AUGUSTA, Maine — The sour economy is starting to create red ink for the state, with individual income tax revenues way below estimates in August and overall state revenues behind estimates by $6 million for the first two months of the budget year.
“We certainly are concerned and carefully monitoring all the revenue lines,” Finance Commissioner Ryan Low said Monday. “But we think that some of that is timing issues, and when that is figured in, we are doing better than it looks.”
He said property tax circuit-breaker payments were over budget by $5 million in August, and those payments come off the top of income tax revenues. He said it appears many Mainers are applying for the program early to address the higher costs of energy.
Individual income tax revenues were down 37.8 percent in August, or nearly $17.8 million below estimates. But income taxes were above estimates in July. For the two months, individual income taxes are down a little more than $9.6 million.
“It is not a surprise to me. I expected we would be below estimates this fall,” Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, said Monday. He is the ranking GOP member of the Appropriations Committee and a former finance commissioner. “But I think it is a concern.”
He said even with the timing issues described by Low — the fact that many Mainers are seeking tax refunds under the circuit-breaker early — is an indication of the “pressure” they are under in this economy.
“Our unemployment rate, while it’s inching up, suggests that there are not as many people employed, incomes seem to be down, because that’s where the withholding falls short and I think inflation is starting to trickle up. Everything seems to be working against us,” Millett said.
Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the co-chairman of the panel, agreed the lower-than-expected revenues are bad news — and were expected. She said Monday that with the turmoil in Washington and on Wall Street, it’s likely the news will get worse before it gets better.
“It is absolutely going to affect state budgets,” she said of the turmoil in the financial markets. “We have already seen fewer federal dollars come into the states for many programs, and these federal bailouts are going to cost the states.”
Rotundo said individual income tax revenues below estimates are of particular concern because it was the revenue line that was providing the extra revenue last budget year. She said it appears the economy is affecting other revenue lines as well.
Low agreed that the impact of the various federal bailouts will be felt in Maine. He said it was a major topic of discussion at a recent conference of state financial officials.
“There are a lot of states in a lot worse shape than we are,” he said.
While sales tax revenues are above estimates for the first two months by a little more than $2.5 million, Low said that is a bit misleading. He said unusually low sales tax receipts a year ago make this year’s revenues look better than they are.
“We think the impact of the federal stimulus checks have about run their course and we could see the sales tax dip,” he said.
Other state revenue sources are also not meeting expectations. Both the lottery and the taxes on tobacco products sold in the state are below estimates. Low said the estate tax is also below estimates, but it is very difficult to predict when estates are finally settled and taxes paid to the state.
“We have always had a hard time estimating when the money will come in, but over the course of the year the numbers have been pretty close in the past,” he said.
State revenues were last reprojected in July. The State Revenue Forecasting Committee meets again in November to estimate state revenues.
“Hopefully we will have a better picture by then,” Low said.
Both Millett and Rotundo said they believe revenues will have to be reprojected downward before the new session of the Legislature convenes in January. And both believe lawmakers will face a tough job of cutting state spending just to get through the current budget year, which ends next June 30.