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Calif. Aid Request Spurned By U.S.

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The state entered the downturn burdened with an inflexible budgeting apparatus, constrained by a state ballot initiative approved by voters in 1978 that severely limited property taxes in California. The signature example of "ballot box budgeting" left the Golden State inordinately reliant on the personal income tax, which accounts for half of revenue to Sacramento.

California's budget is also heavily dependent on taxes paid on capital gains and stock options, which have been clobbered during the meltdown of financial markets. State budget analysts made their annual estimate of revenue a month before the crisis spiked in the fall and have been backpedaling ever since.

"Those revenue projections turned out to be wildly optimistic, but nobody was predicting the October collapse of the financial markets," said Michael Cohen, deputy analyst in the Legislative Analyst's Office.

Consider capital gains -- income from sales of stocks or other assets. In California, that income dropped to $52 billion in 2008 from $130 billion a year earlier. It is estimated to be $36 billion this year.

By February, the shortfall was projected at $42 billion over two years. Lawmakers stared at the figure for weeks, stymied by the state constitution's requirement that the budget pass with two-thirds of the legislative vote and their own profound partisanship. The deadlock broke when a moderate Republican defied his caucus's pledge against any tax hike, but it didn't end there.

In April, budget analysts revised revenue projections downward by another $12 billion. And in May, voters overwhelmingly rejected the portions of the February deal that legally had to be put before them, taking $6 billion off the table.

To close an annual gap now put at $24 billion, Schwarzenegger and leaders of the legislature's Democratic majority have put aside talk of tax increases to concentrate on cuts. Most dramatically, Schwarzenegger would eliminate the state's basic welfare program, which serves 1.3 million.

Facing gridlock and few options other than severe cuts, California began to look to Washington for help. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer sent a letter to Geithner in mid-May, urging him to consider helping cash-strapped municipalities.

"A fiscal meltdown by California or any other large state or municipality would surely destabilize the U.S., if not worldwide, financial markets," Lockyer wrote. If the state were to default, it could shake bond markets and undermine investor confidence in a still-fragile financial system.

Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Lockyer, said California will not default on its general obligation debts. But by late July, the state conceivably could run out of money to operate, as revenue continues to deteriorate while costs keep mounting. "The problem is getting worse, certainly not getting better," he said.

In testimony before Congress, Geithner did not rule out aiding California. But he was far from enthusiastic about such a proposal, instead suggesting that Congress was better positioned to help the states -- and that states should balance their budgets.

"A lot of the burden," Geithner said, "is going to be on them to lay out a path that gets their deficits down to the point where they're going to be able to fund themselves comfortably."

Most members of California's congressional delegation have also been ambivalent about whether to press for federal help.

State officials are "not expecting any help from the federal government," Dresslar said. "At this point, we're on our own."


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