Rebuking Vermont for its third consecutive fiscal year of budgetary imbalance, Standard & Poor's Corp. yesterday lowered its rating on the state's general obligation bonds to AA-minus from AA.
The agency announced the downgrade the morming Vermont Treasurer Paul Ruse accepted bids on $65 million of two-year GO notes to finance the state's budget gap for fiscal 1991, which ends June 30. State finance official project Vermont's general fund will show a deficit of $58.4 million, more than 10% of the fund's total revenues, by the fiscal year's end.
The rating change did not affect Vermont's short-term note rating, which Standard & Poor's retained at SP1-plus and which applies to the two-year notes.
In a statement released yesterday, Standard & Poor's cited "a substantial fiscal 1991 general fund operating deficit, projected negative fund balances through fiscal 1993, and a recent softening in the state economy."
The downgrade affected $329 million of GO bonds, according to David Hitchcock, a vice president at the rating agency. Standard & Poor's also said it had lowered its rating on bonds of the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank to A-minus from A. Some $215 million of bonds, which are backed by the state's moral obligation, will be outstanding as of next week.
Mr. Ruse yesterday said the rating change would not harm Vermont's ability to borrow in the credit markets, because Moody's Investors Service and Fitch Investors Service affirmed ratings on the state's long-term debt.
"We look at [Standard & Poor's action] as a minor adjustment," Mr. Ruse said. "S&P has been saying right from the beginning that deficit financing was something that they viewed as unacceptable."
Moody's affirmed Vermont's GO bond rating at Aa on Monday, saying the state had managed to maintain its debt burden at "a level well related to resources," in spite of the fiscal strains stemming from a deteriorating economy.
In its statement, Moody's says a two-year plan involving temporary increases in Vermont's sales and income taxes would help the state out of its "near-term financial problem," if the plan were fully implemented.
The tax increases, which include $97 million in tax increases for fiscal 1992, would provide debt service on the notes and pay off the current fiscal year's deficit over two years. By law, the increases would last only through fiscal 1993.
While Moody's says the deficit financing plan seems feasible, it also adds that "the temporary nature of the latest tax increases implies that, absent a strong economic recovery, further spending stringency or more enduring tax changes will be needed to prevent a recurrence of financial imbalance."
In the statement released yesterday, Standard & Poor's says its rating takes the deficit financing plan into account, as well as "the likelihood of an economic rebound beginning at the end of 1991."
At the same time as the agency lowered the state's GO bond rating to AA-minus, Standard & Poor's placed a number of other Vermont issues on CreditWatch with negative implications. They included $55.93 million of bonds issued by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, which are backed by the state's moral obligation, and variously rated A-plus and A by Standard & Poor's.
In addition, the rating agency lowered to A-minus from A the rating on $8.97 million of bonds issued by the housing finance agency for the Winchester Housing Development Program, which is also backed by the state's moral obligation.
Yields on the two-year notes sold yesterday were not affected by the news from Standard & Poor's because short-term ratings remained top-notch, according to one banker who bid on the deal.
Bank of Boston bought $30 million of the securities, Chemical Securities bought another $30 million piece, and Morgan Stanley & Co. bought a $5 million block.
The banker said the notes would be reoffered to investors to yield about 5.30% over two years.