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The Fiscal Crisis in California

California’s financial problems have been front and center in the media of late. This month, its credit rating was cut to the low end of investment grade. Facing insolvency, Governor Schwarzenegger and legislators have undertaken drastic action – selling off state assets, cutting the state’s university budget by 20 percent and releasing 27,000 inmates from prison. Already the state has given mandatory furloughs of three days a month to its 243,000 state employees. What is the impact on California’s crisis on the rest of the nation? What about the state’s municipal bondholders? Will Washington DC have to bail out the nation’s largest state? This edition of the newsletter will examine these questions and try to provide some helpful guidance.

Current State of Affairs

California now carries the lowest credit rating of the fifty states. In the current fiscal year of 2009-2010, its budget deficit was expected to be $24 to $28 billion. This is what prompted the recent marathon session of the state legislature. The state’s general fund budget is about $100 billion. The prospective deficit was large both in absolute and in relative terms.

As recently as Fiscal 1998-99, the state’s budget was in balance. A number of reasons have been put forth to explain the state’s ensuing misfortune. All have some merit.

The state’s tax structure is a contributory factor. Voters approved proposition 13 some 30 years ago placing severe limits on property tax increases. Consequently, the state has come to rely more and more on its rather large income tax. Unlike property taxes, income tax receipts tend to follow a boom and bust cycle along with the economy. During the good times, political pressure is applied by the state’s powerful special interests to ramp up benefits. During bad times, there is less wiggle room to reduce expenditures as revenues plummet.

Case in point: California’s state legislature passed SB 400 in 1999 that increased the pensions of state police officers by 50%! The same bill substantially upgraded the pensions and survivor benefits of other state employee Now, ten years later, the governor tried unsuccessfully to roll pension benefits to pre 1999 levels back for new hires.

The state’s constitution has been an impediment to fiscal responsibility. One problem is the requirement that a two-thirds vote of the California legislature is needed to pass the state’s budget and tax increases. There are only a handful of states that require a supermajority. Another problem with California law is the reliance on ballot initiatives to amend its constitution or statutes. These have become ubiquitous in recent years and are typically referred to as “propositions”. Not surprisingly, the popular vote has consistently supported an expansion of services without a commensurate increase in taxes. Direct democracy sounds good in theory but its practice invites deficit spending.

On July 20th, lawmakers approved a budget plan that should close the deficit this fiscal year. It includes spending cuts amounting to 60% of the deficit with the balance financed with short term debt. While some of the cuts were accomplished with accounting gimmicks, most of the state’s residents will be impacted by either a reduction in services or an increase in user fees.

California’s Municipal Bonds

For municipal bondholders, the events of the past several months have raised troubling questions. Could the state of California default on its debt and what would the spillover effects on local California bonds be?

The good news is that California’s bondholders are actually senior creditors. Proposition 98, passed in 1988, mandated that the state allocate 40 percent of its general fund to public elementary and high schools as well as community colleges. Roughly another 5% of education spending is also guaranteed by the state’s constitution. This commitment is senior to the claims of bondholders. However, the state’s bondholders are next in line. Today payments to those bondholders account for another 5% of the general fund as there are about $59 billion outstanding. Below the bondholders contributions. Some very key stakeholders must suffer before the state fails to pay its debt service. Unlike corporations or municipalities, the states cannot file for bankruptcy in an attempt to reorganize their debt obligations. Moreover, California needs continuous unfettered access to the credit markets to fund ongoing infrastructure projects and to cover short term seasonal cash flows.

What about the spillover effect on local issuers of tax-exempt bonds within California? Different local jurisdictions have varying levels of reliance on state funding. School districts and counties are among the most dependent. Most general obligation bonds are secured by local property taxes – a source of revenue that is comparatively stable. While municipalities can declare bankruptcy, they have been loathe to do. The relevant precedents indicate that bondholders are made whole regardless of the financial woe of the local issuer. Orange County CA filed for bankruptcy in 1994 but did not miss any bond payments. The City of Vallejo CA filed for bankruptcy more recently but has thus far continued to service its debt.