Human & Fiscal Disruption & Mayhem and the Importance of Municipal Bankruptcy

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December 10, 2015. Share on Twitter

Human & Fiscal Disruption and Municipal Bankruptcy. Last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, in which 14 persons were killed, was reportedly planned up to a year in advance. It was not an event which could have been anticipated—much less incorporated in the city’s plan of debt adjustment to submit to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury. It raises the question with regard to mass tragedies and their impact on municipal coffers: after all, San Bernardino could hardly afford such devastation and loss of lives in the midst of the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: are other municipalities prepared for comparable tragic eventualities? Now the city will have to bear not just the costs of its responses to this tragedy, but also significant new costs in the wake of it and to prepare for the future. What will these tragic events imply for the city’s residential assessed property values? Just as the elimination of blight and violent crime was a critical issue for Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment before now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, so too San Bernardino will have little choice but to modify any proposed plan of debt adjustment to take into account the events with which it was beset. Might the federal government or the MIA State of California step in to provide some fiscal assistance?

It appears the suspected killers devoted as much time as the city has on its plan of debt adjustment in devising their own plan of human and fiscal destruction, commencing nearly two years ago, practicing with guns and making their own kinds of financial preparations in 2014: Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik began honing their own fiscal and firearms skills last year at a shooting range in nearby Riverside, according to NBC, citing two sources, even as counter-terrorism officials said the pair began making monetary savings for their child and Mr. Farook’s mother during the same period—or, as one official noted; “[They wanted to] take care of both Grandma and the baby…They had purposely thought through that problem…[Some transactions] would be consistent with them making preparations for grandma and the kid.” The FBI is now investigating the incident for potential ties with terrorist organizations including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

A week after the terrorist attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that killed 14 people and left 21 wounded, more details have begun to emerge about the married couple the FBI believes to be responsible for the attack, Redlands residents Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, along with Farook’s former Riverside neighbor, Enrique Marquez. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, FBI Director James Comey said Farook and Malik had discussed jihad and martyrdom as early as 2013 and that both had embraced extremist Islamic ideology before their relationship had even begun — even before ISIS separated from Al-Qaida in 2014. Ironically, of course, these discussions and plan-makings were occurring even as the Congressionally imposed sequesters were reducing resources which might have helped save lives.

Letting Puerto Rico Help Itself. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) yesterday blocked an effort by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to pass to pass legislation to give the U.S. territory access to U.S. bankruptcy courts and allow Puerto Rico to restructure its debts in the same fashion as Detroit, Jefferson County, Central Falls, and other municipalities—rather than a bailout such as General Motors received. Indeed, Sen. Schumer specifically stressed that his proposal was not a “bailout,” warning that Puerto Rico’s fiscal and financial crisis will worsen absent action from Congress to permit the island to help itself: “If we fail to offer Puerto Rico assistance now, the problem will not be contained to the island…We have the tools to fix the problem. They’re sitting in the toolbox. The problem is Puerto Rico isn’t allowed to use them.”

Sen. Schumer’s comments came as the Chairs of three U.S. Senate committees, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) with jurisdiction over Puerto Rico and bankruptcy introduced a bill yesterday, the Puerto Rico Assistance Act of 2015, to create an authority which could issue municipal bonds and provide up $3 billion in resources to help Puerto Rico stabilize its budget and debt. While the proposed legislation would, if enacted, render some fiscal resources, it would not, however, provide the kind of bankruptcy protection available to every other U.S. corporation in the U.S.; rather, the bill would make clear that the U.S. is not bailing out Puerto Rico or pledging its full faith and credit to any bonds issued by the Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, whose six members would be appointed by the President; instead the measure would provide a 50% cut in the employee side of the payroll tax for five years and reduce the employee share of the tax to 3.1% from 6.2%. It proposes a number of studies, including on the Commonwealth’s pension plans and liabilities and the commonwealth’s healthcare treatment by the federal government. The legislation proposes to provide assistance to the island in improving its accounting and disclosure practices.

There was, mayhap, more constructive movement in the House yesterday, where Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), Chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, introduced legislation, the Puerto Rico Financial Stability and Debt Restructuring Choice Act, which would, if enacted, provide public authorities in Puerto Rico with Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in exchange for the commonwealth’s acceptance of oversight from a Presidentially-appointed five-member Financial Stability Council, with Chairman Duffy stating: “This bill empowers the Government of Puerto Rico with the choice to partner with the Federal Government and put the island on a path towards balanced budgets and a return to fiscal security. If Congress does not act, it would have a devastating effect on the people of Puerto Rico and countless Americans throughout the states who stand to lose billions in the bond markets…This is a multi-pronged approach and a long-term solution. It cannot happen without adoption of legislation by the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly which must be signed by the Governor. We know bailouts do not change spending habits. We need all sides to be fully committed to changing the way Puerto Rico manages its budgets, tax collection and finances.”

Chairman Duffy added: “The Puerto Rico Financial Stability and Debt Restructuring Choice Act gives the island’s leadership a choice: through the adoption of legislation passed by the Assembly and signed by the Governor, the Government of Puerto Rico will have access the same chapter 9 bankruptcy process that America’s States do if it also agrees to an independent Financial Stability Council to oversee the island’s path toward balanced budgets and a return to financial stability…The Puerto Rico Financial Stability and Debt Restructuring Choice Act will restore Puerto Rico’s access to an orderly debt restructuring process, without which the result would be disorderly litigation which is neither good for the island or its bondholders.”

In addition, the proposed bill would permit the appointment of a Puerto Rico Financial Stability Council: “In order to restore investor confidence and improve tax collection and budgeting practices, the Government of Puerto Rico may choose to accept the establishment of a 5-member Financial Stability Council with the authority to oversee the island’s financial planning and annual budgets. Unlike the D.C. Control Board of the 1990s, this Council will not be imposed on Puerto Rico – the island’s elected leaders in San Juan must agree to accept the Council. The Council’s duration will also be limited and it will not have the blanket authority to impose changes to Puerto Rico’s government. Rather, the Financial Stability Council will focus on just that: restoring financial stability to Puerto Rico.” Under the proposed bill, members of the Financial Stability Council would have to have knowledge and expertise in finance, management, and the organization or operation of business or government and would have to either have a primary residence in Puerto Rico or have their primary place of business on the island, according to the bill’s text. They could not provide goods or services to the commonwealth’s government and could not be a member of the government. Once established, the council would review an annual financial plan and budget from the governor and would have to approve it before the materials would be sent to Puerto Rico’s legislature. Any borrowing the commonwealth plans would also have to go through the council.

Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, speaking at the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington yesterday, stressed that an extension of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protections to Puerto Rico’s public authorities would not constitute a federal bailout; rather it would simply be a way to give Puerto Rico the “tools” it needs to fix its problems, adding that Puerto Rico is a lost ship of 3.5 million people sending a distress call to the federal government: “We are not asking for a bailout; we are asking for the tools to do the job,” adding that it was up to the federal government whether it wishes to answer the commonwealth’s calls. Nevertheless, he warned, if Congress continues its inaction, there will be a humanitarian crisis on the island.

Puerto Rico’s problem extends further than its $72 billion public debt and includes a lack of health care funding and federal tax credits that can put a halt to the large out-migration of its citizens and bolster the commonwealth’s economy. The governor, who has continually said the government does not have the funds to repay its debt, signed an executive order on Dec. 1 to pay $355 million in Government Development Bank notes that were due. But the order implemented claw back procedures that would take funds away from some lower priority bonds to pay back obligations backed by the commonwealth’s constitution. Puerto Rico has to pay $1 billion of debt service by Jan. 1 and the fate of that payment is uncertain with the lack of action from Congress. Gov. Padilla said he plans to meet with Treasury officials this week to further discuss the commonwealth’s position, but he did not have specific details on the meeting at the press conference.

The Drain. As we experienced in Detroit, a spiral of fiscal distress drains a municipality’s resources, costing streetlights, police response time, etc.—events and changes in fiscal capacity that can cause families to leave—that is, those that can afford to. Just as Detroit experienced a signal exodus before its filing for municipal bankruptcy, so too more than 200 Puerto Ricans leave the island for the mainland U.S. each and every day—those most able to afford to move, leaving behind those least able to make their own way and further sapping the Puerto Rican economy. At 5.7 percent, the unemployment rate in the Motor City is now ten percent below what it was six years ago—in a city where, between 2000 and 2014, 90,000 of its citizens moved out. The critical loss, of course, and most critical cause of its largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, was the out-migration of its labor forces. As in Puerto Rico, key population shifts come from those most able to move—leaving those too old or too poor and dependent behind—and, of course, adding to the upside down imbalance on a city – or, in this instance – territory’s pension obligations. Puerto Rico biggest pension program has sufficient funds today to meet just 0.7 percent of its future obligations.

Forty percent of Puerto Rico’s citizens live below the poverty line. It is difficult, albeit, unfortunately, not impossible, to imagine the federal government ignoring the humanitarian crisis that would probably follow. But the longer Congress waits, the more vicious this cycle of those who can most afford to emigrate to the mainland and leave behind an ever accelerating shrinking tax base, rising taxes, and curtailed essential services will be. As U.S. citizens, the island’s migrants will be eligible for public support of various kinds on the mainland. There is no question, in other words, that the U.S. will end up bearing much of the cost of Puerto Rico’s past profligacy. The only question is how considered and efficient its assistance will be.

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