The State Surplus That Isn’t

Charlie Arlinghaus

October 7, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Pay no attention to the surplus behind the curtain. It’s not real. Despite advertised claims, the state did not run a $73 million surplus. It ran a barely $1 million surplus. The difference between press releases and reality comes entirely from the state’s reckless refusal to adhere to its rainy day fund law.

This week the governor announced a supposed $73.2 million surplus. Leaders in both parties took to the public square to praise their own fiscal responsibility in helping create such an enormous “surplus.” In reality however, the two-year state budget did not create a massive surplus. It just barely broke even.

These wonderful press releases were created by government starting out on third base and pretending they hit a triple. The budget did not raise $73 million more than it spent — the traditional definition of a budget surplus. Instead, budget writers started the budget with $72.2 million carried forward from the previous budget, ensuring a “surplus” by their definition as long as they didn’t deficit-spend by too much.

Under the state budget law, any money left over at the end of the budget is automatically deposited into the state’s rainy day fund — officially called the revenue stabilization account — to protect against future economic downturns. New Hampshire’s rainy day fund is considered by most regulators, financial analysts, and state officials to be woefully underfunded at $9.3 million, just two-tenths of 1% of the state’s biennial operating budget [general and education funds].

But the state budget law is a farce. Lawmakers routinely flout it. The $72 million that should have been deposited into the rainy day fund was preserved by temporarily suspending the rainy day fund law. It left it available to be easily spent without the restrictions the law would have placed on money deposited in the rainy day fund — the law has been suspended regularly for the last decade.

So the real surplus for the budget is just $1 million. That’s not necessarily bad management. Or is it?

Revenues for the biennium came in ahead of the budgeted amount by $57 million. Knowing that, you’d think we would have a $57 million surplus, not just one. That suggests the executive branch overspent its authority by $56 million. But it may be worse than that.

The governor attributed the not-really-$73 million surplus to her “working closely with state agencies to responsibly manage their budgets.” That is at it should be. The chief operating officer of the state has a responsibility to manage and to manage to budget. But some of that management appears to be problematic.

Notably, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported that they did not spend $20 million earmarked for services for the developmentally disabled even though there are more than 100 people remaining on a waiting list for services supposedly because of lack of funds.

This is perhaps the only area of state government where there is broad agreement between both parties about it being a significant priority. Surely a CEO “working closely with state agencies to responsibly manage their budgets” would have noticed a huge lapse in a universally agreed on priority and one which she herself kept advocating for increased funding throughout the budget process.

With that as a priority for her, and eliminating the waiting list a long held priority for the entire management of the HHS department, how does $20 million slip through the cracks?

The more cynical among us might argue that eagerness to have a press release with a big surplus number puts undue pressures on the process.

The state’s largest department — HHS is close to half the state budget — is always under extraordinary pressure to reduce spending without reducing services, particularly as the budget draws to a close and managers are worried about overspending in other areas. It’s clear that the pressure the one department is under would be less burdensome and perhaps lead to better outcomes if someone were working closely with other agencies to responsibly manage their budgets.

The state’s needs to modernize and improve the transparency and utility of its reporting on spending so people inside and outside state government could notice these odd lapses developing when central management misses them.

We shouldn’t rush to judgment on the inexplicable $20 million shortfall. But when spending comes in just a bare $1 million under the wire only because of a significant error in a bipartisan priority, questions ought to be asked.