California’s real estate market experienced some wild swings that pushed housing prices up faster than anywhere in the nation before plummeting in response to the financial crisis. Local government revenues rode the same boom-bust cycle.
Since going through a three-year bankruptcy process, a lot of wonderful initiatives have taken place in Vallejo, California – a city of 118,000 people in the northern end of the San Francisco Bay. After the city’s police force was cut down over 300 community watch groups formed to protect neighborhoods. The city recently launched Nextdoor, a private social network platform for neighborhood communication. In the most substantial move, the city has established a first in the nation “Participatory Budgeting” process. It was described by a participant as:
The state of California received some good news this week when credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s upgraded the state’s long-term rating to “A” on its $73 billion in general obligation (GO) bonds (a single A rating is four notches below AAA). It’s certainly a feel-good moment for Governor Jerry Brown and other public officials. The municipal bond market has been anticipating the state’s improving credit position for the last year, as you can see in the chart above. It shows that the extra interest cost (over the AAA gold standard) on the state’s bonds has declined in the last year. The Golden State is getting some sunshine in muniland.
The Golden State, under the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown, has done a remarkable job of managing its finances through the worst economic period since the Great Depression. Because the state was the epicenter of the housing bust, its fiscal meltdown was one of the most severe in the nation. Although three California cities have declared bankruptcy (with others to possibly come) the state deserves a lot of credit for getting through a very rough period.
In the past year, three California cities have filed for bankruptcy. This casts a pall on the bonds of other California cities, because investors wonder if they also contain buried fiscal issues. In an effort to create more transparency, a new open source ratings project was recently launched:
California narrowly averted its own fiscal cliff last week when voters approved a state ballot issue – Proposition 30 – that raised income and sales taxes. Income taxes will increase 3% for seven years on those earning over $250,000, and a supplemental 0.25% sales tax increase will take effect four years. Prop 30 is hoped to generate $8.5 billion in annual revenue and cover about half of the state’s deficit. The other half will be made up through budget cuts.
The crisis that public pensions face over funding shortfalls is becoming increasingly important in the media. Add to that some concerns about the generous benefits that some public retirees receive. As state after state struggles with new controls on benefits and takes steps to address plan shortfalls, the issues become mired in more and more complexity.
The public pension fund crisis is dire across most of America. Some states and local governments have well funded pension plans, but on a national basis pension plan shortfalls are estimated to be in the trillions of dollars. Public resources are increasingly being diverted to pay for pensions. Cities with large public pension plans had median contribution rates of 12.7 percent of payroll in 2009, up from 10.3 percent in 2002 (GAO page 15). This is projected to climb as more public workers retire. As pension costs rise, state and local governments either have fewer resources to spend or must raise taxes to maintain a steady level of services.
Some residents of Stockton, California are upset over the city’s decision to eliminate free healthcare benefits for public retirees. Michael Fitzgerald, a columnist for the Record, Stockton’s newspaper, wrote last week about the policy change: