California Has A Negative Net Worth in the "Hundreds" of Billions of Dollars

The Sacramento Bee has a headline that reads: "State auditor: California's net worth at negative $127.2 billion".

As troubling as that headline is, the most startling material is buried in the last paragraph of the article:

The list of long-term obligations did not include the much-disputed unfunded liabilities for state employees' future pensions, nor the $60-plus billion in unfunded liabilities for retiree health care. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board and Moody's, a major bond credit rating house, have been pushing states and localities to include unfunded retiree obligations in their balance sheets and were they to be added to California's, it could push its negative net worth down by several hundred billion dollars.

Furlough Fridays: Coming Back to Haunt Taxpayers

Many remember when in 2009 Governor Schwarzenegger announced that state workers would not come into work on one Friday a month in an effort to cure short-term budget ills.

From the LA Times:

SACRAMENTO — The decision to furlough state employees during the financial crises of recent years may have saved money in the short term but will leave a big bill down the road, the Legislature's budget advisors said Thursday.
The state will owe $1 billion extra to many workers when they retire or quit, for vacation time that went unused while they were being forced to take unpaid days off.
The furloughs were intended to save $5 billion from February 2009 to July 2013, effectively cutting workers' pay 5% to 14%. The $1 billion for unused vacation — some in excess of state accrual limits — will eat into those savings, according to a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
A spike in unused vacation time drove payouts to a historic $270 million during the 2011-12 fiscal year, two-thirds more than when the furloughs started. In June 2012, the average state employee had about 53 vacation days saved, 51% more than when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger first ordered forced absences in 2009.
Mike Genest, who worked as Schwarzenegger's finance director, said he wasn't surprised by Thursday's report. It was known that furloughs might simply delay some costs, he said, but they were the best option given the severity of the state's budget woes.
"It was a political judgment call," he said. "Some of us knew we were just borrowing money from the future."

A Depressing Look at the CA Sec. of State's Office: why it takes CA 43 days to do what TX does in 5

I've always wondered why it takes week for the CA Sec. of State's Office to process business filings. Often these delays prevent business owners from getting licenses and opening bank accounts.  I was surprised to learn (not really though) that it only takes New York seven days and Texas five days to process similar filings.

Recently, Debra Bowen, the Secretary of State was grilled in front of the CA legislature and it wasn't a pretty picture.  It revealed an office so out of date that it actually relies on 3 x 5 index cards as its filing system.

More from the OC Register:

"I almost needed smelling salts the first day I took a tour of the Secretary of State's office," said Bowen, a former Marina Del Rey legislator who was first elected California's chief elections officer and business records clerk in 2006. "It was just so incredibly paper-driven."
Bowen's office has taken heat in recent days after it was revealed that her staff was taking 43 days to process business filings. As Assembly Budget Committee staff reported, this backlog delays businesses from starting up or hiring employees and postpones business tax payments.
New York processes such documents in seven days, committee staff found. Texas, five days.
"There is a scoreboard," Daly said, referring to the other states' better turnaround times. "At some point, the time for excuses is over."
Bowen says her office needs $8.9 million in new money over the next fiscal year, and millions more after that, to fund dozens of new staff positions necessary to handle the workload and reduce the backlog until a new, digital filing system comes online in 2016.
That new system, known as California Business Connect, will create a central records database and put the Secretary of State's services on the Internet. But Bowen complained that the state's procurement process is needlessly protracted and requires her to spend "a ridiculous amount of money" just on the paperwork to "get the project on the docket to get done."
"We spend a year getting the feasibility report done. Then it takes a several months after that to hire a contractor to write the request for proposal. That's another three to four months – it could be even longer than that," Bowen told the subcommittee. "That one was approved by the Legislature in July of 2011. The request for proposal, the RFP, was released in August 2012. Draft bids from vendors were submitted in late January of this year and are currently being reviewed.
"So ... the normal processing time for a large IT project ... you get to 2016," she said. "That has to be changed."
Further complicating matters, Bowen said, is her office building's lack of outlets and her staff's requirement to use the state Department of General Services to procure rewiring services. She specifically asked the committee for authority to pursue the rewiring on her own, without the assistance of the department, which acts as the "business manager" for other state agencies.

Over-Hyped Sequestration Amounts to One Week's Worth of Spending Cuts

Given the amount of doom and gloom that is reported surrounding the impending sequestration cuts, one may be surprised to learn that the cuts will result in a decrease in projected spending by only 2.3%.  Hardly an unmanageable amount.

Put another way, it would be equivalent to having Federal spending take a week long holiday.

Despite these figures, sequestration has been presented by politicians and the media as the next "cliff" (didn't we just avert one a few weeks ago?).  For instance, just this weekend, the White House released a menacing 7 page memorandum listing all the programs, services and agencies that would be affected.  Obviously, the list is meant to incite emotion and evoke fear.  After all, the document tells us that their will be cuts to food safety inspectors, airport security, national parks, education, amongst many, many more.

As I read through the list, I couldn't help but remember a similar menacing list produced by Governor Jerry Brown in his campaign to pass Proposition 30.  Californians were told that if we didn't vote for increased taxes, key government services would be shut down.  In fact, the Governor even released the names of dozens of state parks that were to be "closed" in the event that Proposition 30 did not pass.  These scare tactics apparently worked and Proposition 30 ultimately passed.  Of course, its passage seemed to only wet the appetite of those who have always sought increased taxes--within weeks the democratic super majority was alluding to other ways to increase revenues.

The pattern is clear.  If you want create the perception that a small decrease in spending will have terrible consequences, you have to place on the chopping block those services that are most near and dear to taxpayers--public safety.  I am not saying that public safety will actually be cut, but the government will publicize "planned" cuts to public safety more than anything else.  I suspect though that sequestration will not result in a drastic drop in public safety as the politicians would lead us to believe.

Surprise, Surprise...Prop 30 Funds Steered Towards Salaries and Benefits--Less Than Half For Education

Governor Brown's budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year has a big surprise for those who voted for its passage, believing that the bulk of the funds would be used for education.  Of the $6 billion raised by Prop 30, only $2.7 billion would go to K-14 eduction.  In addition, the budget has at least $1.3 billion for salaries and benefits to state employees who don't work in education and would generally cease the one furlough day a month policy.  The budget also includes $502 million for negotiated pay raises and health care benefit contribution hikes for state employees.

The OC Register points out that the advertising for Prop 30, however, led voters to believe that this wouldn't be the case:

Yet the Prop. 30 campaign led voters to believe that the majority of the money from higher sales and income taxes would go to schools. One TV ad run by Gov. Brown's official Prop. 30 campaign, "Teachers for 30," featured several teachers explaining the need for the money for schools. Then state Controller John Chiang was shown, assuring voters: "With strict accountability, money must go to the classrooms and can't be touched by Sacramento politicians." The spot ended with Gov. Brown positioned in the midst of 17 school kids about age 8, as he implored, "For the students, and for California's future, vote Yes on 30." The kids cheered.

Is the New $450,000 Threshold of "Increased" Taxes Political Fiction?

From the Wall Street Journal, Under the new law, some of the steepest tax increases may fall on upper-middle class earners with incomes just above $250,000.

...

A store manager married to a dentist with a combined income of, say, $350,000 may pay a higher tax rate under the new law than if the tax code had simply reverted back to the Clinton-era rates that Mr. Obama championed. Those earning more than $450,000 would see their de facto tax rate rise to about 41% under the new law, not 39.6%. Add in the new ObamaCare investment taxes and the tax rate on interest income is close to 45%.

...

Democrats are advertising the higher $400,000-$450,000 threshold as a victory for affluent taxpayers in blue states. But with PEP and Pease these Democrats are hammering their own constituents via the backdoor.

If your wondering just how much your taxes will be affected in 2013 compared to 2012, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in Washington has updated an easy-to-use calculator that will help you estimate your 2013 tax bill. It offers results for typical taxpayers from the lowest to the highest incomes, and also has a feature allowing users to create their own example.  It’s available here.

Are Tax Hikes The Cure For CA Budget Woes?

One can only wait and see how the Passage of Prop 30 will affect California, but politcal cartoonist Michael Ramirez has his own take.

(Coutesy of National Review)

As Goes San Bernardino, So Goes CA?

There is an absolute must-read article from Reuters that examines San Bernardino's downward spiral in exhaustive detail.

Below are some of the tidbits that were shocking:

Yet on close examination, the city's decades-long journey from prosperous, middle-class community to bankrupt, crime-ridden, foreclosure-blighted basket case is straightforward — and alarmingly similar to the path traveled by many municipalities around America's largest state. San Bernardino succumbed to a vicious circle of self-interests among city workers, local politicians and state pension overseers. 

Little by little, over many years, the salaries and retirement benefits of San Bernardino's city workers — and especially its police and firemen — grew richer and richer, even as the city lost its major employers and gradually got poorer and poorer.

...

In bankrupt San Bernardino, a third of the city's 210,000 people live below the poverty line, making it the poorest city of its size in California. But a police lieutenant can retire in his 50s and take home $230,000 in one-time payouts on his last day, before settling in with a guaranteed $128,000-a-year pension.

 ...

San Bernardino's biggest creditor, by far, is Calpers, the public-employee pension fund. The city says it owes Calpers $143 million; using a different calculation, Calpers says the city would have to pay $320 million if it left the plan immediately.
Second on the city's list of creditors are holders of $46 million worth of pension bonds -- money borrowed in 2005 to pay off Calpers. The total pension-related debts are more than double the $92 million owed to the city's next 18 largest creditors combined.
Complicating matters were obscure budgeting procedures that left residents in the dark. The word "pension" doesn't appear once in the most recent 642-page budget, and retiree costs are buried in detailed departmental line items.

Yet even in bankruptcy, reducing pension costs by cutting benefits is not an option - at least according to Calpers.
The pension agency says the benefits are carved in stone, arguing that from the day a worker is hired, the pension plan in place on that day for that person can never be reduced in value under any circumstances, including municipal bankruptcy.
That argument has never been tested in court: When the Bay Area city of Vallejo went bankrupt in 2008, it declined to challenge the pension payments to Calpers, in part because of the daunting legal costs involved.
But the pension-bond insurers who are now on the hook for defaulted bonds in both Stockton and San Bernardino have signaled their intention to do battle with Calpers in bankruptcy court. San Bernardino, in an unprecedented move, has already stopped making payments to Calpers.

What the Passage of Prop 30 Means for You

Proposition 30 was passed on Tuesday carrying about 54% of the vote.  Here's what it means.

There will be an across the board sales tax increase from a base rate of 7.25% to 7.5% for the next four years.  This will have an impact on all consumers.

In addition, there was a significant increase in marginal rates for those making more than $250,000, which will be retroactive to the beginning of 2012 and last for seven years. 

Under Prop 30 the new brackets for single filers will look as follows:

             In excess of $250,000----10.3% (up from 9.3%)
             In excess of $300,000----11.3% (up from 9.3%)
             In excess of $500,000----12.3% (up from 9.3%)

Proposition 30 will keep California in first place for having the highest state sales tax in the nation and should move California from second (behind Hawaii) to first place in state income tax. 

The biggest question I have, however, is will this seven year "temporary" tax increase be enough or will Governor Brown and his new super-majority legislature push for additional tax increases. Also, is Proposition 13 also soon to be on the chopping block?  Time will only tell. 

So Did The Wall Street CEOs Actually Call For Tax Hikes to Fix the Deficit?

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published a letter from over 100 major CEOs apparently calling for tax hikes in an effort to reduce the deficit.

Almost immediately, the letter was cited as proof that any position which did not accept the idea of tax increases as a prime vehicle to decrease the debt was indefensible. 

The Wall Street Journal editorial board, has taken a different interpretation in its editorial:  CEOs to the Tax Rescue? Liberals Confuse a Pro-Growth Plea With a Tax-Rate Hike:

Two words: game, change. On Thursday a 100-strong group of major business leaders did a Warren Buffett and endorsed a big tax hike, even if it means they'll have to pay more themselves. The support of this CEO lobby could break the Republican dead-enders who oppose all taxes and finally clear the way for a glorious bargain of tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the deficit. 
If you've seen this news story, don't worry. It's all a fantasy, albeit one that appeals to certain political types, who are reading their own priorities into the latest CEO petition on debt and taxes. The reality is that the chief executives who this week signed on to a "core set of principles" on budget reform are more than anything else scorching President Obama's lack of leadership. ...
The CEOs favor a framework that would "stabilize the debt as a share of the economy, and put it on a downward path." ... The CEOs also want to "reform Medicare and Medicaid" and do more to control national health spending. ... Only then—as a condition of structural entitlement reform, including Social Security—do the CEOs back "comprehensive and pro-growth tax reform, which broadens the base, lowers the rates, raises revenues and reduces the deficit." Note that reference to tax reform and lower rates, not the standard Beltway trade of certain tax increases for the promise of spending cuts that never happen.
The folks who are treating this as an extraordinary political breakthrough have apparently come down with a case of Romnesia, to borrow the President's coinage: Mitt Romney has been running on exactly such a tax reform for nearly a year, using exactly those principles....
What the CEOs we know really want is faster economic growth, the policies to promote it, and a Washington political class that can pass those policies. The politicos claiming that this rather anodyne CEO debt proclamation will make it easier for Mr. Obama to "raise taxes" are the same ones who merely want him to raise taxes.

 Hat Tip (Tax Prof.)

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