In his State of the State mes sage in January, Gov. Pater son announced that Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch would “take the lead in [developing] a four-year plan for fiscal recovery.”
Since few believed Paterson would still be in office after 2010, it seemed the lieutenant governor had embarked on an academic exercise with little relevance to this years budget process. Now, however, Ravitchs project is about to become much more relevant.
Ravitch reportedly had been planning to unveil his first recommendations this week -- a schedule that may now have to accommodate a transition to the governors office (or then again, maybe not, based on Patersons declared intention to stay put).
A key question either way: Will Ravitch put a deficit borrowing option on the table?
A hint to that effect appeared in the Feb. 28 New York Times profile of the lieutenant governor: The article recounted a phone call he took from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, asking about “a rumor that Mr. Ravitch supported the states taking on more debt.”
Ravitchs quoted reply: “I wouldnt be for that unless there were an institutionalized way of making sure it never happened again.”
It certainly has happened be fore -- over and over.
The precedent dates back to the mid-1970s, when the state created the Municipal Assistance Corp. to erase New York Citys accumulated deficit by refinancing the citys short-term debt with long-term bonds.
In 1991, the state created a MAC-like mechanism to mop up its own recurring red ink by issuing $4.3 billion in long-term debt to replace the annual “spring borrowing.” When the fiscal crisis of 2002-03 hit, the state once again borrowed to pay operating expenses -- this time more than $4 billion in bonds backed by future revenues from the national tobacco settlement.
The same year, the Legislature voted to authorize a whole new class of long-term bonds -- backed by a pledge of statewide sales-tax receipts -- to refinance New Yorks remaining MAC debt.
All this deficit borrowing, plus a little more, now accounts for roughly $10 billion of the $60 billion in outstanding state-funded debt.
Given the context, you might think yet another round of borrowing would be the furthest thing from Ravitchs mind. After all, hes supposed to be the fiscally responsible adult in the room. Yet, under the right conditions, this may not be as crazy as it sounds.
Ravitch, 76, knows how the city ultimately was saved by the mechanism of state-directed “financial control.” The same approach has since been used to tame fiscal crises in places like Yonkers, Nassau County and Buffalo. In each case, a government was allowed to issue bonds (financed by specific future revenues) to close a huge deficit -- but only as part of a bigger package of reforms that enforced better financial planning coupled with immediate austerity and long-term cost reduction (which, to be sure, did not turn out to be permanent).
But who can impose financial control on the state itself? One possible answer: the bond market.
That is, a new round of deficit bonds by New York state could include covenants designed to enforce a new, higher standard of good fiscal behavior. Any violation of the code would be defined as a “default” event -- the kind of doomsday no politician would like to face.
The key is to make sure the terms are strong enough to really change things. The following bond covenants just might make it worth thinking about:
* Mandate that state budgets come with a four-year financial plan balanced according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, the same rules that have applied to New York City for more than three decades. This would disallow the timing-related gimmickry that can occur under New Yorks current cash-basis budgetary accounting.
* Empower the governor to unilaterally “impound” spending to keep the budget balanced when cash runs short.
* Impose an airtight cap on state spending and debt -- starting with budget-reduction targets to bring spending in line with projected revenues over the next few years.
The last point is absolutely essential -- a deal-breaker if the Legislature wont accept it. A cap on spending and debt, backed by a drop-dead bond covenant, is the only way to force the Assembly and Senate to enact needed structural reforms in the political touchy areas of Medicaid, education and public employee compensation. Without spending control, more deficit borrowing would be a flagrant fiscal abuse.
The Legislature also should not be allowed to exploit fiscal reform as an opportunity to permanently raise taxes. Higher taxes will make the long-term economic picture worse, undermining hopes for achieving sustainable budget balance.
To say the least, this would be a very complex deal to negotiate in the few weeks remaining before the April 1 start of the 2010-11 fiscal year. Depending on how it is structured, Ravitchs plan for restoring long-term budget balance could be just the head start the next governor needs -- or it could turn into this decades tobacco-bond bailout, allowing the Legislature to avoid tough decisions and shift the bill into the future.
One way or another, it seems, the Paterson administration may leave a lasting mark on New York states finances after all.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/ravitch_rescue_aIdLeisUIJXklR56IrW5UK