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New consensus projections coming Monday from Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget office and legislative analysts are expected to show that Connecticut’s budget remains in balance. But the ridiculous levels of black ink are done.
There have been nearly $11 billion in budget surpluses since 2017, and in the last three years, the windfalls matched or exceeded 8.5% of the General Fund. No surplus topped 3.3% in the two decades prior to 2017.
And just two years ago, the state shattered all modern records, closing $4.3 billion in the black, a 20.8% surplus, larger than the second- and third-largest ever combined.
But now, it appears to be over.
The administration’s last forecast for this budget year, which began July 1, came on Oct. 20 and anticipated an $895 million surplus. That includes General Fund revenues that top anticipated spending by $212 million — and another $683 million from a special program that forces the state to save a portion of quarterly income and business tax receipts. Combined, that surplus represents 4.1% of the General Fund that legislators approved last May.
“I think we’re running more lean than we were over the past couple of years,” Lamont said Wednesday, adding that Connecticut’s fiscal position nonetheless remains strong. Roughly $7.7 billion of its surpluses have been used to pay down pension debt, and the rainy day fund now holds more than $3.3 billion, which is equal to 15% of the General Fund and the maximum allowed by law. “It’s a pretty good place to be,” the governor added.
“It looks like we’re coming down from a high, and we’re going to have to readjust accordingly,” said Office of Policy and Management Secretary Jeffrey Beckham, Lamont’s budget director.
No one expected Connecticut to keep churning out annual surpluses averaging about $1.8 billion — between 8% and 9% of the General Fund — as it did from 2018 through 2023.
State government received $2.8 billion in federal COVID relief through the American Rescue Plan Act that it could use directly to assist the state budget. It’s been using those dollars since 2022 and will finish spending them in 2025.
But the biggest assist to state finances has come from a stock market that boomed between 2018 and early 2022. And while it has dipped since then, it hasn’t plunged for any sustained period over the past year and a half.
The robust market, coupled with Connecticut’s great pockets of wealth and financial services sector, helped to push state income tax receipts from nearly $9 billion in 2017 to more than $11.2 billion last fiscal year, according to records from the comptroller's office and Lamont's budget office.
When you hit a budget surplus of $4.3 billion as the state did in 2021-22 — a cushion 30% larger than the entire $3.3 billion rainy day fund — there’s nowhere to go but down.
“We’ve been very lucky,” Beckham said. “The economy has surpassed everyone’s expectations. … No one thought it would play out this way.”