For state lawmakers facing a balanced-budget requirement, the problem of revenue volatility can be a serious one. Since one of the more important goals states pursue is to provide a consistent level of services each year, it only makes sense that a correspondingly consistent level of revenue be available. In California, the Governor, together with state legislators, has appointed a commission specifically tasked with providing recommendations on how to reduce volatility. Minnesota recently formed one such commission as well, which actually released its findings just this week. Some of the commission's findings include (as summarized by the Minnesota Budget Project):
- "Shifting to more stable revenue sources would lead to a more regressive system with slower growth rates. Instead of attempting to rebalance the tax system, they recommend establishing a much larger budget reserve ($2.1 billion for now) to help carry the state through economic downturns."
- "Using one-time surpluses strictly for one-time purposes (like rebuilding the reserves)"
- "Avoiding permanent tax cuts or spending increases unless reserves are filled and shifts have been bought back."
- Ensuring "that policymakers and the public have access to more information to improve the decision-making process. That includes releasing a demographic forecast every biennium and adding inflation back to the expenditure side of the state's budget forecasts."
As these recommendations should make clear, revenue volatility is only a problem if it is not planned for in the budget. Restructuring an entire tax system just to smooth out revenue collections is an extreme example of trying to 'throw the baby out with the bath water'. In fact, as we've pointed out in our policy brief on progressive income taxation, restructuring a tax system with this aim in mind is likely to create even more revenue problems in the long-run.
But while there's much to be excited about in the wisdom behind the Minnesota Commission's recommendations, those ideas have yet to take root everywhere. In Indiana, for example, just this week the Governor called for automatically refunding any tax collections above some pre-determined level, during good economic times. Such a change would directly restrict the flexibility policymakers need to plan for rough budgetary times when things are going well.