Monday, December 05, 2011

Quinn and Rutherford spar over borrowing

By Jamey Dunn

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford said today he will not keep quiet about his thoughts on state borrowing or Illinois’ dire financial situation.

Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn voiced frustration over Rutherford’s recent comments on the state’s debt and financial standing. Rutherford called Illinois the “most bankrupt state in the nation” and has publicly warned Wall Street investors not to buy more of the state's debt.

Quinn told reporters in Chicago that he is “disappointed” in Rutherford for not being more cooperative on billions in borrowing that Quinn has proposed to pay off some of the state’s backlog of overdue bills. “I used to be state treasurer, and I know you can work with a governor,” Quinn said. “I’m a little disappointed in Treasurer Rutherford.”

Quinn has argued that the interest costs on loans would be cheaper than the interest the state is required by law to pay vendors on late bills. “I think if we do it in a good public finance way, we can save the taxpayers millions of dollars and help our business get paid the vouchers and invoices that they have quicker.” The plan has failed to gain traction in the legislature.

When asked if Rutherford’s public negative comments created fears that could lead to a credit rating downgrade for the state, Quinn recalled an old security slogan. “My father was in the United States Navy. Loose lips sink ships, and I think maybe Treasurer Rutherford should commit that to memory.”

“The governor has got to understand that this is not a secret." Rutherford said today that Quinn and others cannot hide from the reality of the budget — especially new information from Moody’s Investor Services that the state’s required pension payment next fiscal year, estimated to be about $5.3 billion, will be more than $1 billion higher than the payment for the current fiscal year. Moody’s estimates that the payment will account for about 14 percent of general revenue fund spending for Fiscal Year 2013. The bond credit rating agency described the state’s pension obligation as a “credit negative.”

“When Moody’s just came out within the last week talking about this new revelation about the greater payments that are going to be necessary in our pension funds, that’s no secret, governor. Everybody knows it. We’ve got to address it.” He said that when lawmakers passed a tax increase in January, they should have leveraged the prospect of new revenue to force cuts and pensions reform as part of an overall plan. “They didn’t put together the rest of the deal. … They blew it here in Springfield.”

Rutherford said he is willing to work with Quinn on short term borrowing — to be repaid within a year — to address cash-flow issues. But he said he would continue to be a vocal opponent of any other new borrowing. “Don’t loan my state any more money, they are addicted to debt.”

Rutherford clarified his statement about the state being bankrupt, noting that Congress has not voted to allow states to default. However, Rutherford said if the state were a private entity, it would be facing bankruptcy. He said he does not support proposals to allow states to default because vendors who have done business with the state would potentially get short changed. “If someone sold bread to the Pontiac penitentiary, that vendor should get the dollar for dollar, rather than [price] negotiated by a federal bankruptcy judge and get 80 cents on the dollar.”

Rutherford made his comments today at a news event announcing the start of an online auction to sell unclaimed property. After unclaimed property left in safety deposit boxes is held by banks for five years, it is passed on to the treasurer’s office, which then tries to locate the rightful owners. If the owners cannot be found, the state auctions off the property. Rutherford said the state has been searching for the owners of everything in the current auction for at least five years.

If owners come forward after an item has been sold, they are still entitled to the cash amount that the item was appraised for. Rutherford said of unclaimed property, much of which is kept in a vault under the state Capitol building, “it never becomes the property of the state. As the treasurer, I’m only the caretaker.” The online auction started today and will close  December 11. Rutherford said holding the auction online will bring the cost to the state down from about $29,000 to about $2,000.

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