December 20, 2005
State Debt Burden High & Growing
New York Ranks Highest or 2nd Highest on Three Measures of Debt
Hevesi Calls for Debt Reform to Limit Growth in Debt
New York’s State-funded debt burden is relatively high and growing based on important measures of debt affordability, according to a study released today by State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi. Loopholes in the existing Debt Reform Act have allowed debt to grow faster than State income or population, indicating a trend of decreased affordability and the need for more meaningful reform.
The study analyzes New York’s debt using three measures of debt affordability: debt per capita, debt as a percent of personal income and debt service as a percent of State revenues. It shows that, according to two of the three measures, New York’s debt is substantially less affordable than it was four years ago. The study also compares New York to a group of 10 other large states and to the national median on each measure and finds New York’s debt is among the highest by all three measures.
“It is essential to borrow to keep our infrastructure sound and our economy competitive, but there is a limit to how much borrowing we can do,” Hevesi said. “This study shows that the State is past due implementing effective debt limits based on rational measures of what is affordable. The State’s recent credit rating upgrade means borrowing will cost less, but it should not encourage us to borrow more. In fact, Moody’s cited the State’s above average tax-supported debt as a credit challenge for New York. I urge the Governor and Legislature to pass our debt reform program, which will bring debt under control gradually, without disrupting important construction projects.”
Felix Rohatyn, former chairman of New York City’s Municipal Assistance Corporation, said “The State of New York has consistently shown a significant lack of fiscal discipline. Comptroller Hevesi’s reforms, including the concept of affordability of the debt, would provide an important improvement to the State's credit profile.”
Peter Peterson, senior chairman of the Blackstone Group and former Nixon Administration Commerce Secretary, said “Comptroller Hevesi is to be commended for producing an annual debt affordability statement from the State of New York. Its contribution to transparency and increased honesty in State financing is critical. This kind of report is a good way to spur the kind of debt reform debate that is needed in New York State and nationally. The more this issue is raised, and the more informed the public debate about it, the greater the chances are for a reform agenda that sets debt policy on the right track.”
Kathryn S. Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, the city’s leading business organization, said "The Partnership commends Comptroller Hevesi for bringing attention to the urgent need for debt reform and the way in which New York's huge debt burden detracts from our ability to commit needed resources to important budget priorities. The State must now move forward with the critical reforms necessary to reducing New York's crippling burden of decades-old debt.”
Daniel B. Walsh, president and CEO of the Business Council of New York State, said “Let us not mortgage the future away. At a time when we are trying to convince people to stay and work in New York, we run the risk of burying them in debt -- which translates to more high taxes. We support Comptroller Hevesi's plan and urge the Legislature to act on debt reform early in 2006.”
Charles Brecher, Research Director for the Citizens Budget Commission,
said “The Comptroller's focus on debt is right on. New York
has more debt than it can afford and we sorely need a policy that
brings the state’s debt down.”
The Comptroller’s debt reform proposal would mandate an annual debt affordability study conducted by an independent debt management board. In the meantime, the Comptroller’s Office will issue annual debt affordability studies, of which this is the first.
The report also noted the following:
The only way to stop New York’s addiction to debt is to acknowledge we have a real problem and to take action to reduce our dependence,” Hevesi said. “At some point, we will hit the limit of how much debt we can afford to repay. The recent transportation bond act approved by voters was the right kind of borrowing for the right reasons and will provide long-term assets for the State, but too much of our current debt has been issued for budget relief or to finance deficits.
“Lawmakers must proceed with caution as they move forward with the upcoming budget negotiations to avoid more debt for the wrong reasons,” Hevesi said.
The study notes that the Debt Reform Act of 2000 failed to control debt. Since the Act was passed, the State has added an additional $11.4 billion of State-funded debt outstanding, including $7.7 billion inappropriately borrowed for deficit financing and budget relief that is not included within the statutory definition of State-supported debt and, therefore, is not counted against the statutory cap. Furthermore, in setting up the limits, the law ignored all $35 billion of the debt outstanding at the time of its passage. If the State were to count all debt that is supported with State resources, it would have exceeded the statutory debt cap from the moment the law was enacted.
“This study clearly shows that our debt is out of line with the rest of the nation, and that we can’t afford to maintain this much debt if we are going to be competitive with other large states,” Hevesi said. “The costs of debt are threatening to crowd out the critical services taxpayers will need in the future.”
Hevesi’s debt reform proposal would mandate the fiscal discipline that is lacking in the Debt Reform Act of 2000. Under his proposal, the State would issue $1.8 billion less by State Fiscal Year 2009-10, resulting in $1.7 billion less State-Funded debt outstanding than currently planned and include the following provisions:
Hevesi’s study provides a comprehensive accounting of State-funded debt, which includes all debt where debt service (principal and interest) is paid directly or indirectly with State resources. Unlike other measures used for debt, this includes not just general obligation bonds and debt issued by public authorities on the State’s behalf, but also debt issued to refinance New York City’s debt from the 1975 fiscal crisis, borrowing for prior year school-aid claims and debt associated with the sale of the State tobacco settlement revenue stream.
“The debt reform law was riddled with loopholes, which means that existing policies and limitations will never effectively restrain the growth of debt,” Hevesi said. “Firm policies are needed now to ensure that our children and grandchildren will be able to afford the debt we are forcing them to repay in the future.”
Other facts about the State’s debt:
The study established a peer group that is composed of those states with the highest populations: California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, New Jersey and North Carolina.