New revenue forecasts suggest Maryland will have enough cash to avert deep budget cuts that as recently as this summer seemed likely to threaten critical state services and public-sector jobs.
But the state’s fiscal leaders cautioned that the good news comes with many caveats. The volatility of the coronavirus pandemic’s course and uncertain prospects for another round of federal aid could decimate their predictions as soon as December.
“Forecasting uses past relationships and projects them forward, and the coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented event. There’s nothing like it in our modern data that we use,” said David Farkas, acting director of the Board of Revenue Estimates.
Farkas and state forecasters announced Maryland will have $1.4 billion more in revenue for the current budget year than predicted in May. The following fiscal year is predicted to see $2.1 billion more than spring estimates. Both new estimates, however, are lower than those forecast before the pandemic hit.
Maryland’s $49.7 billion budget will have $762 million less than anticipated when it was approved in March, which means some cuts may still be warranted. In July, Maryland’s Board of Public Works made one of the largest single-day budget cuts in history, trimming $413 million by cutting funding for universities, community colleges, crime initiatives and dozens of other state programs, as well as deciding to sell off state-owned aircraft and eliminate 92 vacant state jobs.
“With this public health and fiscal crisis far from over, it is no time to declare victory,” Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said in a statement. “Though we are in a better position both economically and health-wise than much of the country, this is still the biggest fiscal challenge we have ever faced. We will continue to plan for the worst, press Congress to act on additional relief, and make the tough decisions necessary to balance our budget.”
Farkas said part of the reason the worst-case scenario did not materialize is that job losses have been concentrated in lower-paying industries, so the income taxes that provide much of the state’s revenue remained relatively flat. And most residents did not reduce their overall spending, shifting it to online marketplaces during the prolonged shutdowns and stay-home orders.
Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), chair of the Board of Revenue Estimates, suggested that the state use its better financial circumstances to create a fund to prop up small businesses, which he said have been operating in a diminished capacity because of social distancing measures.