Houston’s debts are now bigger than Detroit’s.

According to one key measure of fiscal health, Houston’s situation is nearly as bad as that of Chicago, which is starting to collapse under its debt burdens.

The city’s financial reputation took a hit earlier this month when Moody’s Investors Service revised its outlook on Houston to “negative.”

Even that review doesn’t capture the depth of some of the holes the city’s financial planners have dug.

Moody’s has gotten a reputation for a taking a more critical look at municipal pension debt than its competitors in the ratings business, but it still works under the same structural conflict of interest all the other agencies do: they need these cities’ business. Moody’s will nip the hand that feeds it, but none of the agencies bite.

Moody’s still gives the city a strong bond rating, of course, because it doesn’t see much risk of bankruptcy on the horizon.

James Quintero, director of the Center For Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says the problem is structural, that defined benefit pension plans simply aren’t sustainable.

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