Nearly 40 years ago the Garden State borrowed $302 million to begin constructing the Meadowlands. The goal was to pay off the bonds in 25 years. Although the project initially went according to plan, politicians couldn’t resist continually refinancing the bonds, siphoning revenues from the complex into the state budget, and using the good credit rating of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition authority to borrow for other, unsuccessful building schemes.
Today, the authority that runs the Meadowlands is in hock for $830 million, which it can’t pay back. The state, facing its own cavernous budget deficits, has had to assume interest payments—about $100 million this year on bonds that still stretch for decades.
California’s redevelopment regime is an object lesson. Starting in the 1950s, the state gave localities the right to create public agencies, funded by increases in property taxes, which can issue debt to finance redevelopment. A whopping 380 such entities now exist. They collect 10% of all property taxes—nearly $6 billion annually—and they have amassed $29 billion in debt never approved by voters for projects ranging from sports facilities to concert venues to retail malls, museums and convention centers.
In 1999, Fresno conceived plans to revive its downtown area with various projects, including a baseball stadium for the minor-league Grizzlies, which it had lured from Phoenix. The city’s redevelopment agency floated some $46 million in bonds to build the stadium. But the Grizzlies fizzled in their new home, demanded a break on rent, threatening to skip town and stick taxpayers with the entire $3.4 million annual bond payment on the facility. The team is now receiving $700,000 in annual subsidies to stay in the city.
Another weapon in the debt arsenal is the so-called pension-obligation bond. For two decades, governments have played a risky arbitrage game in which they issue bonds and then deposit the money in their pension funds to be invested in the stock market with the hope that the money will outperform the interest rate on the bonds. In a stock market that’s been stagnant for years, pension bonds have become fiscally toxic. As the Center for State and Local Government Excellence noted in a report earlier this year, most pension bonds issued since 1992 have been money losers for states and cities, exacerbating severe underfunding of pension systems in places like New Jersey.
Somebody has been using your debit card