As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Après Aujourd'hui, Le Déluge

I suppose the only good news to come out of last night, and indeed this entire cycle of budget nightmares, is that we are not alone. Several other states missed their fiscal year deadlines. Illinois has no budget and no plans to enact one; Pennsylvania may not be able to pay state employees due to a failure to reach agreement; Arizona got a budget in under the wire, but the Governor has not indicated whether or not she'll sign it, because it doesn't include a sales tax increase she sought; Ohio approved a temporary 7-day budget as legislators continued to wrangle; Mississippi left their utility regulatory agency unfunded; Connecticut's Governor signed an executive order to keep the government running despite no budget. We can take little solace in these difficulties other than to note that the national erosion of tax revenues combined with balanced budget agreements make the situation almost impossible for many states, particularly the large ones, and because of the threat to any economic recovery that would result from massive reductions in state spending and services, the door may crack open for a second federal stimulus package that specifically targets state budgets. I don't think we're quite there yet, but the crisis reaches a whole new level starting today.

First of all, this is the first day that budget cuts from the previous agreement in February take effect for fiscal year 2009-2010. These include major reductions in health and human services:

SSI/SSP grants for low-income seniors and people with disabilities will drop by 2.3 percent, cutting the maximum grant for an individual from $870 to $850 per month. A previous SSI/SSP grant cut took effect in May, reducing maximum monthly grants for individuals from $907 to the current $870.

CalWORKs grants for low-income families with children will be cut by 4 percent, reducing the maximum grant from $723 to $694 per month (the same amount as in 1989) for a family of three in high-cost counties. CalWORKs grants have been frozen since 2004-05.

Dental services for most adults in the Medi-Cal Program will be eliminated along with seven other benefits, including eye exams and incontinence creams and washes. (Last week, a trial court judge in Sacramento County ruled against a group that sued to stop the cuts from taking effect.)

Grants on those who make the least are the most stimulative to an economy, because that money gets spent quickly. Now it's drying up.

Of course, there's also the matter of the still-yawning budget gap here in California, which just got $7 or $8 billion dollars larger, depending on your math. This means that even more damaging cuts, likely to the most vulnerable elements of society, will ensue, leading to another wave of job loss, foreclosures, and pain. The Governor and Senate Republicans are completely responsible for that addition to the deficit - consider that $7 billion is MORE than the money at stake to the near-term budget in the May 19 special election - and for the issuance of IOUs, which will add billions in unnecessary interest obligations.

In a nutshell, under the governor's IOU plan the state pays vendors and others it owes with the equivalent of a post-dated check that is good for the face value of the amount owed plus interest. IOU recipients, for the most part, "sell" their IOUs to a bank for the face value of the check for quick cash. The bank holds onto and then redeems the IOU at a later date, earning millions of dollars in interest.

This type of borrowing is nothing like pulling out the state's credit card to pay the bills. Rather, this is more like the state going down the street and getting an expensive payday loan.

The Governor's payday scheme not only makes California the laughingstock of the credit markets, but it unnecessarily puts a black eye on the state's long-term credit rating.

This means that, for years to come, millions of taxpayer dollars get shoved into the pockets of Wall Street bankers every time we issue long-term debt to build schools or roads, or other needed public projects.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 billion dollars in additional interest alone will be added to the cost of selling bonds that voters have already approved.

Of course, by that time, Schwarzenegger will be out of office, so what does he care?

Harold Meyerson has the must-read of the day about this disaster, pinning the blame where it needs to go - on shock-doctrinaires like the Governor who demand to use this crisis to destroy the public sector. Read the entire thing, but here's an excerpt:

Right-wing ideologues see the crisis as an opportunity to shrink government regardless of the consequences. Schwarzenegger is proposing to end welfare, not just as we know it but altogether, and to throw 1 million children off the rolls of the state's healthy families program. But the consequences of closing the deficit simply through cutbacks will be felt by more than the poor. Already reeling from $15 billion in cutbacks that the state put through in February, many school districts, including that of Los Angeles, have canceled summer school this year. Scholarships that enable students of modest means to attend California's fabled university system have been slashed. Most of the state's parks may have to be closed as well.

The terrible irony in decimating the public sector to save the state is that the California that was the epicenter of the postwar American dream was fundamentally a creation of government. Fighting a Pacific war during World War II compelled the federal government to spend billions on California industry and infrastructure, and the state was the leading beneficiary of Pentagon dollars during the Cold War. As Kevin Starr, California's leading historian, points out in "Golden Dreams," his brilliant new history of the state in the 1950s and early '60s, fully 40 percent of all defense dollars for manufacturing and research in 1959 went to California, anchoring the state's booming economy in a well-paid workforce that was either unionized or professionalized, and seeding an electronics and high-tech sector that was to blossom in the following decades. Building on that prosperity to create more prosperity, Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown -- two Republicans, one Democrat -- invested state dollars in schools, universities, freeways and aqueducts that were the best in the world. The Golden State was never more golden.

Today, its governor seems determined to turn that gold to dross. On Monday, the Democrats in the legislature passed a budget that included cuts of $11 billion, levied a tax on oil companies and tobacco, and raised auto registration fees by $15 per car to keep the state parks from closing. Schwarzenegger reiterated his refusal to raise any taxes or fees and said he would veto the budget.

There's still a chance to avoid IOUs, though I wouldn't call it likely. There is no chance to avoid the devastating impact of a broken political process and irresponsible legislating which at this point can only slide California into depression.

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