Hate to say we told you so...
State and local governments are asking Washington to give them something that banks are trying to get rid of: federal bailout money.
California is asking that money from the Treasury’s TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, be used to help back more than $13 billion in short-term borrowings. Members of Congress and several municipalities want bailout money to be used to cover more than $1 billion in losses from investments by municipalities in debt issued by Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that went bust.
And Representative Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is drafting legislation that would have the Federal Reserve, and potentially the Treasury’s bailout money as well, stand behind floating-rate municipal bonds — a $400 billion market that provides short-term financing to municipalities, but which has been largely frozen in the current credit crisis.
Another measure drafted by Mr. Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, would create a public finance office within the Treasury Department to reinsure $50 billion in municipal bonds. This proposal comes as downgrades of municipal bond insurance companies have made it more difficult and costly for state and local governments to issue bonds. [my emphasis]
All of the proposals are meant to help struggling state and local governments that are facing a cash-flow squeeze. The economic downturn has eaten into their tax bases as local businesses shut, houses are lost to foreclosure and there is a resistance to raising taxes. The risk to the federal government is that it could lose money if things get worse for municipalities and states. Although backing debt with a guarantee does not require an immediate outlay of funds, the federal government could have to cover losses if there are defaults — which could be substantial if the economy weakens or states and municipalities cannot bring their budget deficits under control. Nonetheless, these overtures by state and local officials reflect a sense — perhaps just a hope — that municipalities suffering from a downturn in revenues and creditworthiness may find some relief in Washington beyond the stimulus money the federal government already is spending.