A Hole in Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Safety Net: Should Congress Amend Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy?

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—but we especially focus on the fiscal plight of the territory’s many, many municipalities—or muncipios, which, because Puerto Rico is not a state, do not have access to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy .   

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. When former President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 100-597, legislation authorizing municipal into law 29 years ago, no one was contemplating a U.S. territory, such as Puerto Rico—so that the federal statute, in coherence and compliance with the concepts of dual sovereignty, which served as the unique foundation of the nation, provided that a city, county, or other municipality could only file for chapter 9 if authorized by state law—something a majority of states have not authorized. Unsurprisingly, none of us contemplated or thought about U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.: Puerto Rico is to be considered a state for purposes of the bankruptcy code, except that, unlike a state, it may not authorize its municipalities (and by extension, its utilities) to resolve debts under Chapter 9 of the code. Ergo, no municipio in Puerto Rico has access to a U.S. bankruptcy court, even as 36 of the island’s 78 muncipios have negative budget balances; 46% are experiencing fiscal distress. Their combined total debt is $3.8 billion. In total, the combined debt borne by Puerto Rico’s municipalities is about 5.5% of Puerto Rico’s outstanding debt.  

The fiscal plight of Puerto Rico’s municipalities has also been affected by the territory’s dismal fiscal condition: From 2000 to 2010, the population of Puerto Rico decreased, the first such decrease in census history for Puerto Rico, declining by 2.2%; but that seemingly small percentage obscures a harsher reality: it is the young and talented who are emigrating to Miami, New York City, and other parts on the mainland, leaving behind a declining and aging population—e.g. a population less able to pay taxes, but far more dependent on governmental assistance. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s investment in its human infrastructure has contributed to the economy’s decline: especially the disinvestment in its human infrastructure: a public teacher’s base salary starts at $24,000—even as the salary for a legislative advisor for Puerto Rico starts at $74,000. That is, if Puerto Rico’s youngest generation is to be its foundation for its future—and if its leaders are critical to local fiscal and governing leadership in a quasi-state where 36 of the island’s 78 municipalities, or just under half, are in fiscal distress—but, combined, have outstanding debt of about $3.8 billion; something will have to give. These municipalities, moreover, unlike Detroit, or San Bernardino, or Central Falls, have no recourse to municipal bankruptcy: they are in a fiscal Twilight Zone. (Puerto Rico has a negative real growth rate; per capita income in 2010 was estimated at $16,300; 46.1% of the territory’s population is in poverty, according to the most recent 2106 estimate; but that poverty is harsher outside of San Juan.) A declining and aging population adversely affects economic output—indeed, as former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr who steered the city out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history recognized, the key to its plan of debt adjustment was restoring its economic viability.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has indicated there should be a more favorable interpretation of the law to make the system fairer to Puerto Rico: to allow the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to create its own emergency municipal bankruptcy measures—something, however, which only Congress and the Trump administration could facilitate. It seems clear that Justice Sotomayor does believe Puerto Rico ought to be considered the equivalent of a state, i.e. empowered to create its own bankruptcy laws. However, as the First Circuit Court of Appeals has interpreted, Puerto Rico is barred from enacting its own bankruptcy laws: it is treated as a state—in a country of dual federalism wherein the federal government, consequently, has no authority to authorize state access to bankruptcy protection.

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