August 4, 1992
"Limping State has UsedCrutch of IOUs Before"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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"REGISTERED warrant" is the official way of spelling "IOU."
The state has now used warrants to pay about $1.6 billion worth of bills. The
last time it took such a step was during the Great Depression.
But the registered warrants of the 1930s involved much more than a few months
of stubbornness in Sacramento. After the state began issuing warrants in November
1933, the last one wasn't paid off until February 1942.
Of course, no one planned on the IOUs stretching out that long. State Controller
Ray L. Riley originally predicted that the warrants would be paid off by August
The Blame Game
Gov. James Rolph Jr. blamed the Legislature. "Everyone in the state government
knew," said Rolph in the Los Angeles Times of November 1, 1933, "when
the Legislature failed to provide the funds to meet the expenditures allowed in
the budget there was no other alternative than to meet the situation as we found
it -- by registered warrants."
But Riley's prediction of a rapid resolution to the budget crisis was way off.
And Gov. Pete Wilson might note that the blame-the-Legislature strategy didn't
fly; Frank Merriam was soon elected governor.
Of course, California's budget situation during the Great Depression differed
considerably from today. After all, several states and many cities issued registered
warrants during the 1930s, for this was Depression with a capital "D,"
of the sort that makes the current economic slowdown look like robust economic
health. Total personal income in the state of California fell from $5.5 billion
in 1929 to only $3.2 billion in 1932, according to figures compiled in California's
first Statistical Abstract, in 1958.
The state government did a lot less back then, too. During the late 1980s and
early 1990s, the state government has spent about $8 for every $100 of California
personal income. Back in 1933, when state programs for health care, welfare and
higher education were only infants, state government spent just $3 of every $100
in personal income.
But the most interesting feature of California's Depression- era warrants was
how they took on a life of their own. In November 1934, as it became clear that
the predictions of paying off the warrants quickly wouldn't hold up, Controller
Ray Riley reported to Gov. Merriam that the state budget deficit "will be
taken care of within the next two or three years."
That forecast looked good by the summer of 1937. As the California and national
economies rebounded, tax revenue rose faster than expenses, the state budget was
in surplus, and the balance of registered warrants outstanding fell from about
$35 million in early 1937 to less than $10 million in August and September of
But a more subtle change had taken place, too; warrants had become an integral
part of how the state did business. Harry B. Riley, who was to serve as state
controller from his election in January 1937 until his death in February 1946,
recorded in his first biennial report to Gov. Merriam how the state had dealt
with the logistical problems of using registered warrants to make unemployment
payments to individuals.
"If these payments were made by individual registered warrants,"
Riley explained,"the expense of handling them by the banks would probably
more than equal the interest to be earned. The practical solution was therefore
to issue large denomination warrants to cover bills on hand, sell the warrants,
and pay the bills from the proceeds of the sales."
In short, a market formed in buying and selling large- denomination warrants
during the mid-1930s. It remains true today that selling a few large warrants
would reduce the handling costs dramatically, and save individuals from having
to find a bank that will take the warrants.
But then the recession of 1937-'38 hit, creating new budget problems. In his
biennial report to new Gov. Culbert Olsen in January 1938, Controller Riley described
the problem in terms that should have a familiar ring in Sacramento today:
"Many of the governmental services and aids which are forcing increased
expenditures on the state have been written into the Constitution and the statutes
by the people and the Legislature in such a manner that without further legislative
initiative there is no immediate escape from the payment of ever-increasing amounts."
He pointed out that unemployment relief payments, for example, doubled from 1937
But the financial market was now ready for a new wave of registered warrants.
By July 1940, an all-time high of $98 million in warrants was outstanding, equal
to about half of general fund state spending that year. For comparison, half of
this year's general fund spending would be about $20 billion.
The Depression-era registered warrants were not ended by resolute state action.
In 1943, Riley wrote to yet another governor, Earl Warren:
"Long before Pearl Harbor, it had become apparent that California was
fast becoming the keystone in the edifice of American war-industry. With gigantic
shipbuilding, Army and Navy air bases and other projects in view or under way,
and with the daily awarding to California concerns of government contracts involving
unprecedented outlays of capital, this state had already begun to feel the effects
of an incipient industrial boom."
A defense buildup allowed paying off the last of the warrants in early 1942.
But the decline in defense spending in the 1990s has added to the sting of recession
in California, helping set the stage for issuing today's round of registered warrants.
Unlikely but Workable
It seems extremely unlikely, in August 1992, that the latest round of IOUs will
last much longer. But it also seemed unlikely that warrants would be issued in
the first place, or that they would drag on into August. Many banks have now set
up systems for dealing with the warrants (even those banks that are now turning
down the IOUs). California politicians have now learned that IOUs are a workable
The California budget deadlock is more than just bull- headedness in Sacramento;
there is a basic disjunction between the level of government services Californians
favor and the level of taxes they are willing to pay. Now that warrants have been
introduced, don't be surprised if they keep popping up as a possibility, as long
as the underlying imbalance in the budget remains.
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