SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – California is preparing to ask the federal government to buy up to $7 billion in notes in the face of a frozen municipal debt market, but the landmark U.S. financial rescue bill may thaw the market so states may resume borrowing to finance various programs and projects.
California, the biggest issuer of U.S. municipal debt and the most populous U.S. state, needs to sell its revenue anticipation notes to tide itself over before it collects fees and other income. Without short-term cash, the state may need to cut spending on services, including law enforcement.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday said California was not “out of the woods” after the $700 billion federal financial bailout bill was passed into law. But he called passage of the legislation, seen as key to calming market fears around the world, “extremely important” for California and the nation.
In a dramatic step, Schwarzenegger in a letter on Thursday told U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that California could need the federal government to buy $7 billion of state revenue anticipation notes stalled by a weak credit market.
“If we can’t get that loan through the normal course, we will go to the federal government and ask for help and we have already set that in motion,” he told a news conference.
The state’s liquidity squeeze also weighed on its Congressional delegation. “I can’t recall when that has happened before,” Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican said on the floor of the U.S. House. “That ought to give us some pause here.”
With the rescue bill signed, an aide suggested the outlook for California’s planned note sale will improve.
“We believe that the package … is going to restore confidence on Wall Street and add liquidity,” Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said, adding the state may soon be able to sell the debt to raise money as it normally does.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state’s Finance Department, was more guarded, but noted State Treasurer Bill Lockyer is poised to get the notes to market quickly as the state has only enough cash to its pay bills through late October. “We’ve got our track shoes laced-up and we’re ready to go,” Palmer said. “That said, we will have to see how far the credit window opens and under what conditions.”
REOPENING THE MUNICIPAL DEBT MARKET
California’s note sale was in peril because the municipal debt market was effectively closed, Lockyer said.
The market has all but frozen up over the past three weeks. Buyers have been scarce and tax-exempt yields have skyrocketed. Few deals have been priced and scores of issuers such as states, hospitals, school districts and others, have postponed their bond sales awaiting a market turn around.
Without access to the debt market, Lockyer, a Democrat, and Schwarzenegger, a Republican, warned California may have to delay payments for essential state services such as law enforcement. In his Oct. 2 letter to Paulson, Schwarzenegger warned California is not alone.
“The economic fallout from this national credit crisis continues to drain state tax coffers, making it even more difficult to weather the continuation of frozen credit markets for any length of time,” Schwarzenegger said.
Lockyer said on Wednesday the planned note sale was at risk from the uncertainty gripping financial markets. “Basically no credit is available — zero today,” he told Reuters.
Lockyer aims to offer up the notes the week of Oct. 13 if market condition permits.
The frozen public debt market was just one of many concerns driving public officials across California to support the financial rescue bill.
Many fear state assistance to local governments may be cut while local sales tax and property tax revenues are sagging. Many are concerned about the finances of public pension funds.
Amid the chaos in financial markets, partisan tempers that flared in California’s capital of Sacramento during the state’s marathon budget impasse, only recently settled, have cooled.
“We have been working with the governor’s office to explore every possible avenue to make sure the people of the state don’t suffer an interruption in services,” Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar said.
Palmer said Schwarzenegger and Lockyer are in full agreement about a potential note sale to the U.S. government: “There is absolutely no daylight between the governor and the treasurer in understanding the gravity of the situation.”
By Jim Christie
(Editing by Carol Bishopric; Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki in Washington and Karen Pierog in Chicago)