When is a Surplus Not a Surplus?

March 7, 2014

If you borrow $100 from a friend and spend $80, are you $20 richer in the end? Or, do you still owe someone $100?

I think most people would agree that you are still $100 in debt.

When it comes to Connecticut’s budget, and the projected surplus, we have to keep this borrowing example in mind.

For fiscal year 2014, Connecticut is expected to have $504.4 million leftover at the end of the year. Some people refer to this number as a “surplus.” But it is not really a surplus. We are not in the black yet, because a huge chunk of the budget was borrowed to begin with.

Connecticut borrowed over $1.5 billion over the past few years, including $914.2 million in fiscal year 2014, to pay for resources that used to be covered by the general fund. Relying on state borrowing at such a high level is like relying on a credit card to pay your bills. Spending is out of control, and the only way the state has been able to pay its bills is through borrowing a huge amount of money.

Having an excess of over $500 million may seem like a good thing at first, but when you think about how much the state is in debt based on borrowing, that leftover money cannot be called a “surplus.”

This situation is a little more serious than owing your friend money. Chances are your friend will not charge you interest on that $100 you borrowed. Connecticut, on the other hand, is responsible for a paying back everything, plus interest.

Perhaps it is better to compare this situation to taking out a home equity loan. If you secure a loan of $20,000, but your home improvement project only costs $19,000, does that $1,000 “surplus” mean you made money? No, of course not. You still have to pay the bank back for the entire loan, plus interest.

Our state “surplus” is not a real surplus because most of the money was borrowed to begin with. The state grew its coffers with $867.6 million worth of one-time budget items, including pushing out debt for two years, moving millions of operating dollars to bonding, and relying on hundreds of millions of dollars from one-time revenue sources, like the tax amnesty program and raids on the Special Transportation Fund.

These tactics are gimmicks, and the state is projected to face a deficit of over $2 billion come 2016. The state borrowed money and we have to pay it back. Until we get out of debt, it is impossible to have a true surplus.