Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Little change for state's bond ratings so far

By Jamey Dunn

The major bond rating agencies are having mixed reactions to changes to Illinois' public employee pension systems that were approved and signed into law last week.

Standard & Poor’s rating services upgraded its outlook on the state’s borrowing from “negative” to “developing.” However, the state retains its A- rating from the agency. According to S&P, the new outlook means that the agency could raise or lower the state’s rating in the next two years. “The change reflects the consensus reached on pension reform, which we believe could contribute to a sustainable path to fiscal stability,” S&P credit analyst Robin Prunty said in a prepared statement. “Although we view the consensus achieved by Illinois on this difficult issue as positive from a credit standpoint, the developing outlook reflects the implementation risk — legal and budgetary — associated with various provisions of the pension reform, as well as the overall structural budget challenges facing the state.” The new outlook comes as Illinois is planning to sell $350 million in general obligation bonds later this week.

Gov. Pat Quinn highlighted the change as a positive byproduct of the pension cuts that lawmakers approved and he signed into law. “I am pleased the ratings agencies are recognizing that Illinois is moving in the right direction,” Gov. Quinn said in a prepared statement. “As I’ve always made clear, one of the many reasons to resolve Illinois’ pension crisis was the negative impact it had on our bond rating, which cost taxpayers more money to finance critical repairs and improvements to roads, bridges and schools. This improved outlook will be the first of many positive developments towards a revitalized and stronger Illinois.”

But a change in outlook does not constitute much positive forward motion for the state, especially given how much of a beating Illinois’ credit has taken in recent years. The two other major rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings, both issued positive statements about the new law. But neither has opted to adjust the state’s rating or outlook. Both said they would analyze the law to determine the extent of its fiscal impact. Supporters say it will save $160 billion and fully fund the pension systems by 2043.

Public employee unions are expected to bring a lawsuit against the state because they say the pension cuts violate the state’s Constitution, which contains an explicit protection for retirement benefits. “[Senate Bill 1] won’t save a penny. The bill is unconstitutional, so it’s savings are an illusion. It’s only going to cost the state time and money and kick the can down the road all over again,” said a statement from the We Are One Union coalition. Moody’s said in a brief analysis issued after the bill passed last week, that it would be able to factor the changes in the new law into the state’s credit rating if and when they are upheld by the courts.

All three rating agencies acknowledge that the state is facing other budget issues besides pension reform, including the loss of billions of dollars of revenue when the temporary income tax increase sunsets. The tax rate begins stepping down in 2015. Fitch’s said that the state must address some of its budget challenges to hang on to its current rating, which is the lowest in the country. “In addition to action on pensions, maintenance of the rating will require timely action on a more permanent budget solution to the structural mismatch between spending and revenues in advance of the expiration of temporary tax increases.”

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