After criticizing the way state government puts together its budgets, all of the “big three” financial ratings services maintained the state’s credit standing but two changed their opinions on Louisiana’s financial outlook from “stable” to “negative.”
Moody’s Investors Service on Friday morning kept the Louisiana’s rating as Aa2, which is below average for states but better than being moved down and having to pay higher interest rates in order to attract investors.
Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services affirmed Louisiana’s AA rating later in the afternoon.
Both ratings services did, however, lower their view on Louisiana’s financial outlook, largely criticizing how Louisiana’s budget is put together.
“I was worried they were going to shoot us in the head. They shot us in the arm,” said State Treasurer John N. Kennedy, who had spent much of his week lobbying the agencies.
Gov. Bobby Jindal also made a telephone call to Moody’s earlier this week.
State officials had asked the financial analysts to not downgrade the rating until the Louisiana Legislature had time to address a $1.6 billion shortfall in revenues for the fiscal year, FY2016, that starts July 1, Kennedy said.
Jindal, whose apparent presidential aspirations have attracted a lot of negative national attention to Louisiana’s budget problems recently, said in a prepared statement: “We appreciate Moody’s affirming the state’s credit rating, which has come as a result of acting quickly and responsibly when our state has faced revenue problems. In terms of the outlook change, the agencies have noted the variables the state faces because of falling oil prices and an increase in recurring expenditures due to growing refundable tax credits.”
Fitch’s Ratings earlier this week described Louisiana’s rating outlook as “stable.”
A “negative” outlook is a signal that Moody’s believes that over the 18 to 24 months, the state’s financial situation could push the rating downwards, said Marcia J. Van Wagner, senior credit officer in the public finance group of Moody’s in New York.
The state relies on too much “one-time” money to fund its ongoing expenses and has made such extensive reductions in expenditures that Louisiana is vulnerable to downturns in the economy, such as a dramatic drop in the price of oil.
“It’s not just about oil. It’s about a pre-existing situation,” the structure of the budget, Van Wagner said. “Oil has created a tipping point.”
Standard & Poor’s credit analyst Sussan Corson said in a prepared statement: “The negative outlook reflects our view of a combination of recent revenue declines related to falling energy prices and a large and growing structural budgetary shortfall identified for fiscal 2016.”
Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, Jindal’s budget architect, said she was disappointed in the change of financial outlook. But what it means is that the state has time to address those issues.
“We made it clear in these discussions that we are focused on creating sustainable reductions in the overall budget while reforming our tax credit structure to reduce the impact of the shortfall on higher education and healthcare,” Nichols said.
A downgrade in ratings by the services would have meant that state government — and ultimately Louisiana taxpayers — would have to pay more to borrow the money necessary for many construction and other projects. But the change in financial outlook could give investors pause before buying the bonds used to finance many state projects.
Just changing the outlook could translate to costing the state about $60,000 more on $250 million bond issue, Nichols said.
The budget proposal she will present the Legislature on Feb. 27, will not heavily rely on one-time money and will be balanced without raising taxes. “They’re looking for us to make long-term sustainable changes. That’s the bottom line,” Nichols said.