SAN FRANCISCO — Lower-than-expected revenues could trigger budget cuts in California this year, with one rating agency saying that the revenue outlook is a credit negative.
Revenues are more than $650 million underwater compared to estimates in the adopted budget, but a retrenchment is still uncertain as most of the state’s income is slated for the second half of the fiscal year.
“This revenue collection shortfall is a credit negative for the state and makes it increasingly likely that the spending cut 'triggers’ laid out in the budget will be necessary, and suggests budgetary challenges on the horizon,” Moody’s Investors Service senior analyst Emily Raimes said in a note Monday.
Raimes said the year-to-date projections make it likely that at least a first level of cuts will happen. She said those cuts also would unlikely be enough to fill the gap and would end up added to next year’s budget deficit.
The state budget passed in June used an assumption that revenues would come in $4 billion higher than forecasts to help close an almost $10 billion gap.
But revenues as of last week were $654 million short of the expected $19.3 billion, according to the state’s Department of Finance. The state controller estimated last week that the shortfall stood at more than $700 million.
Whether the triggers are pulled will depend on revised revenue forecasts from the Legislative Analyst’s Office due mid-November and from the Finance Department due no later than Dec. 15.
If the forecasts are within $1 billion of estimates, no cuts are forced. But if they are between $1 billion and $2 billion below projections, then first-tier cuts of $600 million start Jan. 1. That would mean less money for state universities and health and human services.
And if the shortfall is $2 billion or more, another $1.9 billion of further belt-tightening will start, which would include reducing K-12 school days by up to a week.
“There’s been a lot of discussion in the marketplace about the revenue performance through the first several months of the year — maybe too much,” said Standard & Poor’s California analyst Gabriel Petek. “The most important time period lay ahead. We have our focus trained on those forecasts and the state’s subsequent response to them.”
Petek said the state’s revenue trends have matched the historically volatile equity-market fluctuations, making it all the more difficult to forecast.
California’s cash-flow forecast expects 54% of cash receipts in the second half of the fiscal year, which include major revenues such as final income tax payments due in October from those who filed for extensions.
The state’s cash position has also been weakened, Raimes said, putting it in a weaker first-quarter position than it has seen for many years.
Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Treasurer Bill Lockyer, said it’s difficult to assess whether the revenue problems have had any impact on the market for California bonds.
“Assuming there has been a negative reaction from investors with regards to the revenue picture, that is balanced by a positive view of the trigger mechanisms that are in the budget,” Dresslar said.
The state is in the market this week with more than $2 billion of general obligation bonds. The deal so far has seen higher yields compared to a sale last month.
California is still the lowest-rated state in the nation, according to Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, both of which assign A-minus ratings. The state carries an A1, two notches higher, from Moody’s.