Monday, August 5, 2013

States And Local Governments Owe $7 Trillion: About $22,000 Per Person: Legal Loopholes And Misleading Government Accounting Hide Borrowing From Citizenry: Unfunded Public Sector Retirement Benefits Account For Half Of The Debt

From City Journal, "The Indebted States of America: States and localities owe far, far more than their citizens know." by Steven Malanga:
Just a few years ago, most experts estimated that state and local governments owed about $2.5 trillion, mostly in the form of municipal bonds and other debt securities. But late last year, the States Project, a joint venture of Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, projected that if you also count promises made to retired government workers and money borrowed without taxpayer approval, the figure might be higher than $7 trillion.

Most states have restrictions on debt and prohibitions against running deficits. But these rules have been no match for state and local governments, which have exploited loopholes and employed deceptive accounting standards in order to keep running up debt.
Today, states and localities engineer most of their borrowing through what [Columbia Law School’s Richard] Briffault calls “non-debt debt,” a term for bonds designed to avoid legal restrictions on borrowing.
Briffault estimates that such evasions are responsible for three-quarters of state debt and two-thirds of municipal obligations incurred through bond offerings. The growth of this kind of borrowing helps explain why state and local debt outstanding from municipal securities has blasted from $2 trillion (in today’s dollars) in 2000 to nearly $3 trillion today—real growth of 50 percent in little over a decade.
If you define municipal debt simply as what states and localities have borrowed, the total nationwide comes to about $3 trillion. Nevertheless, these governments actually owe more than twice that much, according to estimates from groups like the States Project. The reason for the discrepancy is that states and localities carry another kind of debt—promises of retirement benefits to public-sector workers—and they have radically underfunded the systems that must pay for it. As Boston University Law School professor Jack Michael Beermann wrote recently in the Washington and Lee Law Review, the situation is a “double whammy” for future taxpayers, who not only will have to pay for “the consumption of prior generations” but also will receive “reduced government services” as increased spending on retirement debt crowds out other programs.

Source: City Journal
Estimates of state and municipal debt have been growing for another reason: more and more independent experts are exposing local governments’ faulty accounting standards. The Chicago-based Institute for Truth in Accounting observes that governments are balancing their budgets using “antiquated budgeting rules and accounting standards,” adding that “hundreds of billions of dollars of unfunded retirement systems’ liabilities are not reported on the face of states’ balance sheets.”

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