The Fiscal Straits of Federalism: constitutional, fiscal, and human challenges for state and local leaders.

08/11/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the dire state of Hartford, Connecticut and the ongoing constitutional and fiscal challenges to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Fiscal Heart for Hartford? With no state budget in sight, the first day of school looming, Moody’s this week gloomily wondered whether the capitol city can avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy via a path of debt restructuring and labor concessions as it contemplates looming debt payments of $3.8 million next month, and then $26.9 million in tax anticipation note payments in October. Moreover, given the grim state of Connecticut’s own fisc—upon which Hartford relies for half its municipal budget, Halloween could bring more than fiscal ghouls. Its options, moreover, as we have previously noted, are slim: with one fifth of its municipal budget composed of fixed costs, the option of increasing taxes—in a city with the highest tax rates in the state—would risk the loss of key businesses, potentially reducing, rather than increasing vital revenues. Thus, the challenge of meeting increased debt service costs and rising OPEB and pension obligations seem to more and more point to municipal debt restructuring.

If anything, the fiscal challenge is further complicated by the uncertainty on the state front: Connecticut has yet to adopt the budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1st: legislators have been unable to achieve consensus on a new two-year plan the governor will sign to address the state’s own projected $3.5 billion deficit. Indeed, Gov. Daniel P. Malloy’s budget, which proposes shifts of state education aid from wealthier communities to poorer communities, promises difficult negotiations with an uncertain outcome. Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director and general counsel at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, warned that while there were previous state budget impasses in 1991 and 2009, this year could be much worse for public school officials: “In those years, while we didn’t have a finalized budget, people had a better idea in each community about how much they’d be receiving: This year, everything is up in the air.”

Fundido. In Latin America, the word fundido can be translated to “dead beat;” while in English, the old expression that one cannot beat a dead horse might seem apt for the challenge confronting U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is presiding over the PROMESA version of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process—a process created under the statute adopted by Congress which Theodore Olson, the former Solicitor General of the United States, this week described in an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal as a law which blatantly violates the Appointments Clause of the U.S Constitution.

Judge Swain this week approved an agreement intended to address creditors’ competing claims with regard to Puerto Rico’s sales tax revenue by the end of this year as part of an effort to resolve an agreement between the island’s two biggest creditor classes, General Obligation bondholders and COFINA bondholders, in part through appointing an agent for each side—agents charged with pursuing the best resolution for their debtor’s estate as a whole, as opposed to advocating for particular creditors of that debtor. (COFINA’s bonds are backed by Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax revenue, unlike Puerto Rico’s General Obligation debt, which carries a constitutional guarantee providing a claim on all of Puerto Rico’s revenues.) Thus, unsurprisingly, Judge Swain had been placed in the position of Solomon: she could threaten to cut the baby in half if the two sides do not reach an agreement by December 15th.  Here, the judicial combatants, who, together, claim to hold approximately half the U.S. territory’s $72 billion in debt, are fighting over which side has the primary claim on sales and use tax revenues.

Separately, Judge Swain this week has held off on responding to a request by creditors of Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility, PREPA, to appoint a receiver at the agency, denying a motion by a group of cities and towns to form an official committee in the case, whose attorneys’ fees would be paid by the island’s bankruptcy estate. Judge Swain informed the parties it was unclear whether the municipalities had valid claims against Puerto Rico’s government, a claim which, as we have previously noted, is critical, as Michael Rochelle, an attorney for the muncipios, told the judge his clients are confronted with budget cuts of as much as 50 percent; he plead: “This place will become Greece…We will have municipalities needing to be bankrupted.” Increasingly, too, there are fears that exorbitant legal fees, fees which some experts believe could run to in excess of $1 billion, are coming at the expense of Puerto Rico’s future. In so informing the muncipios, Judge Swain rejected a motion by several municipalities to have a committee representing their interests in Puerto Rico’s Title III case: she said that §1102 of the bankruptcy code allowed committees for creditors or equity security holders, but the municipalities are not the latter, and the municipalities’ principal concerns are not those of being creditors, adding that the municipalities are adequately represented without having their own committee.

The president of the Association of Puerto Rico Mayors, Rolando Ortiz, yesterday made clear the gravity of the fiscal situation, warning that 45 municipalities will be inoperative as early as the close of the fiscal year, under the fiscal plan submitted by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and certified by the Federal Fiscal Control Board. He noted that the proposal would eliminate a loan of some $350 million, which was granted to municipalities in exchange for exempting public corporations from paying the tax on real property—or, as he stated: “From the fiscal point of view, it leaves us without protection of the judicial apparatus of the country and limits our capacity to serve to the citizens to the extent that they take away resources that we have always used to help the people that we attend in the different cities.”

Indeed, it appears the fiscal impact has already begun to have an effect on the pockets of municipal employees, who have experienced reductions in working hours in 22 municipalities: Arroyo, Toa Alta, Cabo Rojo, Yauco, Las Piedras, Juana Diaz, Comerío, Vieques, Aguadilla, Mayagüez, Toa Baja, Salinas, Adjuntas, Vega Baja, Sabana Grande, Villalba, and Trujillo Alt; five other municipalities had applied the reduction of working hours in previous years. (Ponce, Ciales, Luquillo, Maunabo, and Camuy.) The likely next step, he warned, would be that more municipalities will join the lawsuits filed by the municipalities of San Juan and Caguas—litigation in response to which they said: “The decision of (Judge Swain) what she is going to bring is more cases on the part of the municipalities.” The Mayor of Caguas, a municipality  founded in 1775 of about 150,000 located in the Central Mountain Range, William Miranda Torres, regretted the closure of the judicial door to the municipalities, describing it as a “scenario where they have made decisions, by blow and blow, to make use of our monies without allowing us fair participation,” describing it as “clear discrimination against the municipalities,” noting that the municipalities offer direct services to the citizenry, including  maintenance to infrastructure, health, safety, emergency management, programs to the elderly, garbage collection, cultural programs, fine arts programs and sports programs—adding: “The central government has been stripping municipalities of important resources to provide essential services that will now be very difficult to cover. The humanitarian crisis has come and closing doors give us very few possibilities to fight it from where we can best do it.”

For her part, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz recalled that her municipality continues along the route to sue under PROMESA’s Title VI, even as she praised the management of mayors who filed their appeal by way of Title III: “If the judge (Judge Swain) said it was not for Title III, at least those comrades dared to challenge PROMESA.”

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