If you think this year’s state budget struggles have been long-running and difficult, with plenty of sacrifices in store for almost all Californians, just wait ’til next year, which begins in about a month.
For however bad the situation was before the November election, it is now at least $1 billion worse.
That’s not $1 billion in optional spending, not $1 billion in lost revenue, but $1 billion the state will have to pay next year and every subsequent year for the next three full decades: 30 years at $1 billion per. That’s money voters decided to borrow even when they knew from innumerable news reports that there is no loose cash lying around to repay it.
So if the current year’s deficit is about $11 billion, it will grow to $12 billion next July if there’s no spending increase at all and if revenues stay level. If the state’s take from income taxes, capital gains taxes, sales taxes, and other sources should drop, the deficit gets even worse.
Why would voters impose this new burden on themselves, their children and grandchildren?
One reason is that the majority of Californians appear to agree with the often flippant Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who observed last fall that “bonds are a gift from the future.”
Some gift. Since Schwarzenegger took office, the state has assumed about $45 billion more bonded debt than it had before. With interest payments at today’s low rates about equal to the principal repaid to bondholders each year, that means payments of about $90 billion over 30 years – approximately $3 billion a year added to the state’s obligations.
The presumption in all bonds is that revenue will grow as the years pass and that repaying bonds out of ever-increasing funds will therefore be easy. That’s what Schwarzenegger means when he calls them a gift from the future.
But this has not been the reality of the last few years. So Schwarzenegger, who ran for office twice on a “no new taxes” pledge, whose first act as governor was to rescind a vehicle tax increase reinstated the year before by his ousted predecessor, now concedes state government needs new taxes to meet its obligations.
The state’s fiscal woes, he concedes, are not due to spending increases, as true, inflation-adjusted levels of spending have not increased in several years. They are due to lowered revenues, caused by things like home foreclosures, business closings, and lowered capital gains taxes reflecting the two-year bear market for stocks.
But Schwarzenegger doesn’t mention all the bonds he’s backed and pushed over his five-plus years in office. Without those bonds, the state’s deficit would be about $3 billion smaller this year. Without both those bonds and his vehicle tax slash, the deficit would be about $9 billion smaller. That would put it in the $2 billion realm, a whole lot easier to deal with than $11 billion or more.
So the real problem isn’t either spending or decreased revenue, difficult as that is to deal with. The underlying cause of the budget gap is the now disproven assumption that revenues will always rise. A similar assumption underlay the housing price bubble that led to most of today’s foreclosures: Homeowners and bankers alike believed that real estate prices would keep climbing in perpetuity, and that the increased valuations would assure the repayment of subprime mortgages, with money left over to buy toys like flat-screen TVs, jet skis, boats, and new cars.
All of which means it’s time for voters to sober up, as consumers already have. The infection of unrealistic expectations that’s led to the state’s vastly increased bonded debt is not a delusion of a bare majority. Even with school construction bonds requiring 55 percent approval, virtually every such local proposal on the autumn ballot passed.
So it would pay voters to wise up and insist that legislators stop issuing bonds and instead switch to a pay-as-you-go approach to public works projects. Paying for work as it’s done, rather than borrowing the money for almost everything, would cost half as much as bonds, because there would be no interest payments. Paying for work as it’s done would also mean we are no longer looking for handouts from the future, but would see the voters of today give gifts to their children, rather than saddling the youngsters with decades of debt.
As yet, there’s not a single new bond issue set for a vote next year or the year after. The first step toward fiscal responsibility would be to keep it that way.
But don’t expect that to happen. For big labor and big business, the two interests that make the most money off bonds and the projects they finance, now peg this state’s voters as suckers. No matter how bad the state’s fiscal plight may get, it’s a safe bet they’ll be back asking for more borrowing, and soon. And they’ll get what they want unless voters change their recent profligate pattern.