Cooper: Consumer spending, tax revenues put Tennessee in better financial shape than most states

The Associated Press / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee likely will have several million more than projections last year to consider when making his fiscal year 2022 budget this month.

To listen to voices in the new Biden administration, one would think they are tasked with re-inventing the wheel to drag the United States out of the financial hole the coronavirus put it in.

The economic extent to which the nation already has recovered and the trajectory on which the previous administration put the country to grow when the pandemic is substantially over is a subject for another day.

But the state of Tennessee is fortunate that it doesn't have to climb out of such a substantial hole. Indeed, consumer spending, and thus the state's tax revenue, has so significantly exceeded expectations during the pandemic that Gov. Bill Lee may have upwards of $3 billion for the fiscal 2022 budget that he wasn't expecting.

In June 2020, according to an analysis of state figures by the Sycamore Institute, an independent, nonpartisan public policy research center, the final budget projection for fiscal 2021 was that tax revenue would be down 2.8%. The July 1, 2020, official estimate was only minutely better. The range of the State Funding Board was slightly more positive, forecasting a gain anywhere from 1.5% to 1.8%.

However, General Fund collections for fiscal year 2021 already have outpaced official year-to-date estimates by $716 million just five months into the year. And, as of December, the actual trajectory for tax revenue was an increase of 5%. If that continues, it likely also would exceed the State Funding Board projection for fiscal 2022 of a gain between 2.7% and 3.2%.

Blame it on - or credit it to - to our spending. Consumer spending in the Volunteer State never declined last spring as much as the U.S. in general, and it rebounded more swiftly than did the country in general.

In Tennessee in March 2020, with the advent of business lockdowns, spending fell off 27%, but it dropped 32% nationally. By late April, with federal stimulus payments in consumers' pockets and enhanced unemployment benefits to fall back on, Tennessee spending returned to near pre-pandemic levels. But spending across the country remained down around 16%.

Spending in the state since has remained at or slightly below pre-pandemic levels. U.S. spending levels, with additional federal aid for businesses and health care providers, finally caught up in early September but have remained slightly below those in the state since then.

We believe several things caused consumer spending and tax revenues to be significantly higher than projected.

On the spending side, whether or not you believe Lee should have been stricter with the length of initial coronavirus lockdowns, consumers were not limited from patronizing businesses or eating in restaurants or visiting attractions as long as they were in other states.

On the tax side, consumers' renewed spending, along with the already planned law change to collect sales taxes on more internet purchases, kept money going into state coffers. And that spending was doubly important since Tennessee is a high sales tax state - first in the nation when both state and average local taxes are included - as opposed to other taxes.

As for what Lee will have when he presents his budget later this month, the Sycamore Institute projects - according to the upper end of State Funding Board ranges - that he could have nearly $3.1 billion in additional General Fund revenue. That would come from $1.5 billion in recurring funds from the increased 2021 fiscal year base (and projected fiscal year 2022 growth), $1.1 billion in non-recurring funds from fiscal year 2021 collections above official budget estimates, and $476 million from the fiscal year 2020 surplus.

Some of that money - about $110 million - already was allocated last month when legislators held a special session on education, increasing the state's share of the school funding formula for teacher salaries and funding other items to help mitigate students' pandemic-related learning losses.

The state also is likely to use some of the recurring funds to offset the use of non-recurring funds that were tapped to help balance what was expected to be a shortfall last year. That way, going forward, recurring revenue will cover recurring expenses.

We would not suggest that consumer spending and state tax revenues mean every Tennessean has no worries about the financial burdens brought about by the coronavirus. Low-wage earners are particularly vulnerable if they have jobs that depend on a robust restaurant and hospitality business. And many small business owners are barely hanging on, hoping for a rapid return to normalcy with COVID-19 vaccinations.

But residents should be gratified to know that the general dismal financial picture for some states does not exist here, which means the state will be able to fund the day-to-day priorities - teachers, highways and parks, for instance - that people naturally take for granted.