WASHINGTON - Hard hit by sizable, unexpected budget gaps during the past two years. Maryland officials are studying the feasibility of developing an econometric model tailored specifically to the state.
"We're working to develop a more precise Maryland model," said Lucille Maurer, the state's treasurer. "We want to see what we can do to improve revenue forecasting."
Econometric models use mathematical equations based on statistical relationships among economic variables to predict economic outcomes. Such a model might, for example, help state analysts forecast revenues by looking at housing starts and equipment purchases.
In the past, the Maryland Board of Revenue Estimates has relied on analyses from national companies such as Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates and Data Resources Inc., along with regional companies and federal and state economic data. All the analyses and data have then been modified for Maryland. The board includes the state's comptroller, treasurer, and secretary of budget and fiscal planning.
For years, the board's approach has worked well for Maryland, allowing the state consistently to end its fiscal years with more revenues than had been forecast. But during the past two years, officials have had to confront a combined budget gap in excess of $1.7 billion in seven rounds of budget cuts.
The latest budget surprise came toward the end of the 1992 fiscal year, which closed June 30, when officials discovered a shortfall of about $60 million. The gap was attributed in large part to drops in personal income and employer withholding, and to an increase in the size of the average tax refund.
Marvin Bond, a spokesman for the state comptroller's office, said officials are looking at the possibility of the Maryland econometric model, but cautioned, "It's not a simple thing to do."
In the meantime, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein has asked economists from all state agencies and state universities to compare economic assumptions in an attempt to take advantage "of all the help that is available," Mr. Bond said.
Rating agency analysts welcome the state's attempt to find a new means of estimating revenues. Maryland general obligation bonds are rated triple-A by the three major bond rating firms.
"Clearly, this is a good time to be working along those lines," said Claire G. Cohen, executive vice president of Fitch Investors Service. She said the current economic climate is like the recessionary period in the early 1980s, when underlying conditions changed, making forecasting difficult.
James Dearborn, assistant vice president at Moody's Investors Service, said that while Maryland officials are understandably concerned about the problems they have had in forecasting revenues, they are not alone.
"For the past couple of years, about two-thirds of the states have had shortfalls," he said. He added that although he has not discussed developing new ways of estimating revenues with state officials, "anything that can improve their capabilities is welcome and should make budgeting more predictable."
Sally Rutherford, a Standard & Poor's director, said it is "a positive sign" that officials are studying how to improve revenue estimates. "From a credit perspective, we've not taken any actions because they've responded quickly to address the shortfalls," she said. "On the other hand, they've had to do it quite often."
Ms. Maurer said the efforts to get a better handle on the revenue picture may postpone the scheduled Sept. 10 release of the state Capital Debt Affordability Committee's recommendations for debt authorizations in fiscal 1994.
The debt affordability panel is made up of the treasurer, the comptroller, the budget and fiscal planning department secretary, the transportation secretary, and a public member. The panel provides an annual estimate to the General Assembly of the maximum amount of new general obligation bonds that may prudently be authorized.