Maryland keeps AAA bond rating

State will continue to be able to borrow at low interest rates

July 15, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

The three top rating agencies have affirmed Maryland's long-held triple-AAA bond status, though analysts from two of the firms signaled concern about the state's depleted retirement system.

Moody's called the state's $33 billion system a "credit challenge" and reported ominously that it is funded "at a lower level" than the retirement funds of most other AAA-rated states.

The system has 65 percent of the money needed to meet future obligations. The analysts' concerns echo a sentiment raised in February by the Pew Center on the States, which issued a report saying Maryland "has failed to make" significant progress toward properly funding the system.

The analysts noted that the state created a commission during the last legislative session to develop recommendations on how to address the pension shortfall. The report is due in December, but commission members have not yet been appointed.

Shaun Adamec, O'Malley's spokesman, said the governor will make his three appointments soon.

"The governor has taken very seriously his role in finding qualified, competent and serious commission members who will serve," he said. The House and Senate leadership are also expected to make appointments shortly.

Moody's also noticed that a proposal to ease the state's teacher pension burden failed in the General Assembly this year. That idea terrified the cash-poor counties because they would have had to pick up millions of dollars in costs.

Maria Coritsidis, an analyst with Moody's, said in an interview that pension obligations are a concern for "many, many" states.

The three agencies disagreed in characterizing the state's debt levels. Moody's called them "high" — a theme that former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is likely to hit in his bid to recapture his old job from O'Malley, who is a Democrat.

Maryland has the 14th-highest per capita debt, according to Moody's. But the debt is still within state-set guidelines and Maryland's law requires paying outstanding bonds in 15 years, a snappier pace than most states.

But Standard and Poor's disagreed; their analysts called the state's debt "low." And Fitch, the smallest of the three agencies, characterized the debt burden as "moderate."

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