Capitol Alert: Cal-Tax estimates California's state and local debt at $443 billion

dwalters@sacbee.comSeptember 30, 2013 

Gov. Jerry Brown has repeatedly pledged to tear down what he calls California's "wall of debt."

But Brown's definition of that debt wall - about $30 billion in accumulated deficits from recent state budgets - is less than 10 percent of the debt that state and local governments have amassed, according to a new compilation by the California Taxpayers Association, if one includes unfunded liabilities for public employee pensions.

Cal-Tax researchers counted $443 billion in state and local debts, roughly two-thirds of it carried by the state and the other third by local agencies. That's the equivalent of a fifth of the state's annual economic output and amounts to $11,600 for each of California's 38 million residents.

The debts included state and local bonds, more than $9 billion owed to the federal government for unemployment insurance payments, and $21.7 billion in budgetary borrowing and deferred payments, mostly to schools. But the biggest debts, by far, are for public employee pensions and health care not covered by trust funds.

Cal-Tax pegged state and local pension debt at $138.6 billion and state retiree health care commitments at $80.4 billion. But the pension data, some authorities believe, may be understated.

The Cal-Tax report used the pension systems' own calculations of unfunded liabilities, but they are based on assumptions of future investment earnings that have been criticized as being too optimistic. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board has urged states and localities to also report what those liabilities would be using lower earnings estimates and they could add another quarter-trillion dollars to California's public debt.

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