Solomon’s Choices: Who Will Define Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Future–and How?

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy. 

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has selected Southern District of New York Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who previously served as a federal bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern District of New York from 1996 until 2000 to preside over Puerto Rico’s PROMESA Title III bankruptcy proceedings—presiding, thus, over a municipal bankruptcy nearly 500% larger than that of Detroit’s–one which will grapple with creating a human and fiscal blueprint for the future of some 3.5 million Americans—and force Judge Swain to grapple with the battle between the citizens of the country and the holders of its debt spread throughout the U.S. (Title III of PROMESA, which is modeled after Chapter 9 of the Municipal Bankruptcy Code and nearly a century of legal precedent, provides a framework for protecting Puerto Rico’s citizens while also respecting the legitimate rights and priorities of creditors.) For example, the recent Chapter 9 restructuring in Detroit sought reasonable accommodations for vulnerable pensioners and respected secured creditors’ rights.

The action came in the wake of Puerto Rico’s announcement last week that it was restructuring a portion of its nearly $73 billion in debt—an action which it was clear almost from the get-go that the requisite two-thirds majority of Puerto Rico’s municipal bondholders would not have supported. (Puerto Rico’s constitution provides that payments to holders of so-called “general obligation” bonds have priority over all other expenditures—even as another group of creditors has first access to revenues from the territory’s sales tax.) More critically, Judge Swain will be presiding over a process affecting the lives and futures of some 3.5 million Americans—nearly 500% greater than the population of Detroit. And while the poverty rate in Detroit was 40%, the surrounding region, especially after the federal bailout of the auto industry, differs signally from Puerto Rico, where the poverty rate is 46.1%–and where there is no surrounding state to address or help finance schools, health care, etc. Indeed, Puerto Rico, in its efforts to address its debt, has cut its health care and public transportation fiscal support; closed schools; and increased sales taxes. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting an unemployment rate of at 12.2%, and, in the wake of last year’s Zika virus, when thousands of workers who were fighting the epidemic were let go from their jobs; the U.S. territory’s fiscal conditions have been exacerbated by the emigration of some of its most able talent—or, as the Pew Research Center has noted:  “More recent Puerto Rican arrivals from the island are also less well off than earlier migrants, with lower household incomes and a greater likelihood of living in poverty.”

For Judge Swain—as was the case in Detroit, Central Falls, San Bernardino, Stockton, etc., a grave challenge in seeking to fashion a plan of debt adjustment will resolve around public pensions. While the state constitutional issues, which complicated—and nearly led to a U.S. Supreme Court federalism challenge—do not appear to be at issue here; nevertheless the human aspect is. Just as former Rhode Island Supreme Court Judge Robert G. Flanders, Jr., who served as Central Falls’ Receiver during that city’s chapter 9 bankruptcy—and told us, with his voice breaking—of the deep pension cuts which he had summarily imposed of as much as 50%—so too Puerto Rico’s public pension funds have been depleted. Thus, it will fall to Judge Swain to seek to balance the desperate human needs on one side versus the demands of municipal bondholders on the other. Finally, the trial over which Judge Swain will preside has an element somewhat distinct from the others we have traced: can she press, as part of this process to fashion a plan of debt adjustment, for measures—likely ones which would have to emanate from Congress—to address the current drain of some of Puerto Rico’s most valuable human resources: taxpayers fleeing to the mainland. Today, Puerto Rico’s population is more than 8% smaller than seven years ago; the territory has been in recession almost continuously for a decade—and Puerto Rico is in the midst of political turmoil: should it change its form of governance: a poll two months’ ago found that 57% support statehood. Indeed, even were Puerto Rico’s voters to vote that way, and even though the 2016 GOP platform backed statehood; it seems most unlikely that in the nation’s increasingly polarized status the majority in the U.S. Congress would agree to any provision which would change the balance of political power in the U.S. Senate.

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