Most attention focuses on the federal budget in May, but state budgets help complete the fiscal mosaic.

On a state-by-state comparison it’s pretty easy to have a cheap shot at Tasmania for being a basketcase, but adjusted for scale and rural location factors Tasmania is little different from other areas in Australia. Its budgetary problems throw into stark relief the problems facing all states.

The preoccupation with debt and deficits that afflicted the discussion about the federal budget has carried over to the state budget. Despite sound reasons for running deficits, Tasmania has no option but to move to surpluses, as it has little cash remaining and cannot borrow because, as presently structured, it can’t service any more than the current $220 million sum and has by its words and actions undermined its capacity to raise more of its own revenue.

The wholly owned government businesses — specifically the three electricity monopolies covering generation, distribution and retail functions — are loaded with debt and will struggle to support more borrowings.

When declining revenues from GST and state taxes smashed the state’s bottom line, the government upped the percentage taken as dividends from the electricity companies, which fortunately coincided with rosier future profits given the carbon tax bestowed relative cost advantages upon Tasmania’s largely hydro-based generation network. But electricity demand patterns are changing, and the carbon tax is likely to disappear after September 14.

Federally, the doctrine of surpluses being good and deficits bad adopted by both major political parties means that as we are forced from deficits to surpluses as soon as politically possible, each budget will be contradictory relative to its predecessor. And when government surpluses eventuate the iron law of sectoral balances means the private sector will inevitably be in deficit — just another problem for the Tasmanian economy as it attempts to move forward from a situation where gross state product is estimated to have contracted by 0.75% during 2012-13.

The estimated outcomes for 2012-13 brought a further rundown in the state’s cash reserves. Next year, 2013-14, they will disappear altogether. Over the past two years the only cash on hand has been from grants paid in advance by the federal government. This has been used as working capital to fund the ordinary operations of government.

In the current year 2012-13, 98% of operating revenues (excluding tied capital grants) were spent on operating expenses, 5% paying the costs of unfunded superannuation to retired public servants and a further 5% on new plant equipment and infrastructure. Fortunately the costs of servicing borrowings were negligible.

“Removal of the carbon tax will hurt Tasmania because of the dominance of existing renewables, but the Liberals only accounted for the change in the first year of its plan.”

Next year, 95% of operating revenues will be spent on operating expenses, 5% paying pensions and benefits and 6% on new plant infrastructure and injections into government businesses. The cash tin will then be empty.

The following years will be break even or better, but if the pattern of the recent past is repeated the estimates for future revenues are optimistic.

Hence the situation is a little precarious, especially as the federal capital grants received in advance and used for working capital will have to be “repaid” when it’s time to spend as intended. Tasmania has elected to become a cork in the ocean, at the mercy of the elements. Batten down the hatches, reef the sails and pray the GST rate will increase is essentially the government’s plan.

Despite the Liberal’s virulent criticism of the government’s budgets, in releasing its alternative Plan for a Brighter Future it accepted all the government revenue projections, fiddled with a few expenses and proclaimed “our bottom line is better than yours” and “we will reach a surplus a year earlier”.

Removal of the carbon tax will hurt Tasmania because of the dominance of existing renewables, but the Liberals only accounted for the change in the first year of its plan. No need to worry about the other three years, we were told, because any costs will be offset by the dividends from a growing economy. How was not explained. The risks and sensitivity section in the budget offered no basis for the Liberals’ ebullient view. An increase in employment of 1% will only lead to payroll tax rising by $4 million, hardly enough to offset declining returns from the electricity companies.

The Liberals also reaffirmed a commitment to tearing up the recent forest agreement bankrolled by the federal government. Amounts to be spent were removed and treated as savings despite retaining the incoming grants as income.

The government-owned Forestry Tasmania is insolvent and propped up with a letter of comfort from the government, hasn’t produced operating cash surpluses for years even when woodchipping was rife, has pawned its motor vehicle fleet, sold its softwood plantations, has hardwood plantations that are cash flow negative, has spent federal grants money paid in advance on operating expenses, and whatever it earns barely covers overheads. It therefore needs a government lifeline of $25 million each year to pay wages. The Liberals disagree with the views of the newly constituted board and say the injection is not needed because they will grow the industry. Again, how was not explained.

The government appropriates amounts each year into the Treasurer’s reserve to meet unforseen expenditures. It is not included in the bottom line calculation, because it is only a contingency. But that didn’t stop the Liberals removing the contingency and counting it as a bottom line savings.

A recent opinion poll taken before the budget revealed the undecided vote heading towards the March 2014 state election had risen to 30%. While the Premier resorts to Pollyanna imitations rather than adequate explanations of the state’ situation and a way forward, the opposition’s response is little more than a hoax unlikely to restore much needed trust amongst the growing numbers of disaffected and disillusioned.

*John Lawrence was employed as an economist for five years before returning to Tasmania as an accountant in public practice and an observer and researcher on finance and economic matters at the state level