Monday, June 11, 2012

The Bare Bones Era - 2012: Once upon a time...

This coming Friday is the Constitutional deadline for the California Legislature to adopt a balanced budget. Democratic legislative leaders, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, and their minions are making the final edits on the new fairy tale they'll call a balanced budget.

 Their creation would rival  Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" which is simply the story of a vain Emperor who hires two tailors who promise him the finest suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone unworthy of his position or otherwise hopelessly stupid. When the Emperor "dresses" in the new suit and parades before his subject, a child too young to understand the need to keep up pretenses blurts out the Emperor has no clothes.

Outside the State Capitol Building some people have been blurting out the fact that California's budgets have been unbalanced for years. But the rest of the folks, including those inside the Capitol Building as well as most California voters, keep up the pretense.

The latest to point out the naked obviousness of the California State Budget is the folks at the venerable Standard & Poor's (S&P) rating service. In a 12-page report released today Californian's can learn, but don't want to know, that:
...In our view, whether the state has had a genuinely balanced budget at any point in the past decade or more is debatable. But despite California's recurring budget problems being the subject of considerable news and analytic coverage, we believe their origins are not well understood.

A complex maze of constitutional and statutory provisions governing California's budget process seems to contribute to misconceptions about the state's finances, in our view. Some observers blame the state's fiscal morass on over-spending, large pension and retirement liabilities, or an excessive tax burden, which theoretically could weaken its economic climate. Whether the state's handling of these areas is appropriate public policy is different from the question of whether the state's approach in these areas contributed to its current fiscal position. ...In our view, retirement liabilities have contributed little if anything to California's current budget problems. Spending and taxes relative to the state's economy also do not appear to be causing the recent fiscal imbalance when viewed over the past several decades. Instead, we find that revenue generated by the state's tax system has been growing at a slower rate in recent decades while becoming more volatile. During the same years, the general fund has become the source of payment for an increasing share of the state's educational system as a result of a variety of direct and indirect changes in state law. In our view, it is mostly through these expansions of the general fund's scope of funding responsibility, which we consider particularly inflexible, that spending has contributed to fiscal imbalance....
Those words come from an organization that has no ideological agenda. To summarize, they say that the problem we have with our budget has nothing to do with spending or taxing too much, or from public employee pensions. They explain:
...Total tax revenues generated by the state's tax regime are volatile and insufficient for its current level of spending. But we don't see the state's existing spending level as the key source of its budget distress. In fact, the state is currently spending less as a share of its economy than it has at any point in the past 39 years.
Instead, they tell us that the problem is our tax structure:
...We can infer from these data that in 2010, when the PIT accounted for 51.5% of total general fund revenue, the state relied on the top 1% of taxpayers for 11% of general fund revenues. In 1979, the top 1.05% of taxpayers funded just 2.7% of general fund revenue.

The governor's revised budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 would rely on PIT for 63% of total general fund revenue. Applying the recent income distribution rates would imply that the portion of total general fund revenue from the top 1% of income earners would increase in fiscal 2013 to 13% or more. Sales and use tax, as a source of revenue, has moved in the other direction: it would equal 22% of general fund revenues in fiscal year 2013 (assuming the one-fourth cent SUT increase sought by the governor), down from 38% in 1979.
In great detail they provide a historical analysis offering without judgement data that reflects the fact that it was in 1978 California's voters took charge of the State's finances by approving Proposition 13. Their comment quoted earlier that "the general fund has become the source of payment for an increasing share of the state's educational system" which has "has contributed to fiscal imbalance" reflects, of course, the fact that the voters decided to commit general fund revenues to education through several propositions.

In other words, the people who have incurred incredible amounts of credit card debt buying consumer goods, who bought houses that were overpriced and which they couldn't afford, and who elect legislators and governors who cater to their prejudices really have no idea how to manage the finances of the State of California, home to one of the world's largest economies.

Being aware of the fact that the fairytale budget now being written will depend upon the voters approving a tax initiative measure proposed by the Governor and a teachers union, the S&P writers note:
The governor's tax initiative would temporarily increase income tax rates on the state's high-income earners and would raise the statewide SUT by one-fourth of a cent. Most of the projected revenue increase (93%) would come from the higher income taxes. By boosting total tax revenues, the governor's initiative would alleviate to some degree the budget pressure from the slowing revenue growth. On the other hand, by relying on high-income earners that generate a greater share of their overall income from capital gains, the tax initiative would likely exaggerate the volatility of the state's revenue base. To the extent policymakers used any breathing space afforded by the additional temporary revenue to pursue structural tax reforms, we think the tax initiative could ultimately be beneficial to the state's credit quality. If no reforms were undertaken during this period, the underlying deficit would presumably reemerge once the temporary tax rates expire. Under this scenario, we believe any general fund relief derived from the temporary tax increase could wind up being a missed opportunity.
This is, of course, a polite way of saying that the voters and their legislators are about to make things worse because they won't overhaul the tax system to impose a greater share of the burden on the middle class, particularly the upper middle class, using a stable source of tax revenue, say, oh, I don't know,... property taxes maybe?

Instead, the vast majority of California's voters generally want to tax someone other than themselves, such as the now almost mythical wealthy 1% which in California means all those high tech billionaires.
Economic benefits from the high-technology sector also appear to us to come at the cost of strikingly higher revenue volatility, which coincided with the dot-com boom in the late 1990s. That period, followed by bubble conditions in the housing market, led to a surge of capital gains as a share of income in the state. Windfall revenues from surging capital gains income are unpredictable, but as the state has lurched from one budget crisis to the next, lawmakers have typically spent these gains on recurring expenses. Income tax revenue from capital gains as a share of general fund revenues ranged from 3.0% to 14.8% between 2000 and 2010. In his revised budget proposal, the governor reduced the forecast for capital gains income and assumes essentially no growth in the equity markets for the duration of the calendar year. Although the tempered outlook could make the new revenue forecast more accurate, compared with earlier forecasts, it now includes additional revenue assumed from the recent Facebook initial public offering (IPO). The Facebook-related revenue in the forecast boosts state revenues by $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion, contingent on the outcome of the November 2012 tax initiative. But this revenue is also subject to capital market uncertainties. While setting aside any such revenue in a reserve may comport with a theoretical best practice, we believe that the politics of doing so might be impractical if it required spending cuts beyond those already deemed severe by policymakers. On balance, California's software and biotechnology fields attract significant investment, including, for the fourth year in a row, more venture capital investment than all other states combined. Therefore, we believe the high-technology sector benefits the state's long-term credit quality, but the greater reliance on high-income earners that it brings exposes the general fund to the vagaries of the capital markets.
In other words, funding government using taxes depending upon year-to-year swings in profits made in capital markets is foolish. And what they observe is:
Apart from a resurgent economic-driven change, we believe that the only realistic near-term potential for increased tax revenues under consideration is the governor's tax initiative, which would exaggerate the state's revenue reliance on a portion of the taxpayer base we already consider concentrated.
This is, after all, California where we have Governor Moonbeam and the Democratic Legislature about to publish a fairytale and have the voters help them keep up the pretense of a balanced budget.

In the meantime, the ideological opposition is telling voters solve the budget problems by reducing pensions. The S&P writers note:
The state's pension liabilities, while large, contribute little if anything to its current budget predicament.
We are, after all, the home of the Magic Kingdom and vote as if we live in Fantasyland. And so our story for 2012 begins: "Once upon a time...."

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