Each December the state budget makers receive a revenue forecast prepared by group of very knowledgeable and conscientious fiscal analysts, economists and academics. The group considers economic predictions, uses elaborate models and applies involved equations to generate what has proven to be remarkably accurate predictions of how much the state will collect in taxes over the next two years. Every other year, including this year, their numbers serve as the basis for building the state’s biennium budget. While lawmakers will debate how the projected revenues should be spent, Indiana is fortunate that lawmakers accept the consensus of these experts and do not debate how much money there is to spend – as is the case in many other states.
Forecasters project that Indiana will take in $31.5 billion in FY2018 and FY2019. This is around a billion dollars more than what was projected for the last biennium. However, as good as the predictions have been historically, FY2017 estimates turned out to be off the mark by $378 million. Low gas prices were a major contributor to the inaccuracy. Unexpectedly cheap gas meant less sales tax on those less expensive fill-ups.
When coupled with generally weaker sales tax collections, the FY2017 (ending in July) collections are now expected to be about 2.5% less than earlier projections. That money will have to be made up in the first year of the biennium, from the projected 2.9% year-over-year (FY2018 over FY2017) growth. Fortunately, the forecasters see a little better growth, 3.9%, in the second year of the biennium (FY2019). The bottom line is that the money available to cover growing expenses and new funding desires will be very modest, somewhere around $1 billion – that’s only about 3% more money for the entire two-year period. And essentially it all comes in the second year, so look for budget makers in the 2017 legislative session to be very frugal in FY2018 and then build in some increases in FY2019.
Economic uncertainty, sluggish sales tax collections, further diminishing gaming revenues and other factors will all put additional pressure on the budget process. As these things play out, the forecasters could shift their numbers a little more before they update their two-year projections in mid-April, just a couple of weeks before the budget has to be passed by the General Assembly.