Over the last few weeks, Governor Wolf and the PA Legislature have been focused on COVID-19 related legislation. The initial bi-partisan work accomplished at the beginning of the state’s health emergency order has transitioned to partisan positions on the appropriate way to re-open the Commonwealth. Governor Wolf and the Democratic Caucuses of the House and Senate want to take a more cautious county-by-county approach to ensure there is appropriate testing and contract tracing capabilities while the House and Senate Republican Caucuses are pushing for individual industries to be re-opened regardless of geographical locations.
Governor Wolf’s May 1st announcement that 24 counties in the northwest and north-central regions of the state can begin to re-open on May 8th has shifted the focus to establishing what the Commonwealth’s “new normal” will be. As other parts of the state await word on when their counties will turn from red to yellow, the reality of the Commonwealth’s budget deficit is setting in.
The Independent Fiscal Office issued a report in early April stating that the coronavirus could cost Pennsylvania upwards of $2.7 billion in lost tax revenue over the next 15 months. That was the best case scenario, assuming that businesses can reopen by April 27 (which they did not). If the statewide shutdown remains in place for another six weeks, the IFO estimates the state would be facing a financial hit of $3.7 billion in lost revenues. The IFO’s report represents the first attempt to put a number to the financial toll the outbreak will take on the state’s finances. But, with so much uncertainty, the fiscal office acknowledges that its forecasts come with caveats and will likely need to be revised later in the year.
The Commonwealth’s April 2020 revenue collections were $2.16 billion (or 49.7%) below estimates according to PA Department of Revenue. Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $27.5 billion which is $2.2 billion (or 7.4%) below estimate. The department estimates that approximately $1.7 billion of the $2.2 billion shortfall in April can be attributed to moving due dates for various taxes. It is expected the majority of the $1.7 billion will be made up when those tax payments occur in the next fiscal year. The additional $395.3 million of the April shortfall is due to reduced economic activity during the pandemic.
So, “what does all this mean?” It means there will be a lot of difficult decisions to be made when the Legislature and Governor negotiate the FY 20-21 budget. The most common thinking right now is that a short-term budget will be passed before the June 30th deadline that will provide for funding until sometime in the Fall of 2020. This plan would allow for tax revenues to be collected over the summer with their new, pushed back due dates. Then, a new budget would need to be negotiated in the Fall/early Winter to ensure funding for the remaining of the Commonwealth’s fiscal year.
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