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Calif. Aid Request Spurned By U.S.

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By David Cho, Brady Dennis and Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Obama administration has turned back pleas for emergency aid from one of the biggest remaining threats to the economy -- the state of California.

Top state officials have gone hat in hand to the administration, armed with dire warnings of a fast-approaching "fiscal meltdown" caused by a budget shortfall. Concern has grown inside the White House in recent weeks as California's fiscal condition has worsened, leading to high-level administration meetings. But federal officials are worried that a bailout of California would set off a cascade of demands from other states.

With an economy larger than Canada's or Brazil's, the state is too big to fail, California officials urge.

"This matters for the U.S., not just for California," said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the state's Democratic congressional delegation. "I can't speak for the president, but when you've got the 8th biggest economy in the world sitting as one of your 50 states, it's hard to see how the country recovers if that state does not."

The administration is worried that California will enact massive cuts to close its deficit, estimated at $24 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1, aggravating the state's recession and further dragging down the national economy.

After a series of meetings, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, top White House economists Lawrence Summers and Christina Romer, and other senior officials have decided that California could hold on a little longer and should get its budget in order rather than rely on a federal bailout.

These policymakers continue to watch the situation closely and do not rule out helping the state if its condition significantly deteriorates, a senior administration official said. But in that case, federal help would carry conditions to protect taxpayers and make similar requests for aid unattractive to other states, the official said. The official did not detail those conditions.

California is among several states that have asked for a bailout from the Treasury Department. A few have gotten some traction, notably Michigan, whose economy is among the country's weakest and is struggling to deal with the fallout from the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler. To stave off mass layoffs, Treasury officials are considering helping the state's auto suppliers stay afloat and convert their businesses to support other industries.

California Controller John Chiang, a Democrat, warned last week that the state was "less than 50 days away from a meltdown of state government."

While its fiscal crisis is severe, experts say the state is unlikely to default on what it owes, even if it runs out of cash. It can raise money through taxes and other means to assure repayment of its debt. Most likely are massive cuts in public services.

"After June 15th, every day of inaction jeopardizes our state's solvency and our ability to pay schools and teachers and to keep hospitals and ERs open," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) said Friday.

Problems unique to California have made it hard for the state to find a way out of its crisis.


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