Category Archives: Budgets

Surplus? How About $455 Million Windfall Tax Hike

Income breakdown and average “windfall” tax in 2018 on the taxpayers who paid more. All averaged more than $220. Source: Secretary of Finance and Ernst & Young. Click to expand.

by Steve Haner

Virginia ended the last fiscal year with about $797 million more in revenue than projected, and the Northam Administration credits $455 million of that to higher taxes on about 30% of taxpayers caused by conforming to the new federal tax law. More than 700,000 tax returns stopped claiming state itemized deductions, accounting for much of that.

The tax conformity windfall amount was calculated by outside consultant Ernst and Young, Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne told a meeting of the combined legislative money committees Tuesday. That is not the same firm hired last year to project the state tax impact of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Layne said he wanted a different team looking at the results.

The E&Y report is the final 23 pages of Layne’s slide presentation to the committees, here. Continue reading

Slow and Steady Wins the Budget Race

by James A. Bacon

Thanks in part to a $797 million surplus in last year’s budget, Virginia will build up its budget reserves to $1.6 billion by the end of the 2020 fiscal year, and Governor Ralph Northam is promising to take a “cautious and strategic” approach to the next biennial budget.

“During the next budget cycle we will continue laying a strong foundation for Virginia — preparing for a rainy day while investing responsibility in our long-term growth,” the governor said in an address to General Assembly budget committees.

Northam highlighted the $20 billion in economic development announcements made since he has taken office, more than any previous administration in a full four-year term. But looking ahead, he took note of increasing economic uncertainty heightened by the trade war with China. Speaking personally, he described how retaliatory tariffs could keep the soy beans grown on his family farm in the Eastern Shore “in the fields if we can’t sell them.” Continue reading

Going Nowhere Fast: Virginia’s Transportation Dialogue

Northern Virginians are complaining again about their inadequate transportation infrastructure, and I can’t blame them. Traffic is terrible, especially on transportation arteries like Interstate 95, and I avoid going up there, or even through there, if I possibly can. NoVa is transportation hell — a point that was reiterated Wednesday during a forum sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. As usually happens, however, participants defined the problem as not enough money.

“We are in the position (where) we don’t have more money,” said panelist Monica Backmon, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, according to Inside Nova. “We have an open call for projects right now, but the reality is that’s for Fiscal Year 24 and 25. If you need more money on previously funded projects, I really don’t have it.”

Where will the money come from? Ed Mortimer, a U.S. Chamber official, said the federal government needs to do more. Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine argued that Virginia is relatively undertaxed and should boost its gas tax.

Given the paralyzing political polarization in Washington, D.C., these days, I don’t expect any solutions coming out of the nation’s capital. But Richmond hasn’t reached the same level of dysfunction. What about a higher gas tax? Does that idea make sense? Continue reading

Compare Localities to Improve Performance

Roy Fauber. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

I like the way Roy Fauber thinks. One doesn’t have to agree with the conclusions of the retired Federal Research Bank of Richmond executive to appreciate how he goes about dissecting issues in a recent op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The cities of Richmond and Norfolk are close peers, he observes. They are similar in the sizes of their population (Norfolk 243,000 and Richmond 217,000), the percentage of the school-age population (11% and 12%), and poverty rates ( 22% and 25%). One might add that both cities are similar in that they are 200+ years old, can boast large downtown districts, and suffer from decaying decayed inner city neighborhoods and aging infrastructures.

Despite the similar nature of their challenges, Fauber notes, Richmond’s real estate taxes are 19.6% higher than Norfolk’s on a per-capita basis. General taxes are 26% higher per capita. He asks: “What accounts for this major disparity? … Do Richmond citizens get more for their money?”

Darn good question. Politicians are masters of deflection and excuse making. Citizens can cut through the rhetorical fog by posing questions like Fauber does. Continue reading

Staying Within the Debt Capacity

I am following up on an earlier post discussing the capital budget recommendations of the Governor and the Commonwealth’s debt capacity. Jim Bacon’s recent post discussing Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne’s worries about increasing debt also dealt with this general issue.

Guided by Secretary Layne, the Governor’s introduced budget was relatively conservative in its capital provisions and the authorization of $568.4 million in additional tax-supported debt. As predicted in the earlier post, the General Assembly came under a lot of pressure to add to the package and responded accordingly.  The final budget bill, signed by the Governor in early May, authorized the issuance of an additional $1.1 billion in state-supported debt.

The major projects added by the legislature were the replacement of Central State Hospital ($315 million), a top priority of the Governor; “renewal” of Alderman Library at UVa ($132.5 million); and demolition and replacement of Daniel Gym at Virginia State University ($82.9 million). Also included in the introduced and final total packages was $248 million, primarily for Virginia Tech, which was tied to the Amazon deal.  Including the authorizations provided by the 2018 General Assembly, the 2018-2020 Appropriation Act authorized the issuance of an additional $2.1 billion in tax-supported debt. Continue reading

Just How Smart Is the Smart-Scale Scoring System?

Over the past month Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, has criticized the state’s Smart Scale scoring system for allocating transportation dollars. By law, he says, the system is supposed to prioritize congestion mitigation. But the latest round of allocations was biased heavily in favor of land use and economic development. As a result, a Metro station project near the planned Amazon HQ2 project received funding while a Rt. 7 improvement project with greater congestion-mitigation benefits did not. This year the overwhelming majority of Northern Virginia transportation funds are going to projects inside the Beltway and only a pittance to counties on the metropolitan fringe. LaRock says the system is “seriously broken.”

Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue defends the Smart Scale methodology. As it happened this year, yes, Northern Virginia road and highway funding did fall short. He offers two justifications. First, congestion mitigation is not the only factor considered in Smart Scale, and the other projects offered tremendous benefits in other areas. Second, Smart Scale measures congestion mitigation per dollar spent. Improvements to Rt. 7, benefiting LaRock’s Loudoun County constituents, would have ameliorated a lot of congestion, but it is also a very large, very expensive project.

LaRock has a response to that. Peculiarities in the Smart Scale methodology had the effect this year of diminishing the weight given congestion mitigation projects. The state’s top congestion-relief project, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion, offered benefits so far and above all other projects that it minimized the weighting of congestion benefits for those projects.

The issues here are arcane and difficult to explain. Thus the debate boils down to he-said, she-said with LaRock and Donohue on opposite sides of the controversy. But the annual allocation of roughly $800 million yearly in transportation construction dollars is at stake. LaRock, along with Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has launched the first major challenge to the scoring system, which was designed with the hope of taking politics out of transportation decision-making. Continue reading

Spending Increases, Road Quality Decreases

Source: “Repair Priorities 2019

A new study by Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense documents the magnitude of the “Growth Ponzi scheme” in the U.S. road transportation system. Between 2009 and 2017, the 50 states collectively added more than 223,000 lane miles to their road networks. At an average cost of $24,000 per lane mile to keep roads in a state of good repair, that means states and localities have pumped up their maintenance liabilities by $5 billion a year.

But the states aren’t keeping up with those costs, contends “Repair Priorities 2019.” Nationally, the percentage of roads in poor condition increased from 15% in 2008 to 20% in 2017.

The problem isn’t a lack of money, argues Beth Osborne, director of Transportation of America. “We’re finding the money for expansion. There’s too little money to do everything, but we’re insisting that we do everything.” Continue reading

“A Dozen Pockets of Extreme and Growing Risk”

Source: Dollarcollapse.com

The economy is chugging along at a 3% growth rate, unemployment is hitting record lows, productivity is surging. The economy looks like it’s in fantastic shape. A friend of mine and long-time Trump hater, normally disinclined to give the president credit for anything, marveled recently that the low-inflation, low-unemployment economy “is as good as it gets.” I hope like heck it stays that way.

But I am an inveterate worry wart. I’ve lived through booms before — the 1980s savings & loan bubble, the 1990s tech bubble, the 2000s real estate bubble. I’ve heard the promises that “it’s different this time.” And I’ve seen the busts that followed. It’s a universal rule that most “experts” did not foresee the meltdowns coming. The same thing may be happening again. Very few are paying attention to the build-up of highly leveraged corporate debt, both in the U.S. and abroad.

I don’t know if the “junk bond” sector will precipitate the next recession. Perhaps the next downturn will originate overseas and spread to the U.S., and a meltdown in junk bonds will merely act as an accelerant to a broader collapse. Whatever the case, the $1 trillion market now represents a significant risk. State and local governments in Virginia need to acknowledge this and other risks lurking in the economy as they go about making spending and taxing decisions. Only a fool would assume that the decade-long expansion, one of the longest in U.S. history, will last forever. Continue reading

Risk and the Fisc

As the Northam administration’s point man in negotiations with the New York bond-rating agencies, Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne spends much of his time worrying about the Commonwealth of Virginia’s credit-worthiness. The state nearly lost its sterling AAA bond rating last year. It was a close thing, he says. Even now, he adds, Virginia isn’t out of the woods.

Layne sees many things that could go wrong. The economy could slip into recession and projected tax revenues could decline. A stock market crash could boost unfunded pension liabilities by billions of dollars. The politicians in Washington could get serious about dealing with the $22 trillion national debt, curtailing the defense spending that undergirds Virginia’s economy.

The risk that “keeps me up at night,” says Layne, is of a Category 5 hurricane ripping through Hampton Roads. An Old Dominion University study published late last year found that a Florence- or Katrina-scale hurricane would cause $17 billion in wind and water damage and another $25 billion or more in lost economic activity. The state would be on the hook for evacuating and sheltering hundreds of thousands of  residents, cleaning up tens of thousands of truckloads of debris, and repairing state-maintained roads and other infrastructure, even as disruption to Virginia’s second-largest metropolitan economy cost millions of dollars in state tax revenue.

The Commonwealth faces huge risks, both short-term and long-term, but few of those risks are accounted for in Virginia’s $21 billion-a-year General Fund budget. The state’s “rainy day” fund and cash reserves are too paltry to buffer the budget from a fiscal shock of any magnitude. Under many scenarios Layne can contemplate, balancing the budget would require horrendous spending cuts.

“There’s no one looking into the future,” Layne says of the state’s biennial budget cycle. “Nobody’s looking beyond two years.” If revenue shortfalls loom more than two years out, he adds, “the attitude is, we’ll deal with that in the next budget.” Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Highs and Lows

Digital gold rush. How lucrative are data centers for Loudoun County? The prosperous Northern Virginia county expects to collect $200 million in fiscal 2020 from the property tax on computer equipment, up 35% over 2019, according to the Washington Business Journal. Last week, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors adopted a $3.2 billion operating budget that featured a “significant cut” to the real estate tax rate, an across-the-board pay raise for county employees, and $100 million more for county schools. Data centers are worth roughly $1,000 a year in lower taxes to Loudoun homeowners.

And at the other end of the fiscal spectrum…

Digging out. In the wake of the worst financial crisis suffered by any Virginia locality since the Great Depression, the City of Petersburg is building back its fund balance, The FY 2020 budget of $75.8 million will run a $2.6 million surplus this year and the city is budgeting for $3.6 million next year. The city still has a long way to go before reaching a fund balance of $18 million, healthy enough to fund the General Fund for three months, but it represents a dramatic improvement since FY 2016 when the fund balance collapsed to negative $7.7 million. Tax and utility payments remain high, but at least the city has a functioning government.

And in the “Them That Has Gets” department… Continue reading

Hidden Deficits: Richmond Streets Edition

Source: City of Richmond

The condition of Richmond city roads is getting worse. Sixty-five percent of the city’s streets and roads are rated “fair to poor” or “poor or below,” Bobby Vincent, director of public works, told City Council Monday. Only 35% of streets and roads were rated “good,” according to Virginia Department of Transportation standards. That’s down from 53% as recently as 2014, reports Community Idea Stations.

Bringing roads back to standard would cost $104 million. Mayor Levar Stoney has proposed including $16.2 million more for roads and sidewalks in the upcoming budget, but the funding would come from an increase in property taxes and cigarette taxes which several city council persons openly oppose.

Allowing infrastructure to deteriorate is just a hidden form of deficit spending. That $104 million figure compares to total budget of about $710 million yearly and an annual public works capital budget of roughly $25 million. That’s quite a lot of hidden deficit spending over the years, and the figure doesn’t include spending shortfalls for other infrastructure such as school buildings, water-sewer plant, and other public facilities. Nor does it include the hidden deficits that take the form of pension under-funding.

But don’t assume Richmond is a unique basket case. Do you know your locality’s hidden deficit? Is it growing or shrinking? Is your city or county using the tax bounty of an economic expansion to reduce its maintenance backlogs? I’ll bet you have no clue.

How to Look Fiscally Responsible While Being Fiscally Irresponsible

Governor Ralph Northam wants to boost the retiree health credit for state police, law officers, sheriffs and their deputies. He has included $8.1 million in his proposed FY 2020 budget to pay for a $2-per-year of service increase for state police and a $1.50- to $5-per year increase for sheriffs and deputies.

While the increase in benefits will be paid for, it legislative hearings have revealed how poorly these retirement plans are funded to begin with. Northam’s proposal would add $76 million in liabilities to two plans that are funded at less than 10% of their long-term obligations. House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, called the benefit increases “fiscally irresponsible.” Continue reading

Pushing the Limits of Virginia’s Debt Capacity

Source: Debt Capacity Advisory Committee

by Richard W. Hall-Sizemore

The Commonwealth has been on a borrowing/building spree for the past few years and, as a result, its options for dealing with capital needs in the future may be constrained.

Since 1991, Virginia has voluntarily limited itself to the amount of tax-supported debt it would incur for capital projects.  This “debt capacity” is measured in terms of the percentage of general fund revenues that need to be provided for debt service on outstanding capital bonds.  The consensus between the legislature and the administration has been that projected debt service on tax-supported bonds should not exceed an average of five percent of general fund revenue over the ensuing ten years. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Rider U Screws U Know Who

Now that the State Corporation Commission has finally approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s Rider U, mandated by the General Assembly to force us all to pay for underground lines serving just a few customers, let me explain how perfectly this scheme put the company ahead of its customers.  (For case details, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has this good story, picking up some themes from an earlier Bacon’s Rebellion post.)

Set aside discussions of the “Strategic Underground Program” because the merits do not matter for this illustration.  Start with the information that Rider U is a stand-alone line item on your bill, a financial silo on Dominion’s books, with a guarantee that the utility will recover in full the cost of construction with a profit margin over time.  No risk to the shareholders.

Any benefit to the customers, and there will be some certainly, shows up as reduced maintenance and repair costs and fewer interruptions.  Those maintenance and repair costs are covered by the main portion of your bill, the base rates, outside the Rider U silo.   Say it’s a one-to-one ratio, and the $70 million spent putting lines underground saves $70 million over five years in repair costs.  The fewer interruptions also add base rate revenue outside the silo.

Continue reading

Northam Budget Priorities: Financial Reserves, Medicaid

Allocations of anticipated new tax revenue in Governor Ralph Northam’s proposed Fiscal 2019-20 General Fund budget.

Thanks to economic growth and windfall tax revenues, Governor Ralph Northam expects Virginia to spend $2.1 billion more in its next biennial General Assembly budget. He proposes setting aside 44% in financial reserves and spending the rest. He does not propose giving anything back to Virginia taxpayers, according to documents released by the Department of Finance today. Continue reading