Tag Archives: recession

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.

Welcome To IOU Day!

If no deal is reached between the Governor and the Legislature in the next 14 hours, California will start to issue IOUs to companies that do business with the state (mostly small businesses), taxpayers expecting refunds, and agencies delivering assistance to the most vulnerable members of society – welfare recipients, the elderly, disabled and blind, and college students expecting aid grants.

The biggest variable with these IOUs is whether or not banks will honor them, a decision that they have yet to reach.

The deciding factor could be California’s banks. If they’re willing to honor the registered warrants, or IOUs, then the problem becomes manageable for the scores of small businesses and local governments that rely on dollars flowing from Sacramento. They’ll be able to cash the IOUs.

But if the banks resist, billions in state payments will be effectively delayed – putting renewed stress on a state and region already suffering from a deep recession. One Rocklin company, a temp firm that relies heavily on state business, has already laid off five workers in anticipation of a cash squeeze.

So far, no banks have committed to honoring the IOUs, said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for state Controller John Chiang.

She said banks are probably waiting to see how much interest the state will pay on the IOUs – a figure that won’t be decided until Thursday, the same day Chiang is scheduled to issue IOUs. The notes will total $3.36 billion, with about $500 million targeted for the private sector.

In 1992, banks generally honored the IOUs by cashing them on demand.  If you haven’t heard, banks are in a slightly worse financial picture now than then, and might not be willing to float bridge loans for the state, even with generous interest, this time.  And of course, if the banks agree to honor the IOUs, the state will be paying out hundreds of millions of dollars to them in short-term interest.

If the banks fail to honor the IOUs, you can just add that to the severe pain being felt by California residents at this time.  The personal bankruptcy filings which soared in Southern California in the first quarter will only increase.  The foreclosures, which have not only continued for residences but commercial property like hotels, will expand.  With small businesses forced to cut back due to cash flow cutoffs from the state, expect more unemployment and a continued erosion of the tax base, leading to even larger budget shortfalls.  This is a death spiral from which we will find it hard to extricate ourselves.  California’s role as the biggest of the “50 Herbert Hoovers” truly can threaten national economic recovery.

Creating a Holistic Approach to Homelessness

In the crisis mode that the state has been operating under for the last few years, we haven’t really done a great job of trying to create solutions for big, long term problems.  And many of these big problems have only gotten bigger while we dithered.

Take homelessness. With the Sacramento tent city springing up and getting international attention, and then being “closed “, it is an unavoidable issue.  Stories of the middle, and even upper middle, class rapidly falling into homelessness are easy to find.

Yet, despite all the stories of the homelessness problems, the Governor has done relatively little to combat the growing plague upon our state.  And his proposed budget cuts, which are as CA Democratic Party Chair John Burton called “beyond cruel”, will only make things worse.  Waay back in 2005, Arnold promised to create a program to address the issue, or at least the substantial portion caused by mental illness in his so-called Homelessness Initiative.

Another aspect of that Initiative was an intent to create an interagency council on homelessness.  Despite that pledge, Arnold hasn’t convened such a council since 2005. So, Asm. Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) decided to push the issue.  His AB 1177 creates an Interagency Council on Homelessness.  By promoting communication through the multiple agencies that serve the homeless population in the state, hopefully the council will find ways to efficiently use resources and reduce duplication of efforts, and create greater accountability in state government.  

It is particularly important now that every possible resource is perfectly targeted to address this massive issue.  This is a good idea to work on just that problem.  However, all the communication in the world won’t help if we destroy the social safety net.

Alt-A Meltdown

If you aren’t depressed enough by the coming collapse of social programs for Californians as the budget nightmare drags on, consider that there will soon be more need for social services and less revenue available, as we segue into the rarely-remarked upon second wave of foreclosures in the Alt-A market.

A new wave of foreclosures is building in Sonoma County, one that echoes the subprime crisis that flooded the region’s housing market with distressed properties.

The tide of troubled loans, which first struck high-risk borrowers who did not qualify for conventional mortgages, is now spreading to people with good credit who purchased more expensive homes.

This time, it involves borrowers who took out mortgages known as Alt-A loans. Like the subprime loans that began imploding in 2006, these loans offered seductively low introductory payments that enabled many borrowers to buy or refinance homes that were pricier than they could otherwise afford.

Now, those borrowers increasingly are discovering the true cost of their loans. When the introductory period ends, monthly payments can jump 50 percent or more on the typical Alt-A loan, far higher than many borrowers can afford.

There are hundreds of thousands of these loans in California just waiting to recast.  In the context of Sonoma County, 18% of all housing loans are Alt-A, most of them purchased between 2004 and 2006.  Two-thirds of them will see rapid jumps in their payments in the next two years.

I spoke with Asm. Ted Lieu this weekend, who didn’t even want to describe these as foreclosure waves.  “It feels like they never stop.”  He hopes that the latest government program to try and fix the foreclosure crisis, which can allow new mortgages to be issued at 96.5% of current value, will actually make an impact, but we’re talking about a whole new class of borrowers getting into trouble because of these rate recasts.  This of course adds to the properties on the market, bringing down prices, adding to a whole new wave of tax reassessments, and on, and on, and on.

You can almost set aside the unemployment crisis, and the feedback loop of decreased government spending leading to reduced consumer spending and more unemployment.  Just this continuing housing crisis is enough to permanently disable any solutions to economic recovery.

…I should note that AB260 passed the Assembly today, forward-looking legislation which would prohibit lenders from steering borrowers into bad loans, prohibit lenders from reaping financial advantages (called yield spread premiums) from that steerage, ban negative amortization loans and regulate subprime lending.  The Governor vetoed similar legislation last year.  This is an impressive reform, but too late.  The crisis has spread into prime loans by now.

Wall Street Banks Need To Stop Using Funny Math

(Say Hi to Asm. Lieu. NPR’s Planet Money podcast did a good report on this subject as well. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

Two weeks ago, Bank of America surprised Wall Street by posting an alleged ‘strong’ profit of $4.2 billion the first quarter of this year. Now we know how they arrived at those numbers:  funny math. Today we learned that Bank of America actually needs another $34 billion injection of capital in order to survive. 

Bank of America is not the only firm using funny numbers.  Goldman Sachs posted an alleged profit of $1.8 billion for the first quarter of 2009.  The company had previously followed a calendar quarter that ran from December to February.  However, Goldman Sachs conveniently and suddenly decided to change its accounting to a calendar year schedule, and changed their fiscal year to start in January, effectively eliminating December’s results.  The company had suffered large losses in December.  So the ‘profit’ Goldman Sachs posted doesn’t account for the entire missing month of December.


Funny numbers, lack of transparency, and the obscuring of risk were some of the prime causes of Wall Street’s economic collapse, a collapse that started our recession.  America’s recession will be prolonged if investors continue to stay on the sidelines because they are unable to ascertain the true value of banks and other companies.  

It is time for Wall Street firms to come clean and start telling Americans the truth.

Yeah, We’re Still Well And Truly Screwed

There’s a very pernicious habit in California of turning away from budget issues once a crisis is averted, in a show of relief that we will at least get a small reprieve from having to deal with the contentious battles for a period of time.  This false sense of security is bad enough in regular years, when the budget is cobbled together through borrowing against the future and no long-term solutions are implemented.  In this dynamic economic crisis, when rosy outlooks can darken in a matter of days, it’s downright foolhardy.

Greg Lucas at California’s Capitol has been one of the louder voices in insisting that the budget crisis is not at all over.  According to Controller John Chiang, revenue in February was $900 million dollars below estimates.  Now, if you extrapolate that out, we’ll be in a $10-$12 billion dollar budget hole by the end of the year just if things remain at the same level.  This is of course unlikely, as the February national job numbers showed.  So much of the tax increases passed in the February 19 budget solution are tied to employment – an increase in the income tax, and sales tax increases that of course rely on residents having purchasing power.  In addition, these lean economic times will push more people into needing state services, like unemployment and Medi-Cal.  Then there are the counter-cyclical increases and cuts that are working against what the economic recovery is attempting at the federal level.

In addition, many of the spending and taxation decisions made in the recent budget cancel out some of the benefits to California of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The federal package provides an estimated $13.1 billion in refundable income tax credits for middle to low-income Californians at the same time the state budget includes $12.2 billion in tax increases, only some of which are deductible. And only half of taxpayers deduct.

The federal bill includes a one-time $250 payment to the state’s aged, blind and disabled poor at the same time the state is reducing the maximum grant for an individual by $37 a month, $444 annually.

“California is roughly an eighth of the nation. The impact of this is sufficiently large that it could affect the prospects of recovery for the nation as a whole,” said Jean Ross, director of the California Budget Project, who has been examining how the state’s budget interacts with the federal stimulus package.

The biggest short-term issue is cash.  Lucas did an interview with John Chiang where he admitted that we will still need to borrow against the anticipation of future revenue as early as April, to the probable tune of $1.5 billion.  Because the budget deal was completed too late to include changes to the income tax code, those revenues will not come in until the following tax year.  The sales tax will go up April 1, but that will not be enough to cover expenses.

CC: Is February a big month for obligations?

JC: No. April is the real difficult month. If we don’t get that RAN, we’re $636 million in the red. But then the bigger issue is July. When we walk into the next fiscal year we will need a massive cash infusion.

CC: How come?

JC: We always borrow at the beginning of the year, 25 out of the last 26 anyway and then in April we make up the difference. But this year we walk in with weakness into the next fiscal year. There are less tools in the tool kit.  We’ll need a massive RAN or RAW (Revenue Anticipation Warrant).

Remember these last budgets borrow $16.5 billion from (state) special funds to backfill the general fund. So if we have any emergency in the state requiring aid from one of those special fund departments, the state is in trouble. Over 1,100 special funds in the state and we borrowed from over 650 of them. Part of this last budget solution gives us the ability to borrow another $2 billion more. The governor’s budget has us borrowing $11 billion from special funds over the next 18 months.

So we’re going to have to do some outside borrowing for the next fiscal year. Period.

And of course, there’s very little anticipation of the worsening economic picture in the budget, meaning that we’ll be in unquestionably worse shape by summer.  And the cash crisis, forcing short-term borrowing, really impacts selected projects that go out into the bond market, for example infrastructure like the high speed rail project, which will basically have to shut down if there isn’t a quick infusion of cash.  Keep in mind that California has the worst bond rating in the country and the credit markets are still not that friendly to the state.

Another pressing matter is the determination of how much money from the federal stimulus will be available to the state to fill budget holes.  There is a “trigger” in the state budget that would actually reduce some cuts – most of them the worst of the worst, particularly in health care for the needy – as well as reverse increases to the income tax, if at least $10 billion dollars in federal money hits the state budget.  It’s not just that money comes in, it’s that it has to go toward general fund relief in order to contribute to the trigger.  And Mike Genest, the Governor’s finance director, has a preliminary estimate up showing that the state will come up short.  This is insanity.  As the California Budget Project noted on a conference call today, there will be many billions above the trigger number available to the state, the legislature need only craft the receipt of that money in such a way to hit the trigger.  Otherwise, they are raising taxes and cutting services, and needlessly so.  One such bill would change Medi-Cal eligibility requirements to free up as much as $11.23 billion over 27 months.  That should happen ASAP.  Democrats are trying to write this as a special session bill and ensure that it requires only a majority vote.

The main point here is that we remain in crisis mode with the state budget, and will continue for years upon years until we stop putting off the fundamental, structural solutions the way we constantly do.  For example, the prison system remained virtually untouched during the budget crisis, despite being both crippling to the bottom line and unconstitutional in its overcrowding and inability to provide health care.  We desperately need structural changes with how the state budgets, and those will only be accomplished by demolishing the conservative veto over the process and repealing the 2/3 rule.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to the CBP study of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, identifying as much as $50 billion dollars available to the state in funding.  Surely the legislature can figure out how to capture 20% of that and set off the budget trigger.

AFSCME’s Making America Happen – Again

Check out the new video by AFSCME as part of their Make America Happen campaign. The video reminds us that we have overcome financial crisis before, and we can do it again.  It compared FDR’s solutions to the Great Depression with Obama’s plans to tackle our current economic crisis.  

As AFSCME President Gerald McEntee pointed out in his Huffington Post piece yesterday,

“President-elect Barack Obama’s call for bold action and civic engagement in response to our present crisis echoes FDR’s inspiring call to pull the nation out of the Great Depression and forge the New Deal. The video shows how our nation triumphed over economic crisis once before and can do so again by reinvesting in public service, providing health care for all Americans and growing the middle class.”

With a severe economic recession, an unemployment rate that reached 7.2 percent in December and continues to grow, and with more Americans falling into poverty, Americans are demanding action. Please sign our petition and make your voice heard.

The Make America Happen Campaign is dedicated to helping President-elect Obama revitalize our economy, provide health care for all, and strengthen the middle class. Our best days are still ahead of us.


So Very Screwed

I urge anyone who cares about California to listen to yesterday’s Which Way, LA.  It’ll make your hair stand up.  The program was about the decision by the Pooled Money Investment Board (basically Treasurer Lockyer, Controller Chiang and Schwarzenegger’s Finance Secretary Mike Genest) to shut down almost 2,000 public works projects, from schools for the deaf in Riverside to highway improvements along the 405, from hospital construction to transit projects and fire prevention services in heavily forested areas, affecting the entire state and as many as 200,000 jobs over the next several months.

The problem is that California is out of money. But it’s bigger than that.  The state floats revenue anticipation bonds to cover these kind of public works projects, and indeed the voters approved all kinds of infrastructure bonds in 2006.  The issue is that investors simply won’t buy them.  They believe that California will default on their commitments at some point or another (though it’s never happened before) due to the instability of the budget process.  Coming up with a work-around to get the budget more balanced (at the expense of hard-won labor rights for public employees, it appears) will go some of the way to fixing that, but NOT all the way.  We’re at a point of extremely low investor confidence.  California has the worst bond rating in the country.  So it’s not at all clear that the shovels will be picked up again even if the legislature passes and the Governor signs a budget deal.  The systemic budget cycle of catastrophe is what’s keeping investors away.  And of course, if the work-around falls apart or the courts strike it down, the state will be out of money in February and vendors will start receiving IOUs.

What’s more, if the Obama Administration offers massive infrastructure spending as part of a recovery package early in his term, EVEN THAT won’t necessarily get these projects going.  As I understand it, federal grants of this nature often require up-front money from the states, and the opportunity for matching funds if the state kicks in the first 25%.  At this time we don’t have that money, so we wouldn’t be able to access the match.  I assume Speaker Pelosi knows this, but it will be difficult to alter the standard practice on this kind of federal spending.

We’re talking about 200,000 lost jobs and an infrastructure shutdown at precisely the moment when infrastructure spending is seen as the key to economic recovery, with multiple obstacles to getting them going again.  And the state could be liable for whatever rises as a result of the shutdown:

Lockyer and other members of the Pooled Money Investment Board predicted that unless the state balances its budget, the funding shut-off will further harm the economy and expose the state to lawsuits.

“The likelihood of contract breaches is probably 98 percent,” Lockyer said […]

Also at financial risk is a new levee on the lower Feather River in Yuba County and a planned bolstering of Folsom Dam for flood protection.

Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda, said the suspension of state funding for the Feather River levee project, already under construction, would put 40,000 people at risk in an area that has flooded twice in the past 25 years […]

“This (could) put tens of thousands of people’s lives at risk, and I believe the state will be liable if there is any damage,” Logue said. “The state is responsible for those levees in the first place.”

This looks to me like an unending nightmare.  If I were Hilda Solis or any California politician, I would want to get the hell out of this state too.  It looks like it’ll fall into the ocean.  But hiding from the problem is a mistake.  This has the potential to take down whatever economic recovery we may see come January.  The federal government needs to provide direct relief, not grants, to the state, or at the very least guarantee the bond issues so that we can restart the issuance of revenue anticipation notes.  You can run, but you can’t hide from California.

Scared Crooked

I want to publicly thank Jordan Rau and Patrick McGreevey for ripping off my “Scared Straight” moniker to describe yesterday’s joint legislative session.  This is par for the course with the traditional media creatively borrowing the work of bloggers without attribution.  Hey, at least our site didn’t send us into bankruptcy.

UPDATE: Mr. Rau, in a somewhat snippy but professional email, tells me he doesn’t read the site and the “Scared Straight” idea was independently his.  Fair enough.

As for the effectiveness of the “Scared Straight” session, which posited that all state infrastructure projects would be shuttered by the end of the year without a new budget, and that the state would be essentially out of money by February or March, and that doing nothing will make the problem substantially worse… well, let’s just say it could have gone better.

The Republicans, who attended reluctantly, refused to accept tax increases, instead emphasizing the importance of limiting state spending and ferreting out waste and bloat in existing programs.

“I didn’t see a lot of productive work there today,” said Senate minority leader Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto). “I think it was more about trying to heighten the intensity around this thing and push people to a place that they have been trying to push us to for a long time, and I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) held aloft two weighty yellow tomes produced by the last effort to trim state government — Schwarzenegger’s 2004 California Performance Review, which suggested 279 ways to save money by reorganizing the state bureaucracy. Almost none were adopted.

Look!  The answer is just holding up the performance review and shuffling around the bureaucracy!!!  Ahem…

In his comments, Mac Taylor, the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst, described the folly of trying to close the gap either by taxes or through spending cuts alone. A tax-only solution would require increasing the sales tax by 2 cents, adding a 15% surcharge to the personal income tax and hiking corporate taxes by 2% — making all of those taxes the highest in the nation, he said.

Taylor said erasing the budget gap by cuts would require lawmakers to end all funding for the University of California and state universities, welfare grants, developmental health services, mental health and in-home supportive services.

It’s of course a red herring that Democrats are seeking a “tax-only” solution, one that Karen Bass sadly saw fit to perpetuate yesterday by stating “I think some of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle are living in denial, frankly.”  Um, every Democrat in the Legislature voted for a shared responsibility budget that raised revenue and implemented painful cuts.  If Bass doesn’t want to make the fight at all, she ought to let everyone know.  It’s not helpful to try and spread the blame equally.  We have a Yacht Party that has no intention of lifting a finger in the face of crisis.  In fact, they see it as their opportunity to drown government in the bathtub and eliminate the social safety net permanently.

This is why the state GOP is bordering on irrelevancy throughout the state (BTW, if you want to laugh, read Ron Nehring’s prescription for Republicans.  Clueless and pathetic).  Californians have thoroughly repudiated the Yacht Party vision.  However, this is true everywhere but in the legislative chamber in Sacramento, where the 2/3 budget and tax rule allows them to hijack the legislature.  In the long term, there is nothing to do but to capture a 2/3 majority and finish the irrelevancy project.  In the interim, California’s Democratic lawmakers are better off flying to Washington, DC, where at least they’ll have a chance of getting money for state and local governments in the new stimulus package, then staying in Sacramento, where they have no shot at breaking the stalemate.  That’s just reality.

Scared Straight didn’t work.  On to DC.

UPDATE: This is better from Karen Bass.  I’ll put the whole release on the flip, but she is, as she has been doing repeatedly throughout the crisis, calling for specific aid from DC.  A taste:

Meeting with California Congressional leaders and President-elect Obama’s transition staff, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass today outlined specific steps the federal government can take to boost California’s economy and ensure that the state can actually benefit from stimulus packages currently under discussion.

“Infrastructure investment is critical to getting the national and state economies back on track,” Bass said. “But the major spending cuts and tax increases that California and other states will need to balance our budgets could undermine the success of any infrastructure stimulus efforts. Today, I shared with Representative Barbara Lee from the Appropriations Committee and President-elect Obama’s transition office California’s  firm belief that direct federal assistance has to be part of an economic stimulus plan.”


Bass was accompanied by Assemblymember Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, who noted that California’s budget problems are directly linked to the revenue meltdown that followed the national recession and crises in the mortgage, credit and automotive sectors.

“We need federal aid because our troubled finances are the result of our nation’s economic downturn,” said Evans.  “$25 billion of our $28 billion deficit comes from a revenue drop after the October stock market crash.”

In their meetings Bass and Evans emphasized several specific avenues for potential federal aid:

Maximize California’s Federal Medicaid Assistance Percentage (FMAP). Although California has a large number of low-income and disabled individuals eligible for the program, we receive only the minimum 50% sharing ratio from the federal government.

Reauthorize the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Most states, including California, are overspending their SCHIP allocation and have exhausted their prior year unspent allocations. Reauthorization by March 2009 is critical.

Increase Food Stamp Funding. In California, roughly 1.7 million people receive food stamp benefits. Increased funding means more food purchasing power for children, adults and senior citizens.

Further Extend Unemployment Insurance Benefits. With an 8.2% unemployment rate California would benefit from a further UI extension, improved UI coverage and increased administrative funding for states to deal with the increasing number of applicants.

Increase State Criminal Alien Assistance Program Funding. California spends approximately $1 billion per year to incarcerate an estimated 18,000 undocumented felons. However, for the fiscal year 2008-2009, the state will only receive $111 million in reimbursement from the federal government.

Increase Pell Grant Funding. The credit crisis has made it much more difficult for families to qualify for student loans, especially private loans. For FY 09, the estimated overall Pell Grant shortfall is $3.5 billion. Pell Grant funding should be increased to ensure that adequate funds are available for all eligible students.

Bass and Evans also stressed the need for infrastructure investments as part of federal stimulus packages, including investment in transportation, housing, flood control and green technologies:

Transportation:  Funding for California’s highways, transit systems, passenger rail and goods movements projects.

Housing: Housing construction related activities, foreclosure prevention and mitigation and housing market improvement policies.

Clean and Green Economic Sector: The economic stimulus infrastructure program should provide funding to help California achieve our renewal portfolio standard (RPS) goals through the siting, planning, and building of transmission lines, as well as funding for green job training programs for displaced workers, at-risk youth and veterans.

Flood Control Projects: California is eligible to receive $15M for flood control feasibility studies and over $112M for flood control projects. Federal funding should be provided for these important public safety projects.

“California stakeholders, including the legislature, the governor, city and county governments and other interested parties, are coming together to develop a list of projects and priorities for immediate federal infrastructure stimulus,” Bass said. “It is in the state’s best interest to speak with a united voice wherever possible in this process, so it’s important to have the stakeholders develop and vet such a list before making the case for individual projects.”

Bass added that the Assembly also intends to work closely with its Congressional partners as reauthorization of the Transportation Act approaches. Because reauthorization has such a potential impact on California and its economy, Speaker Bass will appoint a special Assembly Working Group in 2009 to help advance California’s interests throughout the reauthorization process.

The Alarm Will Sound Monday Around 3:00

This could be just to get the freshman members of the legislature up to speed, but it sounds rather… serious.

The entire Legislature will meet in a joint session Monday in the Assembly chambers to discuss the state’s cash situation and overall budget dynamics with state fiscal leaders, according to Jim Evans, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

In a rare Budget 101 session, Treasurer Bill Lockyer, Controller John Chiang, Department of Finance Director Mike Genest and Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor will describe the consequences of delaying a compromise over the budget. They’re likely to discuss the possibility of issuing IOUs to state vendors and state workers, as well as layoff scenarios and other consequences.

If I had to guess, this will be one of those meetings where everyone is sat down and told that this is what they have to do or the state will fall into the ocean.  They should get some veterans from Scared Straight to run it.  Put the fear of God into these lawmakers.

Although, I can’t say whether or not it’ll be successful.  I mean, the Governor has already called a state of emergency and that didn’t shake anybody up.  Mike Villines is still sounding like a Yacht Party regular on budget issues:

Republican Assembly Leader Mike Villines (R-Clovis) took a dim view of a Democratic proposal to take reducing the threshold to pass a state budget to the voters.

Calling the proposed bill, which would ask voters to make a simple majority all that’s necessary for passing a budget, a Democratic power grab, Villines said doing so was a duck on responsibly addressing the state’s budget woes.

“Shutting Republicans out of the budget process will just make it easier for Democrats to pass more of the same reckless spending measures that have resulted in our current fiscal crisis.” Villines said in a statement released late Wednesday.”This will do nothing to improve our long-term budget picture, and will actually make things much worse.”

He still wants a spending cap, of course.

But Lockyer and Chiang have plenty of ammunition to throw around.  Failing a bailout from the Feds (which I think is a better bet at this point), state workers are about to be laid off or have their salaries frozen, and cuts to popular professions like teachers and nurses and cops and firefighters would be on the horizon in a protracted delay.  Whether or not this threat of potentially hundreds of thousands of angry Californians and their families marching in the streets (Lockyer and Chiang need to have a flair for DRAMA in this speech) is enough to overrule the Iron Law of Institutions remains to be seen.