"The most alarming thing about the state issue is the level of complacency," Meredith Whitney, one of the most respected financial analysts on Wall Street and one of the most influential women in American business, told correspondent Steve Kroft
Whitney made her reputation by warning that the big banks were in big trouble long before the 2008 collapse. Now, she’s warning about a financial meltdown in state and local governments.
"It has tentacles as wide as anything I’ve seen. I think next to housing this is the single most important issue in the United States, and certainly the largest threat to the U.S. economy," she told Kroft.
Asked why people aren’t paying attention, Whitney said, "’Cause they don’t pay attention until they have to."
Whitney says it’s time to start.
California, which faces a $19 billion budget deficit next year, has a credit rating approaching junk status. It now spends more money on public employee pensions than it does on the state university system, which had to increase its tuition by 32 percent.
Arizona is so desperate it sold off the state capitol, Supreme Court building and legislative chambers to a group of investors and now leases the buildings from their new owner. The state also eliminated Medicaid funding for most organ transplants.
Then there’s New Jersey. It has the highest taxes in the country, a $10 billion deficit and a depressed economy when first-year Governor Chris Christie took office. But after looking at the books, he decided to walk away from a long-planned and much-needed project with New York and the federal government to build a rail tunnel into Manhattan. It would have helped the economy and given employment to 6,000 construction workers.
Gov. Christie acknowledged that’s a lot of jobs. "I cancelled it. I mean, listen, the bottom line is I don’t have the money. And you know what? I can’t pay people for those jobs if I don’t have the money to pay them. Where am I getting the money? I don’t have it. I literally don’t have it."
Asked if this is going on all over the country, Christie told Kroft, "Yes. Of course it is. It’s not like you can avoid it forever, ’cause it’s here now. And we all know it’s here. And the federal government doesn’t have the money to paper over it anymore, either, for the states. The day of reckoning has arrived. That’s it. And it’s gonna arrive everywhere. Timing will vary a little bit, depending upon which state you’re in, but it’s comin’."
And nowhere has the reckoning been as bad as it is in Illinois, a state that spends twice much as it collects in taxes and is unable to pay its bills.
"This is the state of affairs in Illinois. Is not pretty," Illinois state Comptroller Dan Hynes told Kroft.
Hynes is the state’s paymaster. He currently has about $5 billion in outstanding bills in his office and not enough money in the state’s coffers to pay them. He says they’re six months behind.
"How many people do you have clamoring for money?" Kroft asked.
"It’s fair to say that there are tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people waiting to be paid by the state," Hynes said.
Asked how these people are getting by considering they’re not getting paid by the state, Hynes said, "Well, that’s the tragedy. People borrow money. They borrow in order to get by until the state pays them."
"They’re subsidizing the state. They’re giving the state a float," Kroft remarked.
"Exactly," Hynes agreed.
"And who do you owe that money to?" Kroft asked.
"Pretty much anybody who has any interaction with state government, we owe money to," Hynes said.
That would include everyone from the University of Illinois, which is owed $400 million, to small businessmen like Mayur Shah, who owns a pharmacy in Chicago and has been waiting months for $200,000 in Medicaid payments. Then there are the 2,000 not-for-profit organizations that are owed a billion dollars by the state.
Lutheran Social Services of Illinois has been around since 1867 and provides critical services to 70,000 people, mostly the elderly, the disabled, and the mentally ill. The state owed them $9 million just before Thanksgiving, and they nearly had to close up shop.
Asked how long his organization can go on like this, Rev. Denver Bitner, the president of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, told Kroft, "Well, we wonder that too because we really don’t know."
He says they were forced to tap their entire line of credit and all their cash reserves before the state would finally pay them as a hardship case.
"It has to be that you’ve sold off all your assets, you have borrowed from everybody that you can borrow from, and then, we’ll think about it," Rev. Bitner explained.
And according to Bitner, that’s even though the state owes his organization the money.
"The first words out of my mouth are usually an apology, because they have been you know put in this situation, that is really unacceptable. And you know there is very little I can do or say other than apologize," Comptroller Dan Hynes said.
It’s not just the social safety net that Hynes has to worry about: there have been Illinois legislators that have been evicted from their offices because the state didn’t pay their rent, and stories about state troopers being turned away from gas stations because the owners refused to take their state credit cards.
"The state’s a deadbeat," Kroft remarked.
"Yeah. I mean, the state of Illinois is known as a deadbeat state. This is a reputation that has taken us years to earn and we’ve reached, you know, the heights of, I think, becoming the worst in the country," Hynes said.
In the early 1990s, Saskatchewan was on the verge of bankruptcy because the Grant Devine governments of 1982-1991 would not curb government spending and the deficit for a province under a million people grew to over one billion dollars. The incoming NDP government of Roy Romanow was more pragmatist than idealistic and spent almost a decade trying to get the province on solid financial footings. That journey was documented in the book Minding the Public Purse by the Hon. Janice MacKinnon, who was the Finance Minister during the most of the cuts. Like I said, it was a decade of austerity. There was funding cuts to healthcare, almost no building on the University of Saskatchewan or University of Regina campuses, a higher number of students in classrooms, longer waiting lists, rural hospitals closing, decaying highways, and it was really a lost decade. Yes Saskatchewan did grow a bit during this time but with our financial house in disarray, growth was hard.
MacKinnon talks about how close Saskatchewan was to defaulting on it’s loans. With the precarious state of the Canadian economy (pre-Chretien and Martin), there was some legitimate concerns that this could lead to an IMF bailout and intervention. Luckily it never came to that but it did mean higher tuitions, higher taxes, more fees, a lot of lost opportunities that we are just now seeing as a province.
What’s scary is that the deficit numbers coming out of the U.S. states are worse and for all intents and purposes, the US economy is soon going to be in as bad or as worse shape as the Canadian economy was in the early 1990s. I keep looking at the debt crisis that is swamping the EU economies and I can’t help but wonder until how long it is that you see places like Michigan, Illinois, and California needing massive financial bailouts. Good grief, California has even looked at dissolving as a state and becoming a territory again (I don’t think it was a serious option).
How many lost decade will the United States go through to pay for wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the greed of the banks? It took over a decade to recover from Vietnam and the state and cities economies weren’t in such tough shape. This could either take decades or it could be the start of the long decline of the United States as a economic power.
The good news is that from Saskatchewan and Alberta’s experience is that as voters, we understood that it had to be done. Whether it was the right wing Ralph Klein in Alberta or the centre-left Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan, we knew it had to be done and as a whole, we stood by them as they did the heavy lifting and hard cutting. The bad news for many states is that Saskatchewan has a natural inclination to support the NDP and Alberta has a natural inclination to vote Progressive Conservative which means that during the tough times, the provinces returned (or in Alberta’s case, they only ever elect Conservatives) what they knew and trusted during rough times. If you don’t have you could have a series of one term administrations that moved from spend to cut to spend to cut for short term partisan advantage which could derail or destroy the entire process. Too make spending cuts that are needed, you need a really strong majority which is not a strength of the American system which features a lot more checks and balances.
I can’t see many states turning themselves around.