Which May Not Be Accepted by Many Banks
January 26th, 2009
The controller says California is down to Plan D on its checklist of paying bills. Its cash reserves are piddling; the special funds it borrows from are tapped out, and no one in the private sector is going to lend it any cash at a reasonable interest rate.
That leaves what in state government circles are called “payment deferrals” and what in real life is called “stiffing your creditors.”
In this case the creditors include income taxpayers expecting refunds, college students waiting on state aid, counties that operate public assistance programs, and companies that sell goods and services to state agencies.
Chiang has said he won’t write $3.7 billion worth of checks for those and other state programs if legislators and the governor haven’t reached a deal by next Sunday to close the budget gap.
The controller said he must conserve what little cash the state has to be able to make constitutionally required payments to schools and interest payments to state bondholders.
“This is a very painful decision,” Chiang said. “It pains me to pull this trigger, but it is an action that is critically necessary.”
The state’s cash situation is somewhat analogous to your family emptying its checking account, drawing down the savings account to cover checks, and only having enough left to pay either the mortgage or the utility bill.
Of course you could then file for bankruptcy protection. Under federal law, the state can’t do that, but it can do something you can’t: Issue IOUs.
Known formally as “registered warrants,” the state’s IOUs are just that. Someone – a vendor, a landlord, the water company – who is owed money by a California government agency gets a piece of paper that says the state owes them money, and will pay them the amount plus interest at some point in the future.
The only time since the Great Depression that the state has issued IOUs was in 1992, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. About 1.6 million of them, worth a total of $3.8 billion, were issued during a two-month budget tiff between then-Gov. Pete Wilson and legislators.
Instead of paychecks, about 100,000 state workers got IOUs, which proved somewhat harder to cash. After the first month, many of the state’s major banks quit accepting the warrants, saying the 5 percent interest they were paid wasn’t worth the arduous processing needed to redeem them.
And after state employees sued, a federal judge ruled that paying workers with IOUs violated federal labor law. The state agreed in 1996 to give the affected workers extra paid vacation to compensate.
If IOUs are issued this year, they won’t go to state workers. They also might not be accepted by many banks.