The California Department of Finance

Article excerpt

Deep in the bowels of the California Department of Finance, a small group of economists toils at producing the economic forecast on which the governor's budget is based. It's not glamorous work, and too often it seems thankless; but it certainly is interesting.

The Department of Finance is in the executive branch of California state government and, as such, is part of the governor's administration. Its principal functions are to prepare, enact, and administer the state's annual budget; establish appropriate fiscal policies to carry out the state's programs; and analyze legislation with a fiscal impact on the state.

Forecasting

The economics unit contributes to all three functions, but its primary responsibility is producing the economic forecasts on which budgets are based. As part of the annual budget process, the unit develops three forecasts each fiscal year. Each of these consists of a near-term national economic forecast, a near-term California economic forecast, a Consumer Price Index forecast, and a set of long-range economic assumptions. In addition, the unit forecasts the values of the many cost of living adjustment (COLA) factors that are used in state programs.

The Planning Estimate forecast, developed in September, begins a new budget cycle and is the department's first take on the economic outlook for upcoming fiscal year--the budget year. This forecast provides input for the economics unit's Planning Estimate COLA factor forecasts and for the revenue forecasts made by the financial research unit, a separate unit. The revenue forecasts are important input for the program expenditure forecasts made by other units in the Department of Finance. The purpose of this department-wide undertaking is to get a preview of the state's finances before work begins in earnest in November on the Governor's budget for the next fiscal year.

In early November, the economics unit prepares an initial version of the Governor's budget forecast, which is reviewed by the department's executive office before being mailed to the participants of the economic outlook conference, usually held the week before Thanksgiving. For more than 50 years, the Department of Finance has invited private and public sector economists from around the state to convene with us so that we can get their comments and advice on our preliminary forecast, hear their views on current conditions in state industries and regional economies, and discuss with them the outlook for those industries and economies.

In the past, large commercial banks and utilities were well represented at the table, but retirements, deregulation, and mergers and acquisitions have taken a toll on the number of business economists in those industries. Still, we have been able to maintain coverage of most industries and regions in the state by tapping university forecasting projects, economic development organizations, and consultants. Finding an expert in retail trade has been a persistent problem, however.

After the conference, we re-run our forecasts taking into account what we learned at the conference. Once approved by our executive office and the governor, we distribute the results to the revenue estimators and other units of the department. In early January, the governor holds a press conference outlining the new budget. Meetings with rating agencies (Standard & Poor's, Fitch, and Moody's) follow. Sometimes they are very interested in the economic forecast. More recently, however, plans for dealing with large budget shortfalls have taken center stage.

In March, we begin the third round of budget forecasting, with input from the University of California in Los Angeles's Anderson Forecasting project. In conjunction with their March economic outlook conference, Anderson holds a seminar largely devoted to a presentation and critique of the Governor's Budget forecast. Shortly after returning from the seminar, we go to work on the May Revision forecast. …