State Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo CTMIRROR.ORG
Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo CTMIRROR File Photo

After years of watching state tax receipts fall short of expectations, Connecticut officials have enjoyed the last 12 months as they’ve amassed a $1.2 billion budget reserve — with the potential to sock away another $1 billion before the fall.

But for the last two months, Connecticut’s chief fiscal watchdog has been trying to temper expectations through his monthly budget forecasts.

And while Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo has not forecasted gloom-and-doom, he has warned it’s premature to say the bonanza will continue in the next forecast — due shortly after the April 15 income tax filing deadline.

Major changes in federal tax policy and a dangerous national trend in household debt are wild cards that cannot be ignored, the comptroller told CT Mirror this week.

“These items give me pause, but I am not in red light territory,” Lembo said, adding that his office “generally has a lot of agreement with the governor and the legislature on the strengthening of Connecticut’s economy and its balance sheet.”

At first glance, the state’s finances are looking up.

Connecticut has $1.2 billion in its budget reserve and Lembo estimates it could grow to $2.24 billion by the time he completes his audit of the 2018-19 fiscal year in late September.

That’s a potential rainy day fund equal to 12 percent of state finances, which would be the largest in state history — but still below the 15 percent reserve Lembo’s office recommends.

More importantly, all of this fiscal good news has sprung up over the last year, and neither economists nor state officials are entirely sure about the reasons for it.

Did many Connecticut households maximize the earnings they reported — and the taxes they paid — in federal and state income tax returns they filed last year? If they did so, presumably to take advantage of favorable-but-expiring federal income tax rules, that was a one-time bump Connecticut won’t enjoy again.

Similarly, a federal tax loophole that for years allowed hedge fund managers to accumulate offshore gains without paying federal and state income taxes closed last year. If that was a big factor behind last year’s bump in state income tax receipts, it also won’t happen again.

And then there’s the new cap on state and local tax payments that can be claimed as a deduction against federal income taxes.

This shouldn’t affect Connecticut’s income tax because the state levies its tax against federally adjusted gross income, which involves earnings before deductions are applied. But if this new federal limit led Connecticut households to make other choices, it could drive state tax receipts in one direction or another.

Factor in the stock market’s decline in the second half of 2018 and the picture grows murkier.

“Some of this is really uncharted territory,” Lembo said.

Further complicating matters, the comptroller added, is a new report questioning whether Americans are prepared for the next economic downturn — whenever it occurs.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently reported that household debt has grown for 18 consecutive months. As of December 31, Americans owed a record-setting $13.54 trillion on mortgages, auto loans, student loans, credit cards and other debt.

This trend is starting to resemble a debt problem that existed prior to the last recession, Lembo said. “We know what followed,” he said, “and we know that we want to be careful about the ability of Connecticut households being capable of surviving another recession.”

Lembo added that “Connecticut’s overall budget results are ultimately dependent upon the performance of the national and state economies.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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  1. Want to bet that those who celebrated large increases in revenue (but refused to credit the Fed tax changes) will blame those tax changes if revenues disappoint?

  2. Kevin Lembo said “….and we know that we want to be careful about the ability of Connecticut households being capable of surviving another recession.” Do toll taxes, a 0.5% payroll tax for paid medical leave, more sales taxes, and sin taxes help in that preparation, Mr. Comptroller? At this rate of preparedness, Connecticut citizens will soon be ready for fiscal Armaggedon.

  3. Some 4,000 + homes for sale in the Gold Coast (per Zillow) suggests the Exodus is well underway as higher earners depart for more attractive environments. Reportedly the Gold Coast supplies 40% of CT’s budget. So we know the future of CT’s “mother lode”. Continued hard times ahead. Come the next equity sell off CT’s fiscal life becomes very very interesting .

  4. He needed to inform us of this? When has there ever been one accurate report? One minute we’re millions in the hole and the next minute we have a surplus! This has been going on for years! It comes as no surprise to anyone.

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