Q&A: Georgia Fiscal Economist Jeffrey Dorfman

Dec 14, 2022

As Georgia’s fiscal economist, Jeffrey Dorfman’s job is making sure the state of Georgia stays on the fiscally straight-and-narrow.

He develops forecasts based on Georgia’s tax revenue, works closely with bond-rating agencies on revenue and economic trends and manages the development of fiscal impact estimates on tax-related legislative proposals.

Just how influential is Dorfman? Industry titans, academics and media call on him to talk about economic forecasting, food insecurity, productivity measurement and the economics of growth and sprawl. When he speaks, the General Assembly listens. So does Gov. Brian Kemp, who tapped Dorfman  to be the state’s top economist in 2019 and relies on him when he’s formulating the state’s budget each year..

“I whisper numbers in the governor's ear. And the governor issues a revenue forecast,” he said, metaphorically speaking. “It's not necessarily the same as the number I whispered in his ear, and nobody ever knows about the differences.”

Gov. Brian Kemp says Dorfman “is a great asset to this state."

"Throughout much of my first term, he has provided quality, reliable information on Georgia’s economic outlook, strengths, and needs as we prepare the annual amended and fiscal year budgets. I’ve valued his insight, which has also helped to inform the way I and my staff consider how we can best plan for the state’s future," the governor said in an email to State Affairs. "Because of our careful, conservative approach to budgeting, more Georgians are now working than ever before, we have historically low unemployment figures, we’re experiencing unprecedented levels of job creation and investment, and we’ve been named for an extraordinary ninth year as the No. 1 state for business. An unsung hero, Dr. Dorfman and his intellect are an important part of that ongoing success story.”

The nationally-known economist and author also is a professor at the University of Georgia where he still manages to teach a class on the economics and management of the food industry.

When he’s not teaching or advising on state budgetary matters, he’s got a pretty good sense of humor on social media where he announces on Twitter, he’s “Georgia’s state fiscal economist, now striving to be boring on social media.”

“Somebody paid attention in #econ101. Well done,” he recently tweet-quipped, responding to a tweet on California housing. 

The avid Georgia Bulldog fan likes to exercise and bake and has written four books, including a fiction thriller, Sleepers All Around.

State Affairs recently talked with Dorfman about Georgia’s AAA bond rating and asked him what he’d do with Georgia’s $12 billion cash on hand, the most in state history. The conversation is edited for clarity and length.

Georgia has had a AAA-bond rating — the highest rating a state can have — for more than 25 years now. Why is this important?

Georgia is very proud of our AAA bond rating and we would very much like to keep it. It's certainly an important part of my job to work with the bond team and make sure that happens. That saves us money, so it saves the taxpayer money. We pay a lower interest rate on all our bonds, and we save several million dollars a year by being AAA rated instead of, say, AA rating.

Is there anything on the horizon that could disturb that rating? 

I don’t think so. Obviously, there’s a chance there's going to be a recession. We are prepared for that. The governor has a revenue forecast, right? So I whisper numbers in the governor's ear. And the governor issues a revenue forecast. It's not necessarily the same as the number I whispered in his ear and nobody ever knows about the differences. But the governor's  revenue forecast for the amended ‘23 and the original ‘24 budget that he will propose in January accounts for the probability of a forthcoming revenue slowdown. Therefore, I think we are prepared. Whatever happens to the economy in 2023. I don't see any way that it would cause a problem with our AAA rating. We're ready.

A 2017 Pew Trust study found that some states won’t touch their surplus funds for fear of harming their AAA status. In fact, the study noted that some state officials are reluctant to tap reserves even during recessions for fear of a ratings downgrade. What’s your take on how the Georgia General Assembly approaches this matter?

As to the perceptions of members of the General Assembly, I will pass on characterizing those. I certainly believe they understand the importance of having reserves both for our bond rating and for good financial management.

Isn’t some of the surplus money from the federal pandemic relief money? Some states have already used their money but it seems we’ve set ours aside.

We've been working pretty hard to get through that money. We've sent a billion dollars of it out this summer or in the last couple of months. We sent cash assistance to families that were currently enrolled in Medicaid, PeachCare for Kids, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Was that the $350 cash payment?

Yes. That took care of most of the remaining federal money. I’m not 100% sure but that took care of a lot of it.

What in your estimation would be the best use of the $12 billion surplus?

The governor and his administration continue to look —  with [the help of] a lot of the people at the Office of Planning and Budget — for good ideas of smart ways to spend that money that bring value to Georgia taxpayers and help Georgia citizens. Whenever we can come up with a good idea that fits those criteria like the gas tax holiday has, like investment in infrastructure or paying for the buildings with cash instead of bonds, when that's appropriate, then the governor will take those opportunities. But the governor’s not going to be rushed into spending that money just because people think it should be spent. He's going to spend it wisely to benefit the state and Georgia's citizens.

Have questions or comments about the state’s AAA bond rating? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @LVJOYNER.

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