Analyst: Mass. government “moderately prepared” to weather recession

Massachusetts tax revenues dipped 14.9 percent after the recession

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BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service) – After a slow economic recovery, state government in Massachusetts is “moderately prepared” to weather a recession, a credit analyst said Wednesday, attributing that status in part to the Baker administration’s willingness to make spending cuts if necessary.

Speaking at a conference for investors in state bonds, Moody’s Investors Service vice president and senior analyst Genevieve Nolan said that Massachusetts is not “immune” from the revenue slowdowns being felt across the nation, a fact highlighted by an October downgrade of tax revenue estimates.

Nolan offered praise for this year’s $39.25 billion budget, saying its 1.3 percent spending growth “compares very favorably” to a national average of around 2.5 percent growth in expenditures.

“While the commonwealth is still pulling in revenue growth and meeting its benchmarks, it’s also conservatively projecting and budgeting for expenditure growth going forward, which we think is a really fantastic combo,” she said.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday announced $98 million in midyear cuts to the fiscal 2017 budget in an attempt to bring spending in line with sluggish revenue growth. Baker slashed programs favored by Democrats and wiped out line items for projects in their districts, angering some legislators.

Budget writers in January expected revenues to climb 4.3 percent to $26.9 billion this year, but actual collections have faltered, leading to reductions in that estimate. In October, Administration and Finance Secretary Kristen Lepore dropped the revenue estimate to $26.058 billion, reflecting a 3.1 percent growth.

Legislative leaders quickly criticized the new spending cuts, and Baker on Wednesday said they could be reversed if revenue “gets dramatically better.”

“My belief is we are not only obligated, but the people of Massachusetts expect us to live within our means, and we believe these reductions will make it possible for us to do that,” Baker told reporters after speaking at the conference.

Listen to: Baker’s Remarks at Investors Conference

Nolan pointed to Baker’s statutory authority to make such cuts as one factor that would help the state respond to a potential economic downturn in the future, while saying relatively high fixed costs could be “a bit of a hindrance” to budget adjustments in a recession.

“This is an executive government that has the ability to make midyear cuts, and not only has the ability, but this particular administration has really shown a willingness to make those cuts and make sure that the budget does end up in substantial balance at the end of the year,” Nolan said. “And that’s really what got us to the moderate score.”

Barbara Rosewicz, who directs research and content around state fiscal health for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said it took Massachusetts five years to return to its tax revenue levels of before the 2008 recession. Elsewhere in New England, she said, it took Vermont three years, Connecticut five years, and New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine more than eight years to return to their pre-recession numbers.

Adjusted for inflation, Massachusetts tax revenues dipped 14.9 percent after the recession — in the middle of the pack nationwide, with more severe drops in 23 other states — and are now 9.8 percent above their pre-recession level, Rosewicz said.

“Amid this backdrop of generally slow revenue growth, states are contending with a batch of new pressures,” she said, saying that a long period of recovery would now confront a series of uncertainties as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to enter the White House.

Federal tax reform, changes to trade policies and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act could all affect state tax revenues, Rosewicz said.

Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, whose office hosted the conference at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, said she believed Massachusetts would be “well-positioned to address any future challenges.”

Giving high odds to comprehensive tax reform passing Congress, Citi global government affairs head Candida Wolff recommended that investors begin speaking to their congressional representatives now on the issue because work will likely begin behind the scenes and take time, “but then when it moves, it’s gonna move.”

Listen to: Baker’s Remarks at Investors Conference

She predicted governors would have a “pretty decent relationship” with the Trump administration, with Republicans “probably somewhat better positioned,” because Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will be serving as vice president.

“I also think a lot of governors — and you can see it already with Congress — are going to go directly, try to go to Pence,” Wolff said. “You know, they’re going to try to start their own negotiation and kind of bring it into the vice president, into his office, because he can look at it from a governor perspective, and I think the administration is going to have to figure out how to control the flow of it.”

Days after the election, Baker traveled to Florida for a Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida, where he said he felt encouraged by overtures Pence made to the states.

“He made it clear to us that he will want to have a very deliberate and significant dialogue with governors and with states as the new administration moves forward,” Baker told reporters after his return. “I think in many ways for us this is a hugely important issue because we are a state that, between health care and education and energy and defense, has a lot of interest in a lot of issues with respect to what happens at the federal level and my hope and my anticipation is that that open line of dialogue will be available to us.”

In July, when Trump’s running mate was announced, Baker said he did not know Pence well but described him as “a very charming guy” and “a pretty successful governor.” Baker said he’s had lunch with Pence “a couple times” when the Indiana governor has come to Massachusetts to visit his daughter, a Northeastern University student.

Copyright 2016 State House News Service