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California Finally Runs Out of Cash


Tries to convince creditors that IOUs are just as good as money.

It's official: California is broke.

For months, the most populous US state has been in the throes of a historic budget crisis, as lawmakers have repeatedly failed to agree on how to resolve a $24 billion deficit.

What was once the country's richest state is preparing to issue IOUs to a host of creditors, according to the Financial Times. Among the dubious recipients of these IOUs: Contractors, information-technology companies, and food-service groups that cater to prisons. Funding for education and interest payments on its bonds are guaranteed by state law.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is taking a hard line with legislators, accusing them of offering up a piecemeal solution to the state's woes: "I will veto any majority tax increase bill that punishes taxpayers for Sacramento's failure to live within its means. It's time for the legislature to send me a budget that solves our entire deficit without raising taxes," the Governator said yesterday.

Lawmakers appear blindsided. It's almost like the state went broke all of a sudden and they haven't had time to properly prepare a solution. Not true: The state has been in and out of financial crisis for more than a decade.

After Schwarzenegger vetoed an $18 billion budget package in January, calling it "deeply flawed," members of the California legislature pulled a literal all-nighter to try and agree on spending cuts, tax hikes, and other measures to get the state back on sound financial footing. The proposed agreement -- hailed as an eleventh-hour solution to what could have become a fiscal nightmare -- was put to a state-wide referendum in May.

Voters rejected the proposal, soundly. Of the 5 measures on the ballot, the only one that passed were new rules that cut the pay for elected officials. And for good reason.

California politicians are a woeful bunch. Despite being home to some of the most profitable and innovative companies in the world, the state is perennially short of cash. Oracle (ORCL), Google (GOOG), and Genentech (DNA) all hail from the San Francisco Bay Area, while San Diego remains a mecca for biotechnology research and is home to mobile-communications giant Qualcomm (QCOM).

The state has vast natural-resource reserves, has a booming agricultural industry, is a popular tourist destination, and has some of the most heavily trafficked ports in the world. Good weather and generally high quality of life has made California the destination for dream-seekers for more than 150 years.

Yet, despite everything it has going for it, California's political process is a complete disaster. In an attempt to allow voters to play a more direct role in governance, the state's referendum system allows citizens to collect signatures and get measures onto statewide ballots. Enough votes on election day and any Californian can see his or her whimsical dream become law.

This has created a patchwork of legislation, rules, and special interests that have hogtied what would be the seventh-largest economy, were it to be a sovereign nation.

As the calendar turns tonight on its new fiscal year, California could be the first state -- like its bailout-begging brethren on Wall Street -- to go hat in hand to Washington pleading for a rescue.
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