LOS ANGELES -- California's vexing deficit problems dragged down its credit standing Friday as Standard & Poor's Corp. lowered the state's general obligation bond rating to AA from AAA.
The rating agency, noting that California "will be operating at a substantial deficit at least through fiscal 1993," expressed concern that budget pressures could linger for years to come.
The downgrade affects about $15.1 billion of GOs outstanding.
The agency also downgraded about $2.1 billion of lease revenue-secured bonds and certificates of participation, plus assorted hospital debt insured by California. Those ratings were dropped to A or A-plus, from the double-A category.
The state's budget problems have been "too big for too long," which is one reason the GO rating dropped to AA, rather than AA-plus, said Richard Larkin, a managing director of Standard & Poor's.
Standard & Poor's action did not come as a complete surprise. The rating agency affirmed its AAA rating this summer but said the outlook remained negative. It cautioned at the time that it expected prompt action by the state if problems developed again.
California's general fund revenues have slipped below expectations in the current fiscal year, leaving a shortfall of almost $600 million through November, the state Department of Finance noted last week.
State officials estimate the deficit could climb to about $2 billion by June 30, after factoring in elimination of a $1.2 billion budget reserve.
State leaders in recent weeks have floated the idea of holding a special session to discuss the new deficit. This week, however, leading Democrats in the state Legislature rejected a call by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson to convene such a session. The Legislature resumes meeting on Jan. 6.
Mr. Larkin said the decision by state leaders to wait until next year to tackle the budget problem was "a contributing factor" in the downgrade. He expressed concern that the current deficit will be addressed by folding it into a budget package encompassing fiscal years 1992 and 1993.
Such an approach "is not consistent with this [triple-A] rating," Mr. Larkin said, adding that "too much time will have gone by."
But state Treasurer Kathleen Brown said the rating decision was premature.
"It would have been far more appropriate for the rating agency to have waited," until after the governor presented his budget plan to the Legislature on Jan. 10, Ms. Brown said.
She also complained that Standard & Poor's produced an unwarranted decision by "having focused exclusively on our short-term budget situation."
Mr. Brown said the state's budget problems are rooted in the nationwide recession, adding that "the underlying strength of California's long-term economy gives it an enviable resiliency to rebound."
But some municipal credit analysts remain concerned about structural problems in California's budget. They have noted, for example, that much of the state's population growth is occurring among lower-income groups, a trend that increases social program costs and strains state finances.
Gov. Wilson intensified the debate over this issue last week by unveiling a proposed constitutional amendment designed to reduce welfare benefits by almost 25%. The proposal, for next November's ballot, generated sharp reactions, often along partisan political lines.
In response to the downgrade, meanwhile, prices on California's lease revenue bonds dropped by about a half-point. The GOs, however, showed little reaction.
Traders noted that concern over the state's problems already were factored into the GO price. For example, California GOs have for several weeks been trading 10-15 basis points higher than similar New Jersey debt.
The treasurer's office said the downgrade will increase the cost on any new debt by 5-20 basis points. But Ms. Brown expressed hope that Standard & Poor's action would have a limited impact on the state's future debt service costs if the state can maintain its triple-A rating from Moody's Investors Service and Fitch Investors Service.
Claire Cohen, executive managing director of Fitch, said she plans to visit California in January to study the governor's budget proposal. She noted that California is not alone in facing a worse-than-expected recession, adding that it is difficult to determine at the bottom of a downturn whether budget problems are primarily cyclical in nature or reflect deeper structural flaws.
A Moody's official said the agency is continuing to monitor California's situation.
The downgrade by Standard & Poor's is considered a setback for a state that lobbied hard for the restoration of its triple-A rating during the 1980s.
The state's ratings tumbled to double-A in the early 1980s, following an economic downturn and the uncertainty created by Proposition 13, the landmark tax-cutting initiative.
By the end of the decade, however, California returned to coveted triple-triple status, meaning it possessed triple-A ratings from all three rating agencies.
Rating agency officials scrutinized state finances earlier this year after a $14.3 billion budget deficit developed.
But they held to their triple-A assessments after state officials approved a tax and spending cut package to close the gap.
California plans to issue about $11 billion of new bonds over the next three years, and Ms. Brown said the downgrade should not hamper those plans, especially because long-term interest rates remain close to lows for the decade.
Mr. Larkin said the state's ambitious debt issuance plans were not a factor in the downgrading. The agency did note, however, that this issuance will move the state to debt affordability ratios that are closer to the average of most states.
As the state's low-debt posture changes, Mr. Larkin said, the debt ratios will have less of a positive bearing on the rating and become more of a neutral factor.
The state's next large bond issuance is not planned until late February or early March.
Standard & Poor's said it expects "continued long-term growth for the state, although likely at rates somewhat slower than in the last decade."
California still benefits from a large diversified economy, the agency added.