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California Sets $6B of GO Sales with Help from High-Speed Rail

SAN FRANCISCO — California’s general obligation debt sales are set to swell to $6 billion this fiscal year due in part to the sale of high-speed rail bonds lawmakers approved last week.

The state — typically the largest issuer of bonds — has increased its general obligation bond sale estimates to $6 billion, 15% higher than projections earlier in the year by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

The higher projections by the Department of Finance include bonds that are part of the Legislature’s authorization last week of $4.7 billion to fund the start of high-speed rail in the Central Valley and related projects across the state.

“Our capital outlay staff advise that we’ve assumed that the state will sell $6 million in GO bonds during the course of this fiscal year,” said Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer. “We’re working with all of the same agencies this summer to prepare for a fall bond sale, and we’ll be updating our spring estimates.”

The governor estimated $5.2 billion of general obligation bond sales in his January budget, up from $5 billion of GOs sold a year earlier.

Brown’s budget expected a “slightly lower” issue in the fall after the state sold $2 billion a year before. In spring, California issued $3.2 billion of GOs as it took advantage of low rates to refund bonds.

Palmer said the sale of the high-speed rail linked bonds will likely be spread over several years as needs arise. He said the amount of bonds sold as part of this fall’s general obligation sale will depend on the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s cash needs.

Construction of the high-speed passenger train project, envisioned to eventually connect the Los Angeles area with the San Francisco area, is set to move forward after an authorization vote Friday by the state Senate. The bill received the bare minimum of 21 votes it needed.

Some of the fast-rail bonds may be taxable depending on the specific project they are used to fund, according to Tom Dresslar, spokesman for state Treasurer Bill Lockyer.

The market will undoubtably welcome the increase in general obligation debt sales by California.

“Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of demand out there for paper; yields are very depressed,” said Alexander Anderson, a portfolio manager at Envision Capital Management in Los Angeles.

California GOs generally produce more yield for investors and have therefore been in even more demand in the current low-yield environment. The GO credit carries the lowest rating of any state from Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, both at A-minus. Moody’s Investors Service is two notches higher, at A1.

Of the bond funding authorized by lawmakers, $2.6 billion will be used to fund the first leg of the bullet train line in the Central Valley, roughly from Fresno to Bakersfield. The Legislature needed to fund the Central Valley portion of the project to secure $3.2 billion of grant money from the federal government.

The rest of the $2.17 billion of bonds will go towards upgrading existing rail lines across the state that will be part of the proposed network. Of that, $819 million will be used to connect state and local railroads, $1.1 billion will fund Caltrain upgrades in the San Francisco area and Metrolink in Southern California, and $252 million goes to system-wide environmental and design work, Finance Department officials said.

The bond money will come from Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion authorization approved by California voters in 2008.

The rail authority’s current business plan assumes $8.2 billion of the bonds would be used for construction after other costs, such as preliminary design, engineering, and administrative work.

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Absolutely disgusting that a project so economically unsound is funded through the California General Obligation bond process. This project should stand alone as a revenue bond so that the economics will be obvious as not capable of supporting the cost.
Posted by Shane M | Tuesday, July 10 2012 at 11:03AM ET
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