Credit rating agency Fitch has downgraded Pennsylvania’s general obligation bonds one notch, from AA to AA-.
What’s more, Fitch changed the state’s outlook from “stable” to “negative” – meaning another downgrade could be coming if Pennsylvania doesn’t address the structural problems that led to this recent demotion.
The structural problems in question are largely linked with the state’s pension system. From the Fitch report:
CONTINUED FISCAL IMBALANCE DRIVES DOWNGRADE: The downgrade to ‘AA-‘ reflects the commonwealth’s continued inability to address its fiscal challenges with structural and recurring measures. After an unexpected revenue shortfall in fiscal 2014, the current year budget includes a substantial amount of one-time revenue and expense items to achieve balance and continues the deferral of statutory requirements to replenish reserves which were utilized during the recession. The commonwealth’s rapid growth in fixed costs, particularly the escalating pension burden, poses a key ongoing challenge, although Fitch expects budgetary planning and management to mitigate these pressures in a manner consistent with the ‘AA-‘ rating.
PENSION FUNDING DEMANDS: The funding levels of the commonwealth’s pension systems have materially weakened as a result of annual contribution levels that have been well below actuarially determined annual required contribution (ARC) levels. Under current law, contributions are projected to reach the ARC for the two primary pension systems by as soon as fiscal 2017, but the budgetary burden will increase, crowding out other funding priorities.
INCREASING BUT STILL MODERATE LONG-TERM LIABILITIES: The commonwealth’s debt ratios are in line with the median for U.S. states. However, the commonwealth’s combined debt plus Fitch-adjusted pension liabilities is above-average, and will likely continue growing given the current statutory schedule of pension underfunding for at least the next few years. Fitch views Pennsylvania’s long-term liability burden as manageable at the ‘AA-‘ rating so long as the commonwealth adheres to its funding schedule, or enacts reforms that do not materially increase liability or annual funding pressure.
Without structural expense reform, or broad revenue increases, pension costs will consume a larger share of state resources and limit the commonwealth’s overall fiscal flexibility. In fiscal 2015, commonwealth contributions will increase over $600 million from the prior year to $2.7 billion on a $30 billion general fund budget (9.1%). Based on the statutory framework and the pension systems’ historical data and actuarial projections for contributions, Fitch anticipates increases for fiscal 2016 and 2017 will be similar though somewhat lower. While substantial, Fitch views the anticipated increases in annual contributions and unfunded liabilities laid out in the current statutory framework as within the commonwealth’s capacity to absorb at the ‘AA-‘ rating level.
Moody’s downgraded Pennsylvania in July.