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« On Texas Exceptionalism. | WILLisms.com | Data Visualization: Tides Versus ALEC. »

Texas Now Boasts Perfect Credit Ratings, Media Missing In Action

Trivia Tidbit of the Day: Part 974 -- State Credit Ratings-

Governmental credit ratings are a funny thing.

In some ways, they don't mean a whole lot. If government wants to overspend (and borrow to do so), it will find a way to do it. And politicians-- if they've already demonstrated that they don't care about overspending-- don't really care about saving a half-percent here or there on the interest rate along the way.

But in other ways, credit ratings mean a lot. When you're dealing with many billions of dollars, or even perhaps trillions, a better or worse credit rating could mean the difference of many, many millions more or fewer dollars in interest payments over the long run. In an international context, a better or worse credit rating might have myriad geopolitical implications.

More importantly, credit ratings symbolize how fiscally prudent a government is. Does the government live within its means, for the most part? Does the government's revenue fluctuate wildly, and in response, does the government just spend like drunken sailors when it has money and flail and cut arbitrarily when it doesn't?

A state's bond rating is a statement. It says a lot about a state and its general fiscal management.

Historically, Texas has seen booms and busts, booms and busts, booms and busts. A lot of them. A lot of big, infamous ones, and several big-but-quiet ones. Oil. Real estate. Banking. Agricultural. Ups and downs in the economy have led to ups and downs in tax revenue, which hasn't always been paired with smart spending. For example, Ann Richards and the Democrat-dominated legislature built an absurdly high number of prisons in the early 1990s. This explosion in prison construction, funded during one of the relatively "good times," was a locked-in spending item that proved exceedingly difficult to begin unraveling until very recently.

The result of the booms and busts and some of the strange spending habits of politicians was that Texas never had great credit ratings. Never horrible, per se, but never great. Simple states with simple economies and predictable revenue and spending trajectories tend to have the best credit ratings. Always have, probably always will.

States like Texas, with booming immigrant populations, are also more susceptible to ballooning costs in Medicaid and other assistance programs than slow-growing, low-immigration states.

To smooth out the booms and busts, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF, or "Rainy Day Fund") in the November 1988 general election. Essentially, the fund is replenished by oil and gas taxes collected, above a given level.

But a combination of slumping energy prices and a propensity to use the Rainy Day Fund as bonus budget money kept it from really achieving its purpose until the past several years. As recently as the year 2000, Texas' Rainy Day Fund had less than a hundred million dollars in it, which is practically nothing in a state as large as Texas.

All that began to change when Republicans finally took full and persistent control of the entire state government of Texas. It's now been two decades since any Democrat has won statewide elected office, but many people forget that it's actually only been about ten years since Republicans finally took control of the state legislature.

When the GOP took over the legislature a decade ago, the Rainy Day Fund was in the low hundreds of millions of dollars. The fund now has nearly a hundred times more cash in it than in the year 2000-- several billion dollars. Thanks to fiscal discipline in 2009 and 2011 legislative sessions, mostly the result of veto threats from Governor Rick Perry ("Protect the Rainy Day Fund, or else you'll be coming back for as many special sessions as it takes."), Texas' Rainy Day Fund grew throughout the Great Recession and now earns hundreds of millions of dollars in interest alone each year:


The Rainy Day Funds of Texas and Alaska alone are now larger than the stabilization funds of all other states combined. Again, this all happened during the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. Indeed, Texas' improved economic stabilization fund and credit ratings both happened just as America's credit ratings, infamously, were falling under President Barack Obama.

Which brings me to Texas' current credit ratings.

For years, Texas has slowly crept upward toward those perfect ratings. As the Rainy Day Fund has grown in Texas, rating agencies have been more likely to bestow better and better ratings. A somewhat respectable (for a state) AA became AA+ became AAA. Two of the three rating agencies, Fitch and Moody's, have both considered Texas to be perfect for some time now, but S&P was holding out.

Indeed, after Governor Perry went to Missouri earlier this year to court businesses to come to Texas, Missouri's liberal Democrat Governor Jay Nixon knocked Texas for not having a perfect AAA rating. Politifact, of course, rated Nixon's claim as "true," despite technically only being one-third true. One wonders whether the Politifact folks will update their rating, which was made just one month ago, now that Texas does indeed have perfect ratings from all three ratings agencies. Probably not. They tend to let obsolete ratings stand, rather than using them to inform and explain important changes in the world to their readers.

Clearly, Texas' less-than-perfect credit rating was news in prominent establishment media affiliates back when it was less-than-perfect.

Now that it is perfect, one might expect a similar level of newsworthiness, no?



The news hit on Friday. S&P issued a press release. Governor Perry issued a press release. A handful of people (including me) tweeted it.

As of this morning, this is the news coverage for "Texas AAA" in Google News:

white space intentional

One blurb, essentially taken directly from Governor Perry's press release, in the San Antonio Business Journal. And one post on http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/

At the Texas Tribune, in some ways the statewide news source of record for all things legislative and political, crickets. Unless their search function is broken, they don't seem to have commented on this news.

At Politifact, as noted before, crickets.

Austin American-Statesman (home of Politifact Texas): crickets.

Dallas Morning News (online, at least): crickets.

Houston Chronicle (again, online, at least): crickets.

Same with all the major newspapers around Texas.

And Texas Monthly magazine: crickets.

Crickets. Crickets. Crickets. If even that.

The question then becomes: why? Why crickets?

Did the ratings-hungry news sources think it was too boring and wonky of a story?

Was it too "dog bites man" for them, since Texas keeps winning in so many "best of" lists?

Was it that they didn't have adequate staffing, in terms of lack of financially literate staff-- or lack of staff, period?

Was it that they were just busy/hungover from toasting and celebrating themselves (and deservedly so, for those organizations that are surviving in this media environment)?

Was it just old-fashioned ideological/partisan media bias?

Perhaps a bit of each of these?

We may never know. But what we do know is that it is a disservice to news consumers, the public at-large, and the cause of knowledge itself, when significant news is selectively buried or ignored by news agencies charged with keeping the sort of informed populace necessary for representative democracy to properly function.


Previous Trivia Tidbit: Texas Exceptionalism.

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Posted by Will Franklin · 30 September 2013 12:03 PM