The movement to break away from Wall Street and form publicly-owned banks continues to gain momentum. But enthusiasts are deterred by claims that a state-owned bank would violate constitutional prohibitions against "lending the credit of the state."
California's constitution is typical. It states in Section 17: "The State shall not in any manner loan its credit, nor shall it subscribe to, or be interested in the stock of any company, association, or corporation . . . ."
The language sounds prohibitive, but what does it mean? Hundreds of state and local government entities extend the credit of the state. State agencies make student loans, small business loans, and farm loans. State infrastructure banks explicitly leverage the credit of the state. Legally, state and local governments are extending their credit to private banks every time they deposit their revenues in those banks. When money is deposited, it becomes the property of the bank by law. The depositor becomes a creditor with an IOU or promise to be repaid. The state or local government has thus lent its money to the bank.
How can these blatant extensions of the state's credit be reconciled with the constitutional prohibitions against the practice?
North Dakota's constitution has particularly strong language. Article 10, Section 18, provides:
The state, any county or city may make internal improvements and may engage in any industry, enterprise or business, not prohibited by article XX of the constitution, but neither the state nor any political subdivision thereof shall otherwise loan or give its credit or make donations to or in aid of any individual, association or corporation except for reasonable support of the poor, nor subscribe to or become the owner of capital stock in any association or corporation.
Yet this prohibition has not prevented the state from establishing its own bank. Currently the nation's only state-owned depository bank, the Bank of North Dakota has been a stellar success and has been going strong ever since 1919. In Green vs. Frazier, 253 U.S. 233 (1920), the US Supreme Court upheld the bank's constitutionality against a Fourteenth Amendment challenge and deferred to the state court on the state constitutional issues, which had been decided in the state's favor.
In the nineteenth century, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Indiana all had their own state-owned banks. Some were extremely successful (Indiana had a monopoly state-owned bank). These banks, too, withstood constitutional challenge at the US Supreme Court level.
Were the prohibitions against "lending the credit of the state" simply ignored in these cases? Or might that language have meant something else?
The Constitutional Ban on "Bills of Credit": Colonial Paper Money
Constitutional provisions against lending the state's credit go back to the mid-nineteenth century. California's is in its original constitution, dated 1849. There was then no national currency, and the National Bank Act had not yet been passed.
Several decades earlier, the states had been colonies that issued their own currencies in the form of paper scrip. Typically called "bills of credit", these paper bills literally involved the extension of the colony's credit. They were credit vouchers used by the colony to pay for goods and services, which were good in trade for an equivalent sum in goods or services in the marketplace.
Prior to the constitutional convention in the summer of 1787, the colonies exercised their own sovereign power over monetary matters, including issuing their own paper money. After the collapse of the Continental currency during the Revolutionary War, largely due to counterfeiting by the British, the framers were so afraid of paper money that they expressly took that power away from the colonies-turned-states, and they failed to expressly give it even to the federal government. Article I, Section 10, of the U.S. Constitution provides:
No State shall . . . coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; . . . .
Congress was given the power "To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures." But language authorizing Congress to "emit Bills of Credit" was struck out after much debate.