansion enabled by the Affordable Care Act. To live up to his fiduciary responsibility and get that money back, Layne supports expanding Medicaid as allowed by the law. One argument he’s heard against expansion is that the federal government can’t afford the program, it’s going bankrupt. To the contrary, said Layne, the federal share of Medicaid expansion is paid by taxes enacted by the Affordable Care Act. It’s not deficit spending. A second argument he’s heard is that the feds can’t be trusted not to renege on its payments. But that possibility is covered by a codicil in the budget that says if the feds back out, the state can back out of the Medicaid expansion, too.
Layne suggested that there is a serious mismatch between Virginia’s tax base and its spending priorities.
Drawing upon his experience as transportation secretary, he noted that the Commonwealth collects roughly $2.5 billion a year in revenue for transportation. Of that sum, only 20% or so pays for new construction; the rest goes to maintenance and operations. The reliance upon the gasoline tax has eroded the transportation revenue stream. As cars get better gas mileage — and as electric vehicles phase out the internal combustion engines — gasoline consumption and revenues decline. In theory, Virginia could switch to a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax, a true user fee. But that creates privacy concerns. To raise revenue, the state has resorted instead to increasing tolls. Nobody likes tolls, but they are a user fee, and they do expose the true costs of transportation.
Once upon a time, transportation funding did not compete with General Fund priorities. said Layne. Now transportation gets a share of the state sales tax, which puts pressure on priorities like education and health care, both of which are funded through General Fund revenues like the sales and income taxes.
What’s the answer? Update the tax structure, which is based upon an 20th-century industrial economy, to one that is based upon a 21st-century knowledge economy. Internet sales are not taxed — although that may change, depending upon an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Services are not taxed. Perhaps they should be.
At a broader level, Layne said that Virginia needs to adopt a rigorous approach to formulating the state budget. What kind of services do we need? What money do we need to fund those services? And where does that money come from? “That’s the kind of analysis that not just us, but the country, will have to go through.”There are currently no comments highlighted.