Legislative Finance director Pat Pitney gave a grim budget forecast to Commonwealth North on March 27. (Photo/Becky Bohrer/AP)

(alaskajournal)What little financial wiggle room Alaska had to start the year has been squeezed out of the state’s fiscal picture and then some, according to the Legislature’s top budget analyst.

Legislative Finance Division Director Pat Pitney told members of the public policy group Commonwealth North during a Friday morning videoconference that the State of Alaska is now facing significant annual deficits even before Permanent Fund dividends are paid for the foreseeable future.

Pitney summed up the impact of ongoing volatility in energy and financial markets as “declining lines” in the state’s revenue outlook.

Lawmakers will likely have to reconcile an additional $300 million added to the fiscal year 2020 deficit and could similarly be faced with yearly pre-PFD deficits of $300 million and growing down the road based on the current scenario, she said.

While many state officials and leaders of Alaska’s core industries are focused on the immediate health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest budget crunch is due to another reset of global oil markets that is only marginally linked to the worldwide health crisis.

Saudis and Russian officials were unable to strike a deal in early March to curb oil production in response to the sudden curtailment in demand stemming from suspended economic activity worldwide due to the response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The situation quickly devolved into a price war as Saudis leaders ordered more production on the premise their country can outlast Russia and other large producers dependent on oil revenue for a major share of their budgets.

The end result has been an approximate halving of oil prices over the past month.

On Friday Fitch Ratings placed the State of Alaska on “rating watch negative,” indicating a future downward revision of the state’s AA- rating is increasingly likely given the overall deterioration of the state’s fiscal outlook, which is closely tied to oil and financial markets. Fitch analysts also noted the decline in the value of the Permanent Fund in a statement detailing the action. The Permanent Fund had an unaudited value of $60.2 billion as of Thursday. The fund held a balance $66.6 billion on Jan. 31. The negative rating outlook also applies to state-backed municipal bonds across the state.

The Department of Revenue’s official fall 2019 forecast pegged Alaska oil at $59 per barrel for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1, with prices gradually rising with inflation in the out years.

Pitney told lawmakers earlier this month that Legislative Finance was basing its state revenue projections on a roughly $40 per barrel oil average for the next year-plus based on similarly priced Brent benchmark futures trades.

The additional $300 million shortfall this year is similarly based on $40 per barrel oil for the rest of the year, she noted. Based on those fundamentals, the final 2020 deficit is expected to be about $730 million, according to Legislative Finance officials.

The Energy Information Administration forecasted in mid-March that Brent benchmark crude — which Alaska oil follows closely — will average $43 per barrel in 2020 and return to $55 per barrel in 2021, but those projections could change along with the global response to COVID-19.

However, as of March 25 Alaska North Slope crude was selling for $26.73 per barrel, according to Department of Revenue figures.

CME Group, a Chicago-based firm comprised of four commodity exchanges, published Brent oil futures on Thursday of $26 per barrel for May, gradually rising to $37 by December.

The Department of Revenue typically publishes an update to their annual fall forecast in late March or early April to give lawmakers deliberating budgets more timely information on the state’s finances, but department officials have said they are holding off on publishing new numbers for now given the market volatility.

Many legislators who favor smaller dividend payments to help stabilize the state’s finances in-lieu of drastic budget cuts or new taxes have noted that the current budget had a surplus of more than $400 million based on oil in the low $60s per barrel and before paying PFDs.

That quickly evaporated with a cumulative $1.1 billion PFD appropriation and a $360 million supplemental budget to mainly pay for shortfalls in Medicaid and wildfire funding. The oil price collapse just takes more away from the revenue side of the ledger.

Under a longer-term projections by Legislative Finance, a slower oil market recovery to about $35 per barrel would cut annual state revenue by $700 million to $800 million per year.

The combination of very low oil prices and lower return projections for the Permanent Fund stemming from COVID-19 induced stock market declines means the whole situation could end up costing the state up to $11 billion of lost revenue potential over the next decade, according to Pitney.

“Under a scenario with annual revenue going from $5.5 billion to $4.5 billion, irrespective of dividends we’d have high annual deficits,” she said.

On March 3 the House passed a roughly $4.7 billion fiscal 2021 operating budget without a PFD appropriation. The Senate budget passed March 23 totaled about $5.4 billion with a $1,000 per person PFD this fall and a $1,000 PFD to be paid in June to respond to the emerging economic crisis brought on by efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Paying the $1,000 “spring dividend” approved by the Senate would require a $675 million ad-hoc draw from the Permanent Fund, a move previously panned by legislative leaders in both bodies.

It all points to a further drawdown of the Constitutional Budget Reserve, the state’s last remaining savings account.

Pitney said Legislative Finance analysts expect the CBR to finish fiscal 2020 on June 30 with about $1.5 billion after starting the year with more than $2.1 billion. (The final deficit projections do not match the CBR draw due to mandated CBR deposits from court and tax settlements and modest investment returns during the year.)

The Senate’s budget with a $1,000 per person traditional fall PFD would make for a roughly $1 billion deficit next fiscal year and leave the CBR with a balance of about $650 million on June 30, 2021.

Pitney, a former budget director for Gov. Bill Walker, said state officials need a minimum of approximately $600 million in the CBR to continue using it as a day-to-day cash management account. A CBR balance of less than $600 million would require Revenue officials to turn to the Permanent Fund’s Earnings Reserve Account to manage the state’s cash flow.

As early as 2022 lawmakers would be faced with making a $350 million ad-hoc draw from the Permanent Fund to pay for state operations even before accounting for a PFD appropriation, according to Legislative Finance models.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]