The Governing Challenge in Averting Insolvency

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eBlog, 6/10/16
In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the bipartisan legislation overwhelming passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last night to address Puerto Rico’s looming insolvency—and a related U.S. Supreme Court decision; then we look at the almost Detroit Public Schools filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. It almost seems as if these events and actions were staged just for my fine graduate class on public policy process.

 

Oye! The House last evening passed and forwarded to the Senate legislation to address Puerto Rico’s looming insolvency on a bipartisan 297-127 vote: Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wi.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) took to the House floor to urge support for the legislation, with Speaker Ryan noting: “The Puerto Rican people are our fellow Americans. They pay our taxes. They fight in our wars…We cannot allow this to happen.” The bill now heads to the Senate, where there is little evidence Senators are eager to remake the bill wholesale, particularly as conditions on the island continue to worsen. The only amendment to fail was one offered by Democrats that would have struck a provision of the bill permitting Puerto Rican employers to pay workers under 25 years old less than the minimum wage. The legislation is critical as Puerto Rico—being neither a municipality, nor a state, falls into a Twilight Zone in terms of authority to address an insolvency. Puerto Rico has defaulted on three classes of municipal bonds, including last month when it missed most of a $422 million payment, and faces $2 billion in payments on July 1 that the island’s governor said cannot be paid. That final vote on the amendment was 196 in favor to 225 against. Puerto Rico’s government has begun defaulting on $70 billion in debts, and has warned it could run out of cash this summer.

In pressing for the vote, the Speaker warned that pressure would mount on Congress to spend money rescuing the territory if it could not arrest its economic decline, telling his colleagues: “This bill prevents a bailout. That’s the entire point…if we do not pass this bill…there will be no other choice.” Anne Krueger, a former IMF economist who led a detailed review of Puerto Rico’s economy, has warned: “Come July 1, if nothing is done, Puerto Rico will technically be bankrupt…Assets will be tied up in courts. It is very likely that essential services will have to be suspended.”

As drafted, the House-passed legislation does not commit a single federal dollar to Puerto Rico. The legislation creates a federal oversight board—whose members will be appointed by Congress and President Obama, and not the governor—to determine whether and when to initiate court-supervised debt restructuring: it charges the board with the responsibility to determine the hierarchy of municipal debt obligations and encourages it to respect the existing legal framework, which places constitutionally backed general obligation debt above pension liabilities. The board terminates after Puerto Rico regains the ability to borrow at reasonable interest rates and balances its budget for four consecutive years. Congressional leaders and the Treasury hope the bill will avert a long, expensive courtroom battle between hedge funds and the federal government—a battle that could harm investment in the U.S. territory’s economic future and undercut its ability to provide essential public services (servicing Puerto Rico’s current debt burden today absorbs approximately 30 percent of the Commonwealth’s revenues)—especially as Puerto Rico is now at the forefront of the Zika virus. While critics have falsely warned the bill could set a precedent for distressed states to seek similar relief, the dual sovereignty created by the founding fathers—or statesmen—in the U.S. Constitution clearly undercuts such claims: Congress granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 under the Jones-Shafroth Act to residents of Puerto Rico, which was seized in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The U.S. gave the territory the right to elect its own governor in 1947.

 Republicans have been concerned that the language would allow the to-be appointed oversight board to elevate pensions above the island’s full faith and credit general obligation municipal bond debt: Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) submitted an unsuccessful amendment to require compliance with the legal hierarchy, calling the statutory use of the word “respect” a “weasel word.”

Hear Ye! By coincidence, the U.S. Supreme Court chimed in almost simultaneously in a 6-2 decision (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle et al., (2016), No. 15-108, involving a simple criminal prosecution for firearms sales, but also the related governance issue of the Commonwealth’s autonomy—a case in which attorneys for Puerto Rico argued that it should be able to try two men who already had pleaded guilty in federal court. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said that would amount to double jeopardy, writing: “There is no getting away from the past…Because the ultimate source of Puerto Rico’s prosecutorial power is the federal government…the Commonwealth and the United States are not separate sovereigns.” Reasoning that even though Congress, in 1950, gave Puerto Rico the authority to establish its own government under its own constitution, that did not, in and of itself, break the chain of command that originates with Congress. As a result, the majority determined, the Commonwealth should be treated the same as other U.S. territories. While the 50 states and even Indian tribes enjoy sovereign powers that preceded the union or were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, Justice Kagan wrote, Puerto Rico in 1952 “became a new kind of political entity, still closely associated with the United States, but governed in accordance with, and exercising self-rule through, a popularly ratified constitution,” adding that Puerto Rico’s Constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg went further in her concurrence, suggesting that the high court should hear a case that tests whether states and the federal government should remain able to try defendants for the same crime.

During oral argument last January, a majority of Justices appeared to side with the Obama administration, which argued that, as a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico cannot try the gun dealers after federal courts have acted, with Asst. Solicitor General Nicole Saharsky arguing: “Congress is the one who makes the rules.” The majority appeared to agree: Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, noted: “If you go back, the ultimate source of authority is Congress.” Nevertheless, in their dissent, Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor stood by Puerto Rico — with Justice Breyer writing that if the court ruled against it, “that has enormous implications” for setting back the U.S. territory’s legal status: “Longstanding customs, actions and attitudes, both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, uniformly favor Puerto Rico’s position — that it is sovereign, and has been since 1952, for purposes of the double jeopardy clause.” Justice Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, said during oral argument that the island is an “estado libre asociado” Ironically the case was the first of two involving Puerto Rico to come before the high court this term. The Court is also re weighing the Commonwealth’s effort to restructure part of its $70 billion public debt, an issue addressed last evening by the House: a federal appeals court blocked the restructuring because of conflicts with U.S. bankruptcy laws.

Schooling for What If & Municipal Bankruptcy. With uncertainty whether the Michigan legislature would be able to pass and send legislation to him before the Detroit Public Schools exhausted all its cash—and before the legislature completed its session, Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration had commenced discussion with regard to drafting a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filing for DPS—in some apprehension of a wave of vendors’ and employees’ suits against DPS—the city’s public school system foundering in more than $515 million in outstanding operating debt: key staff worked with attorneys on a possible DPS chapter 9 bankruptcy, and Gov. Snyder had exchanged text messages with his former law school colleague and appointee as Detroit’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, who had, as we have catalogued, served as Emergency Manager in charge of both taking Detroit into municipal bankruptcy, and then piloting it through its successful emergence and approval of its plan of debt adjustment. Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri recently estimated the DPS would need $65 million for capital costs, including deferred maintenance and upgraded security equipment; $125 million for cash flow needs due to the timing of school aid payments and other startup expenses; and $10 million for academic programming. Now, in the wake of partisan action on which we reported yesterday, DPS will be able to make payroll, pay vendors, and purchase supplies this summer to prepare for school this fall. Logistically, the new school district will be created by July 1: retired U.S. Judge Steven Rhodes, DPS’s emergency manager appointed by Gov. Snyder and now serving as DPS’ transition manager, is working with state administrators to implement the new agreement.

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