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Understanding the California Budget Crisis


Living beyond your means is a sure way to guarantee financial ruin. Today, millions are dealing with the fallout from artificially-inflated real estate values and accessible, unsecured credit. For those recently (or still) in this situation, a number of temporary solutions were once readily available – refinancing, taking out home equity lines, taking on additional credit cards – but, these quick fixes all had one thing in common: they only delayed the inevitable. But it’s one thing for an individual to act irresponsibly, and quite another for an entire state.

The State of California resembles a classic spendthrift; the world’s 8th largest economy, was long characterized by its numerous economic opportunities, inviting business climate, and bustling real estate industries. But, the state was also regularly in deficit for the last several decades. This did not seem to matter. The state continued to borrow against future revenue, in order to finance its budget requirements – much like an individual would borrow against the speculative increase in their home’s value to pay for existing bills. The way they were able to do this, was by the sale of short-term notes for cash (similar to bonds).

The logic behind these actions was that growth was always expected: businesses were going to continue to grow, unemployment would be always be low, and income tax revenues were going to continue to increase. Most importantly, existing and new debt would always be recouped by future profits. If this sounds familiar, it probably is. For Californians that witnessed their home values skyrocketing between 2002-2006, taking out new loans for motorcycles and boats, or for kitchen remodels or expensive vacations almost made since, even if what you earned did not justify these costs. Your house was a passive (almost magical) source of money from which everything would one day be paid off, and everything would once again be right with the universe

What Happened?

Starting with the real estate market slumping in 2007, the situation quickly become grim for the state with the credit and financial markets meltdown in 2008. Shortly thereafter, the State’s credit rating was reduced. Due to a lack of confidence in the short-term notes, their sales have slowed down considerably. And, in the face of a devaluing dollar and massive trade deficits, the Obama administration denied the state’s request to federally-back the state notes, citing that states are responsible for solving their own budgetary problems.

California’s general fund has also experienced sharp declines in tax revenue. Income tax revenues have dropped considerably since 2007; 2009 receipts alone, are expected to be over $1B less than the pre-year prediction – which was already lower than normal. The state is also experiencing (on average) $200 Million less per month from Sales and Use Tax revenues from pre-year forecasts. Also, the State has the nation’s highest level of unemployment at 11.5% (68,900 jobs were lost in May 2009 alone) – which is also a 30-yr high for CA. This has exacerbated existing budget issues, with a higher-than-normal amount of unemployment payments being dispersed to a larger non-working population.

The condition of the state is analogous to an individual simultaneously experiencing a reduced income, either because of mandatory vacations, or hour cuts (or even becoming occasionally-employed), and an increase in their expenses (an adjustable rate mortgage, increased credit card APRs, etc). Not surprisingly, this has increasingly become the norm for many California citizens. The situation is at the intersection of circumstance and lackluster planning. Looking back at the last decade of California’s dynamic economy, we can now all see that things really seemed too good to be true, because, in fact, they were.

What This Means

Currently the state is facing a shortfall of over $27 billion, and this deficit is estimated to increase to $40 billion by the end of 2010.To put this in perspective, $27 billion is more than ¼ of the state’s general fund. Or rather, the state only has ¾ of the funds necessary to run at full capacity.

When the state legislature met in May to discuss wide-reaching budgetary cuts, it created a division among party lines: Republicans agreed to lower the income of state employees; Democrats strove to increase fees for select goods and services (cigarettes, oil wells). Governor Schwarzenegger, however, moved to generate revenue by borrowing from local governments. Because the parties involved at the state legislature were unable to come to a resolution, Governor Schwarzenegger has declared a Fiscal State of Emergency. What this means is that if a deficit is not solved within 45 days, the state legislature cannot act on other bills until this is resolved – in short, the state must figure out a way to substantially reduce this deficit, and/or find new money.

Unlike people, states can’t simply file for some type of bankruptcy protection. If the state were to default on its creditors, it will be in an exponentially worse situation. The state will lose a sizable source of regular revenue, in that investors would no longer want to invest here. Courting investors may not be the solution for the immediate crises, it will inevitably be required, should the state get back on track.

To make matters worse California’s labor market, does not show signs of having hit rock bottom. Forecasts by Beacon Economics, the UCLA Anderson School and Chapman University estimate that unemployment may near 13% by year’s end; and according to Esmael Adibi (Chapman), the recession, “…at the state level should end by mid-2010, when job creation will start.”

How the State is Coping:

Because of the grim diagnosis, the state will be forced to enact a number of the cuts in an effort to shrink the deficit. There will also be a number of new and increased taxes that will be levied on citizens, to help bare the cost. Some of the more noted cuts and taxes include:

– Mandatory furloughs for many state employees Feb 2009 – June 2010. This is estimated to save $1.3 Billion. (The partial government shutdown also will lead to a third furlough day for 235,000 state employees, bringing their total pay cut this year to about 14%).

– Additionally, layoffs, reductions and other efficiencies will be instituted in an effort to cut payroll by 10%. This is estimated to amount to as many as 60,000 state jobs.

– As of April 1, 2009 Sales tax was increased by 1%.

– As of July 2, 2009 the State began issuing IOUs for state tax refund payments.

– The Vehicle License Fee (VLF) rate increased from 0.65 percent to 1.15 percent from May 19, 2009, to June 30, 2011.

– More than $3 B in cuts to public education.

– Nearly $1 B in cuts to public health care.

Prospective Cuts:

– As many as 200 of California’s 279 State Parks may be closed.

– A suspension of Cal Grants and Cal Works – state programs that provide health and education services to low-income families.

The Takeaway:

The type of problems facing California lawmakers are reminiscent of those presently faced by millions of Americans and their households. Similarly, the state’s response is largely a reaction to market conditions; the same can be said about so many Americans, in that we only fix what is broken. Expense management is perhaps the most important lesson learned on one’s way to financial maturity, and unfortunately for so many it usually only comes from past failures. There are a number of lessons to be learned at the administrative level, and I think I speak for most Californians when I say that I hope our leaders are wise enough to find a solution that enables our getting out of this situation, but also makes it more difficult for the state to get in this type of a mess in the foreseeable future.

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