Governor Brown released his revised 2015–16 budget last week. It includes $8 billion more in new spending than his January proposal but continues his cautious approach to taking on new spending commitments. The new funding proposals are the result of setting modest expectations for future revenue growth. Because actual growth from the improving state economy has far exceeded forecasts, the administration has significant additional funds available.
Only about two-thirds of the $8 billion increase comes from the General Fund. The other third stems from increased special funds and revenues from bonds.
- General Fund. General Fund revenues are estimated to increase by about $6.3 billion—$4 billion to reflect the major influx of tax receipts collected since January 2015 and $2.3 billion next year. Almost all of that—$5.8 billion—must be spent on K–12 education and community colleges. This leaves little room for spending in other areas.
- Cap-and-Trade Funds. The May Revision proposes to more than double spending of cap-and-trade revenues, going from $1 billion in the January budget to $2.2 billion today. Under the state’s greenhouse gas reduction program, businesses pay fees for the right to emit carbon into the atmosphere. In 2015, producers of transportation fuels joined the program, significantly boosting revenues. As a consequence, revenues are expected to jump $1.2 billion above the level proposed in January. The additional funds would be spent for transportation, housing, energy, and natural resources programs—consistent with the long-term expenditure plan approved by the legislature in 2014.
- Proposition 1 Bond Funds. The May Revision also significantly increases spending for water quality and conservation projects. Proposition 1, approved by voters in 2014, includes $7.5 billion in bond funds for a variety of water quality, flood protection, and storage programs. The budget proposes to dedicate $1.8 billion in bond funds over the next three years. This increase builds on $1.9 billion in spending (from a variety of funding sources) approved by the legislature in the spring of 2015.
The $8 billion growth in revenues and expenditures represents a 4.8% increase from January, and an 8.1% increase from the 2014–15 budget passed by the legislature last June. So how can this be considered cautious? The answer is that the administration uses modest assumptions about future growth in revenues—until there is solid evidence of additional available resources.
The pattern of projected revenues for 2014–15 reveals how this strategy works. The following chart illustrates how recent budget projections have grown as revenues have increased.
In January 2014, the administration estimated revenues of $106 billion—up 6% from 2013–14 anticipated revenues. The 2014 May Revision boosted that figure to $107 billion. Actual revenue collection was up significantly in the fall of 2014, which led to a January 2015 estimate increase to $109.7 billion. From January to April 2015, revenues exceeded expectations by $3.2 billion, bringing the most recent estimate of General Fund revenues to $112.9 billion. This is truly exceptional revenue growth. Compared to 6% growth projected in January 2014, the May Revision figure for 2014–15 translates into General Fund revenue gains of 12.8%.
Despite the projected gains for this year, the current May Revision continues to take a cautious approach to revenue estimates for the coming year. The administration’s initial revenue estimates for 2015–16 are quite modest—the May Revision anticipates 4.1% growth in General Fund revenues. This low growth estimate limits the amount of new spending that can be added to the base budget. At the same time, the large increase in current-year revenues gives the governor flexibility to boost support for education and other critical areas. In this way, Governor Brown can significantly increase spending today while maintaining a cautious approach to the future.