California Is Bad– But Not That Bad

California is the "worst-run" state in the U.S., says the web site 24-7 Wall Street.

Their reasons?

24-7 Wall Street ranks states on 10 measures of fiscal and budget health, from debt levels to whether it is spending money on health and education programs that produce a higher quality of life.

California, in the web site's view, combines high unemployment (11.9 percent, 2nd among states) and high percentages of uninsured residents (18.5 percent don't have health insurance, 8th highest in the country) and foreclosures (second highest rate) with what it describes as a budget that spends too much and produes the worst debt in the U.S.

But that debt assessment is based on the fact that California has the country's lowest credit rating -  S&P's rating of A. That's the lowest ever given to a state.

The funny thing about that credit rating is that California doesn't rank low in debt.

Its state debt per capital, $3,660, puts it 21st among states.

That's puzzling on its face, since the state has plenty of wealth, despite its problems, and is in no danger of defaulting on debt. In fact, credit rating is the only measure by which the state ranks last.

What gives?

California's low credit rating is not merely the product of bad fiscal and economic news.

Other states have worse budgets and a poorer economic outlook. What's different in California is the governing and budget systems.

Credit rating agencies rank us low because it is so difficult to raise taxes under our system. They also rank us low because, in a constitutional quirk approved by voters, the state's bondholders are not the top priority for payments when the state runs short of cash.

They are second here -- to the schools. In every other state, the bondholders are first.

All of this makes the credit rating a very poor marker of how well "managed" or "run" the state is. It's more of an indicator of a state that has a poor structure -- and that structure isn't the product of management, it's the product of elections, interest groups and ballot initiatives.

Yes, California belongs in the lower half of state's in management, and it has profound problems across the board. But California doesn't belong at the bottom.

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