LOS ANGELES - California officials yesterday were still negotiating a budget for the fiscal year beginning today, with a threat looming that the state's credit rating could fall without an agreement soon.
Following days of partisan bickering between a Republican governor and a Democrat-controlled Legislature, state leaders reportedly were making last-ditch efforts yesterday to compromise on the fiscal 1993 budget.
If no budget is in place today, the state's cash shortage will force it to begin issuing registered warrants, which are essentially promissory notes, instead of checks to employees and other creditors. Some state leaders caution that the use of such warrants heightens prospects for a credit downgrade.
Major state payments are not due until mid-July, and it appears that many banks will honor the interest-bearing registered warrants for their customers.
But the prospect of issuing registered warrants, and the anticipated barrage of embarrasing publicity that would accompany such IOUs, helped goad lawmakers to seek last-minute budget solutions yesterday, assorted state sources said.
Nevertheless, it was unclear by late afternoon if state leaders could resolve differences that generated a budget impasse in recent days.
Rating agency officials have said they would prefer making credit analysis decisions based on the substance of California's long-term budget solutions, rather than simply on whether a budget is passed in a timely fashion.
This year, however, the rating agencies also have put the state on a notice that they may view a delayed budget as proof of a failure in leadership at a critical juncture for California. Accordingly, each day that a budget is late could raise the prospects for a downgrade.
Moody's Investors Service rates California general obligation bonds Aa1; Standard & Poor's Corp. rates them AA, and Fitch investors Service rates them AA-plus.
"We're in daily contact with the state" regarding the budget negotiations, George Leung, a vice president and managing director of Moody's said yesterday. "From what we hear, they're making progress."
But other observers noted yesterday that it is difficult to figure out the status of the negotiations, partly because much of the discussion is behind closed doors.
State officials must close a budget deficit of almost $11 billion for an 18-month period that began last January and extends through June 1993.
Although the multi-faceted budget involves many issues, the recent impasse generally centered on the extent to which school funding will be cut and whether part of the budget shortfall should be rolled over into the next fiscal year.
Gov. Pete Wilson has favored deeper school cuts than legislative leaders. On Monday, the governor proposed various ways to reduce education funding, including limiting kindergarten eligibility this year to children who have reached their fifth birthday by Sept. 1 instead of Dec. 1. That move would produce one-time savings of $335 million, according to the governor.
But the governor's education spending plan drew strong protests from other state leaders.
Election-year politics also are making this year's budget negotiations difficult, observers noted, because of politicians' concern over how voters will assess potential budget solutions.
Gov. Wilson favors balancing the budget in one year with no tax increases. Some Democrats believe a two-year solution makes more sense, partly to give the state more time to rebound from its current problems.
Local governments also are concerned about California's budget problems because they anticipate revenue cutbacks as part of the state's solution.