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California begins printing IOUs

Nearly 29,000 IOUs worth $53 million will be sent, mostly to residents awaiting tax refunds. Finance officials set the interest rate at 3.75% for banks that accept the vouchers.

July 03, 2009|Eric Bailey and Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO — Deep in debt and short on cash, California on Thursday churned out its first batch of IOUs in nearly two decades amid grumbles from bankers, growing public outrage and scant progress in negotiations to resolve the state's widening budget deficit.

The state controller's office fired up a pair of printing presses and began rolling out nearly 29,000 IOUs totaling more than $53 million, most of them destined for residents around the state still awaiting income tax refunds. Recipients also include some businesses, pensioners, health clinics, college students and many others who get checks from the state.

"We never thought we would do it again," said Dorothy Cottrill, who manages check disbursement at the state controller's office and still remembers the last time the state spun out IOUs in the lean days of 1992.

The unusual move came hours after a panel of state finance officials set the annual interest rate for the IOUs at 3.75% for banks and other financial institutions willing to accept the vouchers. Some banks, including Bank of America, Citi and Wells Fargo, have agreed to honor the paper, but only until July 10. Many recipients could receive their IOUs after that date.

Those who don't have a bank that will cash the IOUs can redeem them from the state Oct. 2, or sooner if officials settle on a solution to the financial crisis.

Rodney K. Brown, president and chief executive of the California Bankers Assn., said the state's failure to resolve the budget crisis "has placed a tremendous burden on California's citizens, communities and banks."

State officials estimated that without a budget resolution they will have to issue $3.2 billion in IOUs in July and $1.65 billion in August.

State Controller John Chiang said the IOUs "are a sign that the state is being fiscally mismanaged" and a precursor to further credit downgrades for California, already the lowest-rated state on Wall Street.

The IOUs come two days after state Senate Republicans, with the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, blocked an eleventh-hour attempt by Democratic leaders to push through budget proposals that would have staved off the IOUs, at least temporarily.

Outside the Capitol, the mood was cross. Richard Blitz, a 73-year-old owner of a downtown Los Angeles variety store, said the IOUs seem a hollow gesture by a state government struggling for answers.

"It's candy for a hungry man," he said. "Banks will accept it for a week or two, but what will happen after that?"

Thomas Bent, medical director of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, expects to receive more than $10,000 in IOUs and may be forced to dip into reserves after the big banks stop accepting them.

"I can't pay bills with IOUs," Bent said. "I can't pay salaries with IOUs."

Los Angeles County officials said they should have enough cash in the bank to operate unfettered through the summer and would cash its IOUs with Bank of America. They said that after the July 10 cutoff, the county might become something of a bank, purchasing the IOUs from institutions and individuals, then holding them until they can reap the interest from the state.

The county performed a similar role when the state issued IOUs 17 years ago.

With the state economy hobbled, tax receipts waning and the budget deficit continuing to grow, the governor declared a fiscal emergency Wednesday and ordered state workers to take a third unpaid furlough day each month. He also issued a new list of proposed cuts to schools and public universities to address a deficit that his finance team now says has swelled to $26.3 billion.

On Thursday, the Department of Motor Vehicles announced it will close its offices each of the Fridays that remain in July to comply with Schwarzenegger's latest furlough order.

But the governor and legislative leaders remained divided on several fronts. Schwarzenegger wants to save money by tackling fraud and waste in the state's health and welfare programs and to deflate state worker pensions. Democrats are pressing to retain as much as possible the state's social safety net: welfare, children's health insurance, in-home support for the elderly and other programs.

The governor said during an appearance in Los Angeles that lawmakers apparently have decided "it is more important to protect state employees and to protect all of the different people and labor and special interests, rather than protecting . . . the people of California, the taxpayers."

A downcast Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) blamed Schwarzenegger for linking a budget solution to his push for a government overhaul.

"Frankly, I have really begun to be concerned," Bass said, adding that Schwarzenegger's priority seems to be "fixing his legacy."

An additional difficulty looms. Budget negotiators say it seems increasingly clear that a balanced budget could require suspending school funding guarantees embodied in Proposition 98 -- and wrangling with the powerful California Teachers Assn.

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