State braces for a costly S&P credit downgrade

  • Updated: August 27, 2011 - 6:51 PM
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Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Jim Schowalter, Minnesota's top state budget official, is a worried man these days.

Standard & Poor's is the nation's only remaining credit rating agency to give the state's debt its top investment grade. And Schowalter, the Minnesota Management and Budget commissioner, knows that rating could be in peril. The other two primary rating agencies have already downgraded the state's once spotless credit.

"I am very concerned that S&P might choose to downgrade the state when it reviews us," Schowalter said. "Our continued structural budget gap and worsening balance sheet will clearly be negative factors when they come out with our next rating."

Why care? A lower rating could mean higher borrowing costs. New roads, new buildings, even a new Vikings football stadium all could get more expensive.

For now, Minnesota is one of about a dozen states still hanging on to Standard & Poor's coveted AAA credit rating. That's more than the United States has managed to do.

In July, Fitch Ratings lowered the state's credit ranking to AA+. Moody's Investors Service, which dropped Minnesota to Aa+ in 2003, has fresh concerns about the state's financial outlook.

This year, the state's new two-year budget leans heavily on financially shaky one-time fixes, like borrowing from schools selling bonds to be repaid with tobacco settlement money.

Certainly, things could be worse. After years of cascading financial calamities, S&P knocked California down to A-, several clicks lower than Minnesota and the lowest credit rating of any state in the country.

But a funny thing happened in California recently. Its last budget was both timely and chock-full of permanent budget reductions that leave the state on relatively stable footing. It was rewarded with an upgraded outlook in Standard & Poor's last review, the first step toward rebuilding the Golden State's once sterling credit.

So while Minnesota may comfort itself with the idea that others rank lower, California has the satisfaction of having taken solid steps toward fiscal stability. Minnesota's next steps may become clearer in November, when the next economic forecast will spell out the state's latest financial picture.

New media jackal

As a former Republican gubernatorial candidate turned conservative radio talk show host, Tom Emmer has done his share of media-bashing. But when Emmer went to the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual meeting in New Orleans earlier this month, he learned that being in the media wasn't all bad.

At the conference, the former legislator found that as a private citizen, the price of admission was anywhere from $295 to $695.

Walking to the media credentials table, Emmer identified himself as a radio host for Clear Channel Communications and asked if that qualified him for a (free) press credential.

At first, he said, the people at the registration booth were dubious. Then, Emmer said, another attendee came up and gushed about his show.

That got Emmer his media badge, Noting that the badge was pink, Emmer said, "So I was a member of the pinko press."

Quote of the week

"Our crazy life is normal to us." U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, responding to a State Fair question about how he balances work in Washington with his new home in New Hampshire while representing northern Minnesota in Congress.

A look ahead

President Obama returns to Minnesota on Tuesday to address the American Legion's national convention at 11 a.m. at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

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