Like a weatherman, his forecasts can brighten a day

Letter from Annapolis

March 10, 2004|By Patricia Meisol

For days now, one man in this town has been sweating over how much money our budget-conscious state has to spend.

There was a snag, a surprise, when the February state tax receipts came in lower than he expected Friday. Finally, though, after many cups of coffee, some of it burnt, long drives home to Cecil County, and some sleepless nights, David Roose will give up the numbers today or tomorrow.

The compromises and political deals in this year's state budget hinge on them.

Oh, for a few more million!

Roose is director of the bureau of revenue estimates, and his job is to prevent the state from bouncing checks. Since he was a kid, he's been pretty frugal himself, some say cheap. His own mother regrets discussing money problems in front of him when he was younger because he is so obsessed with saving it. Until he bought a new pair of dress shoes recently, he went to work with holes in his soles. He was too busy to replace them, but also, he admits, before he spends money, he estimates how much a dollar will be worth 10 years from now if he puts it in the stock market, and that usually keeps him "from frittering it away." The real deal: he doesn't want to be in his job 40 years. He has a wife and two kids, and he wants to retire early.

Roose is 34. He was 29 when he began estimating how much money the state will collect, mostly from income and sales taxes.

His most complicated task comes in December, when he makes his estimate of how much money will come in the next year, July to June. The governor starts his budget with that number, though it assumes another $110 million in corporate taxes he hopes will be collected.

Perhaps because lawmakers' wish lists are on the table across the street, the political interest in Roose's work peaks now, when he revises his estimate for next year and the remainder of this year using six months of actual receipts.

If he comes within 1 percent of the real numbers, as he did last year, he's done his job. But 1 percent can be a lot of money - he dropped his estimate by $218 million last year - and all he could think about on the drive home was whether somebody's health care would be cut. "Ask my gastroentrologist if I worry," Roose says.

This year, for the first time since 2001, his estimate won't drop. Maybe we'll have $20 million more than he predicted in December, maybe $40 million. This was what Roose was thinking Monday anyway. He had eight spreadsheets open on his desktop that day as he tried to untangle it all.

Given what he has to imagine - how much people will spend, how many people will be working, how many people will die and pay estate taxes - it's amazing he gets anywhere near to the truth.

Once, when Roose worked for the legislature's research arm, he tried to figure out how much it would cost if we eliminated the tax on diapers. You can't get a straight answer on how many dollars worth of diapers are sold in Maryland, he discovered. Manufacturers don't know because they sell to wholesalers, and the tax is on retailers; so, you have to figure out how many babies there are, how many times a day they get their diapers changed, and multiply it by the price of a diaper.

Other states have 15 or 20 people doing his job. His office has three. He got the job after he figured out how to make it easier for us to pay county taxes.

He doesn't make policy, only implements it. To that end, he drives 65 miles each way to work, or about 33,000 miles a year. At the end of his career he estimates he will have driven 1 million miles.

His office is, like him, spare, nothing there except a computer, which he uses to enter numbers. He estimates he is the highest-paid data-entry clerk in the state. He types 100 words a minute, thanks to summer government jobs during college at William and Mary in Virginia.

But it's not enough to predict how much people will spend on furniture or stoves and how much their salaries will rise. You have to be able to look out the window to see what else is happening.

For example, Roose has to think about what's not being collected. The near-blizzard a year ago led him to develop a spreadsheet in which he matched snowstorms in the last century to drops in sales tax collection. He was desperate - the report from the snow month wouldn't be available until after his estimate was due. He pegged the winter's snowfall for a drop of $9 million - $200,000 for every inch of snow - and it turned out to be closer to $13 million. This January's storm was easier; it began on a Friday, so he figured it wouldn't have much impact.

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