The Fiscal, Balancing Challenges of Federalism

eBlog, 2/16/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal, balancing challenges of federalism, as Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy’s proposed budget goes to the state legislature; then we return to the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—the insolvent city which now confronts not just fiscal issues, but, increasingly, trust issues—including how an insolvent city should bear the costs of litigation against its current and former mayor—including their respective ethical governing responsibilities. Finally, we seek the warming waters of the Caribbean to witness a fiscal electrical storm—all while wishing readers to think about the President who would never tell a lie…

The Challenge of Revenue Sharing—or Passing the Buck? S&P Global Ratings yesterday warned that Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy’s proposed budget could negatively affect smaller towns while benefiting the cities, noting that from a municipal credit perspective, “S&P Global Ratings believes that communities lacking the reserves or budgetary flexibility to cushion outsized budget gaps will feel the greatest effects of the proposed budget.” S&P, as an example, cited Groton, a town of under 30,000, which has an AA+ credit rating, which could find its $12.1 million reserve balance depleted by a proposed $8.2 million reduction in state aid and a $3.9 million increase to its public pension obligations. Meanwhile, state capitol Hartford, once the richest city in the United States, today is one of the poorest cities in the nation with 3 out of every 10 families living below the poverty line—which is to write that 83% of Hartford’s jobs are filled by commuters from neighboring towns who earn over $80,000, while 75% of Hartford residents who commute to work in other towns earn just $40,000. Thus, under Gov. Rowland’s proposed budget, Hartford would receive sufficient state aid under the Governor’s proposal to likely erase its projected FY2018 nearly $41 million fiscal year 2018 budget gap, according to S&P, leading the rating agency to find that shifting of costs from the state to municipal governments would be a credit positive for Connecticut, but credit negative for many of the affected towns: “Those [municipal] governments lacking the budgetary flexibility to make revenue and expenditure adjustments will be the most vulnerable to immediate downgrades.” With the Connecticut legislature expected to act by the end of April, S&P noted that the state itself—caught between fixed costs and declining revenues, will confront both Gov. Malloy and the legislature with hard choices, or, as S&P analyst David Hitchcock put it: “Bringing the [budget] into balance will involve painful adjustments,” especially as the state is seeking to close a projected $1.7 billion annual deficit. Thus, S&P calculated that general fund debt service, pension, and other OPEB payments will amount to just under 30 percent of revised forecast revenues plus proposed revenue enhancements for FY2018, assuming the legislature agrees to Gov. Malloy’s plan to “share” some one-third, or about $408 million of annual employer teacher pension contributions with cities and towns, effectively reducing state contributions.

As Mr. Hitchcock penned: “Rising state pension and other post-employment benefit payments are colliding with weak revenue growth because of poor economic performance in the state’s financial sector…Although other states are also reporting weak revenue growth and rising pension costs, Connecticut remains especially vulnerable to an unexpected economic downturn due to its particularly volatile revenue structure.” Unsurprisingly, especially given the perfect party split in the state Senate and near balance in the House, acting on the budget promises a heavy lift to confront accumulated debt: Deputy Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Frantz (R-Greenwich) said the state’s—whose state motto is Qui transtulit sustinet (He who transplanted sustains)—financial struggles have been predictable for more than a decade, “with a completely unsustainable rate of growth in spending on structural costs and far too much borrowing that further adds to the state’s fixed costs, especially as interest rates rise….” adding: “The proposed budget is an admission that the state can no longer afford to pay for many of its obligations and will rely on the municipalities to pick up the slack, which means that local property tax rates will rise.” The Governor’s proposals to modify the state’s school-aid formula could, according to Mr. Hitchcock, be a means by which Connecticut could comply with state Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s order for the state to revise its revenue sharing formula to better assist its poorest municipalities: “It could benefit poor cities at the expense of the rich and lower overall local aid;” however, he added that “[c]ombined with other local aid cuts, municipalities’ credit quality could be subject to greater uncertainty.” With regard to Governor Malloy’s proposed pension obligation “sharing,” our esteemed colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics described the shift in teacher pension costs to be “a more positive credit development for the state,” notwithstanding what MMA described as “quite high” challenges. Under the proposal, the municipalities of Hartford and Waterbury would receive about $40 million apiece in incremental aid, while 145 municipalities would lose aid after the netting of pension costs. Several middle-class towns, according to MMA’s analysis, could realize reductions in pension aid of more than $10 million—some of which might be offset by the Governor’s proposal to permit towns to begin assessing property taxes on hospitals, which in turn would be eligible for some state reimbursement.

Hear Ye—or Hear Ye Not. Petersburg residents who say their elected leaders are to blame for the historic city’s fiscal challenges and insolvency yesterday withdrew their efforts to oust Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman W. Howard Myers (and former mayor) from office in court over procedural issues, notwithstanding that good-government advocates had collected the requisite number of signatures to lodge their complaints against the duo. An attorney representing the pair testified before Petersburg Circuit Court Judge Joseph Teefey that the cover letters accompanying those petitions were drafted after the signatures were gathered. Thus, according to the attorney, even if the petition signers knew why they were endorsing efforts to unseat the elected officials, they were not aware of the specific reasoning later presented to the court.

Not unsurprisingly, Barb Rudolph, a citizen activist who had helped spearhead the attempt, said she felt discouraged but not defeated, noting: “We began collecting these signatures last March, and in all that time we’ve been trying to learn about this process…We will take the information we have learned today and use that to increase our chances of success moving forward.” The petition cited “neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties,” charging the two elected officials for failing to heed warnings of Petersburg’s impending fiscal insolvency; they alleged ethical breaches and violations of open government law.

But now a different fiscal and ethical challenge for the insolvent municipality ensues: who will foot the tab? Last week the Council had voted to suspend its own rules, so that members could consider whether Petersburg’s taxpayers should pick up the cost of the litigation, with the Council voting 5-2 to have the city’s taxpayers foot the tab for Sands Anderson lawyer James E. Cornwell Jr., who had previously, successfully defended elected officials against similar suits. Unsurprisingly, the current and former Mayor—with neither offering to recuse himself—voted in favor of the measure. Even that vote, it appears, was only taken in the wake of a residents’ questions about whether Council had voted to approve hiring a lawyer for the case.

A Day Late & a Dollar Short? Mayor Parham and Councilmember Myers signed a written statement acknowledging their interest in the vote with the city clerk’s office the following day. The Mayor in a subsequent interview, claimed that the attorney hired by the city told him after that vote that the action was legal and supported by an opinion issued by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, noting: “Who would want to run for elected office if they knew they could bear the full cost of going to court over actions they took?” To date, the two elected officials have not disclosed the contract or specific terms within it detailing what the pair’s litigation has cost the city budget and the city’s taxpayers. Nor has there been a full disclosure in response to Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover’s determination last week with regard to whether the Mayor and former Mayor’s votes to have Petersburg’s taxpayers cover their legal fees presented a conflict of interest.

Electric Storm in Puerto Rico. Yesterday, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló stated that the reorganization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) Governing Board’s composition and member benefits will not affect the fiscal recovery process that is currently underway, noting: “I remind you that we announced a week or week and a half ago that we had reached an agreement with the bondholders to extend and reevaluate the Restructuring Support Agreement (RSA) terms. Everything is on the table,” referring to the extension for which he had secured municipal bondholders’ approval—until March 31. His statement came in the wake of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives Monday voting to approve a bill altering the Board’s composition and member benefits—despite PREPA Executive Director Javier Quintana’s warning that the governance model should remain unaltered, since its structure was designed to comply with their creditors’ demands. However, Gov. Rosselló argued that, according to PROMESA, the Governor of Puerto Rico and his administration are the ones responsible for executing plans and public policies: “Therefore, the Governor and the Executive branch should feel confident that the Board and the executive directors will in fact execute our administration’s strategies and public policies. We believe we should have the power to appoint people who will carry out the changes proposed by this administration.” The Governor emphasized: “We have taken steps to have a Board that responds not to the Governor or partisan interests, but to the strategy outlined by this administration, which was validated by the Puerto Rican people.”

Indeed, at the beginning of the week, the Puerto Rican government had approved what will be the Board’s new composition, which would include the executive director of the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), the Secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and the executive director of the Public-Private Partnerships Authority among its members: “We campaigned with a platform, the people of Puerto Rico validated it, and the Oversight Board expects all of these entities to respond to what will be a larger plan,” he insisted. Gov. Rosselló added that adjustments are essential, due to the Government’s current fiscal situation, specifically referring to the compensation paid to the members of the Board, which can reach $60,000. If this measure becomes law, the compensation would be limited to an allowance of no more than $200 per day for regular or special sessions. (The measure, pending the Senate’s approval, would establish that no member may receive more than $30,000 per year in diet allowances.) Currently, the Governing Board’s annual expenses—including salaries and other benefits—are approximately $995,000 per year. Meanwhile, PREPA has a debt of almost $9 billion, including a $700-million credit line to purchase fuel and no access to the capital markets.

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