A Look at 2014's Anemic General Fund Performance

The final tallies are in for fiscal year 2014 collections to the state’s General Fund. The results are, as usual, lackluster.

Collections from the assortment of taxes that feed the Fund grew by just 1.03 percent over 2013.

That’s pretty typical performance for the General Fund, and that anemic growth is the root cause of an impending problem the new Legislature will face when it convenes next year.

The General Fund supports the operation of the state’s non-education agencies. The cost to operate General Fund agencies exceeds the revenue available. The shortfall in 2016 is expected to be over $200 million.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Office, from FY 2008 to FY 2013, the Legislature has used over $1 billion of “intermittent” or temporary revenues used in balancing the General Fund.

Beyond that, the State has borrowed $599 million from the Alabama Trust Fund since 2010 to support the General Fund budget. And the law requires that this borrowing must be repaid.

For a more extensive discussion of the General Fund’s situation, see the PARCA’s October update on Alabama’s Ailing General Fund.

At the end of each month, the state publishes a report that tracks the revenue received by the General Fund from its various sources. The report generated at the end of September, the end of the fiscal year, allows you to compare yearend totals to those in the previous years. Results of a PARCA analysis of that report are presented in the table below. Below the table is a discussion of some of the major taxes and some notes on quirks you might detect in the data.

Notes on top sources of receipts

The table lists the amount from each tax that is credited to the General Fund. In many cases, that is not the total amount collected from the tax or fee. For many of the taxes and fees, the General Fund receives only a portion of the tax collected with the rest going to other state or local government accounts.

Insurance company licenses and premium tax: 16 percent of receipts in 2014, up 4 percent from 2013. These are taxes collected on the activities of insurance companies. This tax saw some growth this year. However, in both 2013 and 2014, these receipts have been supplemented by extra payments from the insurance guarantee fund, a pool that holds funds to be used in the event of insurance company failures. That extra support, which amounted to $12 million in 2014, isn’t expected to recur in 2015 or in the next couple of years.

Subtotal of sales, use, and lease taxes: 16 percent of the total for 2014, up 7 percent over 2013. This is a category of receipts PARCA created by combining sales, use, and lease taxes. This is by no means total state sales tax collections because most sales taxes are deposited in the Education Trust Fund. However, some components of sales and use taxes have been assigned to the General Fund. Individual taxes that make up this subtotal are listed individually as well. A couple of points on those: The large percentage increase in the remote sales tax (a tax on sales over the Internet) is explained by the fact that the 2013 figure is not a full year’s collection. In other words, the increase is not a huge jump in the overall collections. Instead, the 2014 total represents a full year’s collections. Also, lease tax receipts were boosted as a result of an audit that caused a taxpayer to shift payments into that category.

Alabama Trust Fund: 15 percent of receipts in 2014, down 4 percent over 2013. This revenue comes from the Alabama Trust Fund, the account that holds royalties from the oil and gas production. As in 2013, there was extra money coming from the Trust Fund, $146 million extra in 2014. That same borrowing will recur in 2015, but won’t be available going forward. Consequently, Trust Fund receipts will account for a smaller share of General Fund revenue in subsequent years. Additionally, that borrowing, plus an earlier instance of borrowing from the fund, will have to be repaid in the coming years.

Ad valorem tax: 9 percent of General Fund receipts in 2014, up 3 percent in 2014. These receipts come from 2.5 mills of the 6.5 mill state property tax.

Cigarette tax: 6 percent of General Fund receipts in 2014, down almost 3 percent in 2014. These are taxes on cigarettes, and the decline is part of a continuing downward trend in collections thanks to declining smoking rates.

ABC board taxes and profits: 5 percent of General Fund in 2014, down 5 percent. These taxes include a portion of the various taxes on alcoholic beverages, plus the profits from ABC board stores and licenses.  The main reason for the decline is that the previous year’s total was inflated thanks to extra distribution in 2013.

Oil and gas production tax: 5 percent of the General Fund in 2014, down 2.3 percent from 2013. This is a tax on the oil and gas that is produced in the state. This source of revenue has been gradually declining, primarily due to the aging of Gulf Coast gas wells.

Corporation tax: 4 percent of the General Fund in 2014, up 48 percent in 2014. This is the replacement tax for Alabama’s old franchise tax, which was ruled unconstitutional in 1999. The large increase is partially attributable to decline in the portion of this tax that has been used to pay corporations refunds on the franchise tax.

Court costs: 4 percent of the General Fund in 2014, down 7 percent. Charges collected by the courts continued to decline in 2014.

Cellular phone taxes: 3 percent of the General Fund in 2014, down 14 percent over 2013. Revenue from taxes on cellular phone calling plans dropped. Analysts say this is attributable to changes in the way cell phone service is structured and how it is taxed. Pre-paid cellular service taxed by sales tax and more customers are moving away from service plan to the pre-paid minutes. Also, the state cannot tax data service. As cellular plans charge less for voice phone service and more for data, the proceeds from this tax decline.