The economic earthquake rocking the country is allowing plenty of dirty little secrets to seep out in a way that a robust economy would not have.

There's Bernie Madoff (as in "Bernie made off" with my money); billion-dollar bonuses for bailed-out bankers racking up billions in losses (Merrill(ly) Lynch); Northern Trust(me) of Chicago using some of its $1.5 billion in bailout money for PGA golf tournaments and Sheryl Crow; well, you get the idea, and that's just the low-hanging fruit.

Higher up the tree in terms of public awareness, light is exposing other, less obvious ugly truths.

Here in California, two weeks after our lawmakers took the Golden State to the brink of insolvency, dangled it over the edge only to pull it away with the Great Smoke and Mirror Budget of 2009, we are finding out the state doesn't have the money to pay taxpayers waiting for their 2008 refunds.

Remember two weeks ago when there was much rejoicing in Sacramento over a budget deal that supposedly kept the state from looking like a cousin of bankrupt Lehman Bros.? Everything solved, right? Wrong.

While our other elected legislators have scurried back into their respective holes throughout the state, poor old State Controller John Chiang is left trying to sort through one whale of a financial mess.

The controller's office told me there is currently $6 in state coffers for every $10 the state owes. The other $4 is somewhat hypothetical. With the cash on hand, there is an order that the bills must be paid and there are laws that dictate who will get what and when. And if you are a California taxpayer, keep moving back in the line. In fact you may be getting an IOU, with 5 percent interest, none of which is liquid.

Don't blame Chaing, though. Despite his title, he doesn't have much control over what the state pays first. To add to the problem, the budget is built with so many contingencies, some which will be put in front of voters May 19, that many financial obligations have been put on ice until the Legislative Analyst Office figures out when, or if, the revenues the Legislature says are there even exist, or will exist.

If it sounds like a financial foundation built on thin ice, you are right, and that's why if you are owed a state tax refund, you are also out in the cold.

Taxpayer refunds will come after state constitution-mandated school spending, debt-servicing obligations for all those wonderful and expensive ballot measures we approve so much, internal debt obligations (payroll for some 165,000 state workers who avoided a single layoff); and other contractually bound financial obligations, of which taxpayers are not a part.

Somewhere along the way, our elected leaders compromised this and that for this and that. They approved money that was not there, OK'd projects the state could not afford and punted major political decisions down to the populace in the form of confusing and expensive ballot measures that became law.

The next thing you know, we are in a financial crisis, hamstrung to react fiscally because of funding mandates, changes in the state constitution and political compromises that have also pushed taxpayers down the list of priorities.

Drew Voros is the business editor. His column runs on Wednesdays. He can be reached at avoros@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/bizeditor.