Debt limit may stall state projects

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, March 14,

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, March 14, 2012. Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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ALBANY -- New York State is approaching its legal debt limit, possibly hampering its ability to bankroll large-scale projects and fund storm recovery efforts, according to a report issued Monday by the state comptroller.

Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said state debt averages $3,253 per New Yorker -- almost three times the national median. New York's state-funded debt totaled $63 billion as of March 31.

By law, New York's debt limit cannot exceed 4 percent of total personal income -- meaning that by March 2014 the state will only have $509 million left under the ceiling, according to recent estimates from the state division of budget. "We spend billions each year to repay existing debt, so fewer resources are available for more pressing needs," DiNapoli said. "This comes at a challenging time when our state needs to rebuild and repair critical infrastructure and has growing capital needs."

New York's debt is second only to California's and has grown by $24.3 billion -- or 62.2 percent -- from the state's fiscal year 2002-03.

DiNapoli, a Democrat, said the timing of construction or maintenance of state highways and bridges, education facilities, state-funded projects for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other capital investments could be slowed or crimped if the state cannot borrow enough money.

His remedies include raising the debt ceiling to 5 percent of personal income over nine years, restricting the use of long-term debt to capital projects (not operations) and banning "backdoor borrowing" by state authorities unless approved by voters.

A spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's budget division said the state already is reforming debt. "Annual capital spending has grown at just 2 percent and, by targeting investment and exercising restraint, the state is generating additional capacity under the debt limit for critical infrastructure investment," the spokesman, Morris Peters, said.

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DiNapoli also said he was reviewing the state pension fund's holdings of gun manufacturers' stocks in light of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. The state has 149,527 shares of Alliant Tech, worth $9.8 million, and 45,325 shares of Sturm & Ruger, valued at $2.1 million. But he played down the possibility of divesting. "I wouldn't use that strong a word," he said.

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