California Debt Payments

I personally do not mind paying taxes. After all, I prefer not to live in anarchy, like to drink clean water, drive the roads, ride the rail, etc. All those are paid by my tax dollars. That doesn’t mean don’t care where those tax dollars go. One place I do care about is how much we pay for interest payments and loan servicing. In Sacramento, they call it Debt-Servicing.

As of November 2008, debt-servicing is expected to cost us about $6 billion this fiscal year, or about 5.8% of the state’s revenues. Since the early 1990’s debt-servicing generally cost between 3 and 5% of revenues. It is now expected to reach 9% or more in the next 5 years. And since the last set of projections made in November 2008, the special election was set and we are now urged to increase that debt service ratio further. Proposition 1C will cost us $350 to $450 million more each year for debt-servicing. The governor and Department of Water Resources are also drumming up support for $20 billion in upgrades to our water infrastructure (Peripheral Canal, part II). That would potentially cost $1.3 billion per year more in debt servicing. Those are not figured into the numbers, either.

More costs are expected. Worse yet, CALPERS “has been reporting an expected rate of return of 7.75 percent for the past eight years, and 8 percent before that…. Its annual return during the decade from Dec. 31, 1998, to Dec. 31, 2008, has been 3.32 percent, and last year, when markets tanked, it lost 27 percent.” (via Bloomberg). We’ll need to borrow to bail it out as well since the pension fund is guaranteed by the state treasury.

via  California’s Fiscal Outlook: LAO Projections 2008-09 Through 2013-14 (issued Nov. 2008)

“The Spending Forecast. General Fund spending for debt service on bonds used to fund infrastructure is estimated to be $4.3 billion in 2007â??08, $5 billion in 2008â??09, and $5.9 billion in 2009â??10. In total, debt service is projected to grow at an annual pace of 9.9 percent annually over the forecast period.

Debtâ??Service Ratio (DSR). [T]he ratio of annual General Fund debt-service costs to annual General Fund revenues and transfers [abbreviated DSR] — is often used as one indicator of the stateâ??s debt burden…. We estimate that:

Projected Debt-Service Ratio

  • The DSR for infrastructure bonds will rise to 7.8 percent in 2011â??12 before falling to 7.5 percent by 2013â??14. Thereafter, it will steadily decline as outstanding bonds are paid off.
  • If the stateâ??s deficitâ??financing bonds (known as Economic Recovery Bonds) are included in DSR, it would peak at 9.4 percent in 2011â??12. It is anticipated that these bonds will be paid off following our forecast period, at which time the DSR will drop down to reflect only infrastructure bonds.

As noted in the figure, the DSR we are projecting is considerably higher than in past years. In part, this reflects the sharp fallâ??off in General Fund revenues we are projecting, which has the effect of driving the ratio up for a given level of debt service. It also is important to note that to the extent additional bonds are authorized and sold in future years beyond those already approved, the stateâ??s debtâ??service costs and DSR would be higher than projected above. For example, each additional $1 billion of bonds authorized would add roughly $65 million annually to debtâ??service costs once they are sold.”

Debt is not evil. It is not the work of the devil or some other unearthly creature.

Debt is a useful tool to people and governments to build infrastructure that costs a lot of money up front but lasts for many years and, more importantly, provide the tools necessary to build an economy. Using it to pay down past debts and for operating costs is a misallocation of resources. It puts a the state into a precarious perch and positioned for a spiral downward that is hard to recover from. We should all be mindful that, instead of paying for necessities such as teachers, police, and repaving, we will end up cutting services to pay for the extra debt payments. I think returning to the historical norm should be the goal and will allow us to build and restore infrastructure without putting on too much debt servicing burden.