The boom and bust of the real estate market in recent years has had a significant impact on the Washington State budget. The extreme volatility of the real estate market in recent years has given a relatively small tax—the real estate excise tax (REET)—a disproportionate role in the state fiscal situation.
When the current budget was passed, a precipitous drop in revenue from the REET was expected and built into budget projections. The real estate market further deteriorated, however, and it became clear that the pessimistic projection had been overly optimistic.
The graph below shows the REET as a share of general fund revenue from 2003 to 2007 and the current projections for 2008 through 2011. From 2003 to 2007, revenue from the REET grew quickly alongside the booming real estate market, moving from 4.4% of general fund revenue to 7.4%. The real estate bust has had the opposite effect. The REET is expected to raise $560 million less in 2009 that it did in 2007.
As I pointed out yesterday, the total amount of general fund revenue in the 2007-09 and 2009-11 biennia has fallen by $2.7 billion since the current budget was passed. Declining retail sales tax revenue explains 68% of that change. Declining REET expectations are the second largest factor, explaining 19%.
The direct effect of the real estate slump on state revenue isn’t limited to the REET, however. While autos are the most significant factor in declining retail sales, sales in real estate-related industries such as home furnishings, building materials, and specialty contractors have also fallen dramatically.
There has also been a direct impact on employment. The Economic and Revenue Forecast Council (ERFC) projects that construction employment will decline by 12% between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the 1st quarter of 2010.
We’ll talk more about employment tomorrow in Fact 3: People Are Losing Their Jobs.
The Washington State budget relies heavily on the retail sales tax. When people buy less stuff, the state collects less revenue. Much of our current deficit problem can be attributed to the precipitous drop in retail sales tax revenue over the last year.
The graph below shows taxable retail sales for each quarter from the first quarter of 2007 through the second quarter of 2008. The percentages are the change in sales from the same quarter in the previous year. At the beginning of 2007, sales were growing by 8% year-over-year. During the last half of 2007, they were growing by less than 6%. By the second quarter of 2008, sales were falling by 2%.
The Department of Revenue will be releasing data for the third quarter of 2008 in a few weeks, but it’s a safe bet that sales have continued to fall. The Economic and Revenue Forecast Council (ERFC) expects that taxable retail sales will be lower in fiscal year 2009 than the prior year. That’s only happened twice in recent history: in 1984 and 2002. The current decrease is expected to be deeper than the two previous times.
The recession has hurt some industries more than others. The graph below shows taxable retail sales at auto dealers. Sales of automobiles, which make up about 8-9% of total sales, have plummeted.
Remember a year ago, when we were worried about a $2.4 billion deficit for the 2009-11 budget? It’s more than doubled since then to become the largest deficit since 1981-83.
Most of the difference between the deficit expected last spring and the current projection is due to reduced revenue expectations. The total amount of general fund revenue expected in the two biennia has fallen by $2.7 billion since the current budget was passed. Sixty-eight percent of the difference is from falling retail sales tax revenue.
Another important factor is the real estate excise tax. More on that tomorrow in Fact 2: People Aren’t Buying Real Estate.
We released a detailed analysis (pdf) of the Governor's 2009-11 budget proposal today. It approaches the budget from the standpoint of how it measures up against four widely shared values: Education and Opportunity, Thriving Communities, Healthy People and Environment, and Economic Security.
The graph above is from the report and shows the percentage cuts in each of these budget areas. Health care and economic security would take significant hits, including:
- Cutting tens of thousands of people from state-funded health insurance programs and lowering benefits for many others.
- Eliminating cash and medical assistance to adults who cannot work due to disability.
- Terminating benefits for some families receiving temporary assistance.
Not only does this reverse the progress we have made in these areas recently, but it couldn't come at a worse time given the economy.
But don't think education is exempt; outside of basic education, the K-12 budget would be cut by 28 percent. These are programs that are designed to update our schools for the new economy, to attract and retain the best teachers, and to close the achievement gap for lower income students and students of color.
In short, it's a budget that takes a step in the wrong direction.
For more information on the four values listed above, see the Progress Index.
A decade ago, I was the primary author of the annual survey on hunger and homelessness published by the US Conference of Mayors. During the intervening years, there have been significant new efforts to reduce homelessness in America. Cities, counties, and states have adopted 10-year plans to significantly decrease or eliminate homelessness. There was wide agreement that we all need public supports and services that provide avenues to economic security.
Washington State has a statutory goal of reducing homelessness by 50% by 2015. As part of this 10-year plan the state has made significant investments towards that goal including doubling the size of the Housing Trust Fund and towards helping offenders that are being released from jails and prisons transition into the community without ending up homeless.
This plan (and the complementary plans of cities and counties across the state) are apparently not a priority now. That's the message one would infer from the budget that the Governor submitted. Half-way through our ten-year plans have we decided that the goal of ending homelessness is no longer of value?
After much progress, the Governor's budget undermines this goal by proposing cuts in mental health coverage for adults who don't qualify for Medicaid, reducing transitional housing funding for offenders reentering community settings, reducing the investment in the housing trust fund by 50%, and eliminating cash assistance and medical coupons to disabled adults who can't work.
Homelessness is already on the rise in cities across the nation. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a fall 2008 survey of 22 cities found 16 showed an increase in homeless families with children. In another national survey, one in five responding school districts reported having more homeless children in the fall of 2008 than over the course of the entire 2007-2008 school year.
Is this the future we want for our cities and hometowns here in Washington? Now more than ever, the state should invest in reducing homelessness through public supports and services that provide economic security and pathways out of poverty.
The Governor's budget (released last month) proposes deep cuts to the state budget that would limit our ability to pursue public investments in health, economic security, and education.
The stark proposal is in response to a large budget deficit. In part, this deficit is the product of the economic crisis. But, as the attached graph shows, the economy is only part of the story. The ability of the state tax structure to pay for normal growth in government spending has been deteriorating for over a decade.
This graph follows the standard of showing budget amounts as a share of total personal income. This provides insight on the resources we have to fund public investments and also recognizes that the cost of government grows along with economic and demographic trends.
The purple line shows that revenue has been eroding since long before the recent economic downturn. It’s a combination of significant tax cuts, spending limitations, and a tax system that doesn’t grow along with the economy even during good times. So while the current fiscal crisis has obviously been exacerbated by the economic crisis, it’s a longer-term problem.
The green line shows spending trends. Up to now, the state has been able to use reserves and stopgaps to hold spending a little steadier than our revenue stream, but we’re out of reserves now and are facing the largest deficit since the 1980s.
The budget cuts proposed by the Governor (shown here by the dashed green line) would be the largest, relative to the economy, in over a decade.
So what does that mean for Washington? Can a budget of this size truly reflect our values and move our state in the right direction?
As the state economy faces historically large deficits and lawmakers scramble to figure out how to balance the budget, Tim Eyman is proposing a new voter initiative designed to limit to the rate of inflation the amount of revenue state and local governments can take in. Any additional funds coming into the government would go directly to reducing property taxes.
To read the full text of the Lower Property Tax Initiative, go here.
Brad Shannon, political editor at The Olympian, points out on his Politics Blog, that the timing of the initiative is probably not a coincidence. "I'm guessing the measure is timed to lock in the soon-to-be reduced size of state and local governments, which are shedding payrolls and costs due to the ongoing recession," Shannon writes. "In Thurston County, losses of sales tax and other revenues are leading to large layoffs of staff, for instance, and Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed some $3 billion in reduced program outlays. In 2010 and beyond, revenues are likely to spring back, allowing cut programs to be restored, unless lawmakers cut taxes or Eyman's measure succeeds."
For more information see our report on sound property tax policy for the state.
The Governor’s 2009-11 budget released today proposes deep cuts in all areas of the state budget, including state-funded health care, assistance to people with disabilities, and education. The Governor’s reliance on budget cuts and resistance to options of increasing revenue and ending certain tax exemptions severely limits our ability to pursue important priorities during these difficult economic times.
During a time of broad economic insecurity, the impact of these budget reductions will fall disproportionately on lower income people who are employed or are unable to work due to disability. Twenty percent of the $3.4 billion in cuts in the Governor’s budget focus on two important programs:
- The General Assistance for the Unemployable Program provides health care and cash assistance to 20,000 adults who are unable to work because of disability. This program is entirely eliminated, saving $400 million.
- Currently, about 100,000 people receive health insurance through the Basic Health program. The governor’s budget would cut this program by 42%, suggesting that 40,000 or more people would lose health insurance. This cut in Basic Health would mean a reduction of $275 million dollars