This has been anticipated for months. Watch bubble-state muni bond portfolios crater as ponzinomic reality sets in for California, Illinois and others.
Congressional Republicans appear to be quietly but methodically executing a plan that would a) avoid a federal bailout of spendthrift states and b) cripple public employee unions by pushing cash-strapped states such as California and Illinois to declare bankruptcy. This may be the biggest political battle in Washington, my Capitol Hill sources tell me, of 2011.
That’s why the most intriguing aspect of President Barack Obama’s tax deal with Republicans is what the compromise fails to include — a provision to continue the Build America Bonds program. BABs now account for more than 20 percent of new debt sold by states and local governments thanks to a federal rebate equal to 35 percent of interest costs on the bonds. The subsidy program ends on Dec. 31. And my Reuters colleagues report that a GOP congressional aide said Republicans “have a very firm line on BABS — we are not going to allow them to be included.”
In short, the lack of a BAB program would make it harder for states to borrow to cover a $140 billion budgetary shortfall next year, as estimated by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The long-term numbers are even scarier. Estimates of states’ unfunded liabilities to pay for retiree benefits range from $750 billion to more than $3 trillion.
Republicans in the House of Representatives already want to stop state and local governments from issuing tax-exempt bonds unless they are more forthright about these future obligations. Republican Representatives Devin Nunes and Darrell Issa of California and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have introduced a bill that would require state and local governments to estimate the size of public pension liabilities if their assets earned a more conservative rate of return than many plans currently expect. Failure to do so would result in the suspension of their ability to issue tax-exempt bonds
Greater transparency on these obligations can’t be bad. In fact, the federal government itself would do well to report deficit numbers not just on the current cash-in, cash-out basis but also incorporating the underfunding of promised pension and healthcare benefits to retirees.
But it’s about more than just openness. Some Republicans hope the shock of the newly revealed debt totals will grease the way towards explicitly permitting states to declare bankruptcy.
Give States A Way to go Bankrupt
The Best Option for Avoiding a Federal Bailout
With liquidation off the table, the effectiveness of state bankruptcy would depend a great deal on the state’s willingness to play hardball with its creditors. The principal candidates for restructuring in states like California or Illinois are the state’s bonds and its contracts with public employees. Ideally, bondholders would vote to approve a restructuring. But if they dug in their heels and resisted proposals to restructure their debt, a bankruptcy chapter for states should allow (as municipal bankruptcy already does) for a proposal to be “crammed down” over their objections under certain circumstances. This eliminates the hold-out problem—the refusal of a minority of bondholders to agree to the terms of a restructuring—that can foil efforts to restructure outside of bankruptcy.
The bankruptcy law should give debtor states even more power to rewrite union contracts, if the court approves. Interestingly, it is easier to renegotiate a burdensome union contract in municipal bankruptcy than in a corporate bankruptcy. Vallejo has used this power in its bankruptcy case, which was filed in 2008. It is possible that a state could even renegotiate existing pension benefits in bankruptcy, although this is much less clear and less likely than the power to renegotiate an ongoing contract.
Whether states like California or Illinois would fully take advantage of such powers is of course open to question. During his recent campaign, Governor-elect Jerry Brown promised to take a hard look at California’s out-of-control pension costs. But it is difficult to imagine Brown taking a tough stance with the unions. Even in his reincarnation as a sensible politician who has left his Governor Moonbeam days behind, Brown depends heavily on labor support. He doesn’t seem likely to bring the gravy train to an end, or even to slow it down much.
One last link...
Want to be a chairman? Answer 20 questions first.
Incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) distributed a four-page questionnaire to candidates for House chairmanships, asking them to detail everything from spending cuts to their specific plans for their committee to their commitment to enacting new GOP priorities.
Video - Public unions and you...
Polish posted this clip in comments, and it's very funny. Profanity warning.