July 20, 2018
Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider some of the post chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy challenges Detroit confronts, before returning to some of the legal, governing, and judicial challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.
The Potholes in Recovering from Municipal Bankruptcy. Five years out from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy incurred in the wake of accruing some $14 billion in long-term debt, the city’s plan of debt adjustment has unrolled in a sparkling fashion, especially downtown and around Michigan Central Station. Just under 40% of jobs in Detroit are deemed high skill—higher than the surrounding neighborhoods—and especially valuable in a city which, unlike most, boast an income tax. Nevertheless, median income, at about $56,000 is the lowest in the nation among major metropolitan regions. And the sorry state of the Detroit Public School system continues to discourage families with kids to move from the city’s suburbs into the city: in excess of 90% of eighth graders lack proficiency in math and reading.
A key to the recovery has been the auto industry—and major foundations, including the Kresge, Ford, and the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan—all of which contributed to the so-called “grand bargain” in the city’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment approved by Judge Steven Rhodes—an adjustment which brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to safeguard pensions and preserve the city’s jewel in its crown: the Detroit Institute of Art. Moreover, since then, foundations have contributed great sums to workforce training in Detroit, retail revival, human welfare services and more—as well as for-profit corporations, such as JP Morgan Chase, which has been pumping $150 million into the city to support a variety of efforts from retail to job training. Moreover, millennials and empty-nesters have moved downtown: in the past few years, a trickle of newcomers has swelled to a flood, meaning what, on the city’s first day in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy when it was unsafe to walk downtown, is, today, an area of dozens of new residential developments, which have been built or are underway in the greater downtown, from the revival of classic skyscrapers like the David Whitney Building and Broderick Tower to new construction like the Auburn and DuCharme Place. If anything, an urban challenge confronting city leaders today is the escalation of rents—forcing questions with regard to displacement.
Changing the Premise of PROMESA? In the wake of Judge Laura Swain Taylor’s rulings, there appears to be increasing pressure in Congress to revise or repeal the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act [PROMESA], after a the Judge suggested the U.S. government could be liable for cuts to bond values mandated by the PROMESA Oversight Board. U.S. Court of Federal Claims Chief Judge Susan Braden issued her opinion [Altair Global Credit Opportunity Fund et al. v. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims, No. 17-970C, July 17, 2018, in the case filed by investment funds against the U.S. government concerning defaulted employment retirement system bonds. Judge Braden’s signal that she was inclined to rule in favor on the claims drew reactions from members of the Puerto Rico Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus—or as U.S. Rep. Darren Soto )D-Fl.) put it: “This ruling exposes additional problems with the PROMESA act…It may also be a catalyst to support a reform or repeal to provide Puerto Rico full bankruptcy rights.”
Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, agreed that the opinion may have an impact on Puerto Rico; however, he was uncertain it would be for the better—rather, he seemed apprehensive Judge Braden’s opinion placed the interests of creditors in front of those of the citizens of Puerto Rico—American citizens, noting: “By making the U.S. government liable for Puerto Rico’s debt, the court has essentially determined that bondholders can have priority over the needs of the Puerto Rican people: This would force the federal government to make the hedge funds whole, rather than focusing on the true intent of PROMESA: helping Puerto Rico get on a sustainable economic and fiscal path. We have to make sure the people of Puerto Rico come first.” In stark contrast, Manal Mehta, founder of Sunesis Capital, agreed the ruling would help bondholders, but he saw this as a positive. “The plaintiffs had to get over the hurdle to show this is actually a claim against the federal government to get to federal claims court. This is a solid win for creditors,” noting: “It looks like the court made the correct decision, as the Lebron [legal case] test emphasizes ‘federal control’ to determine whether something is ‘federal’ for takings purposes, and it’s clear Congress controls the [PROMESA] Oversight Board, as it appoints it: So there’s now a takings route for creditors, at least in situations where the PROMESA Oversight Board/government has wiped out prepetition collateral, and it’s unlikely to be overturned.” Put more starkly, he added: “Until final adjudication, this ruling strikes a dagger at the heart of the legitimacy of the Oversight Board: I suspect that this will lead Congress to remove and reappoint members of the Oversight Board in a manner that is consistent with the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution as well as modify Title III of PROMESA to ensure that the federal government does not become liable for creditor claims.”
In her decision, Judge Swain wrote that the PROMESA Oversight Board was part of Puerto Rico’s government, not the federal government. Reminiscent of the old question ‘Who’s on first and what’s on second, Judge Braden’s ruling reached the opposite conclusion, likely, as New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez put it: “There’s a good chance this ruling will be appealed.”
Federalism? Just when the House Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority joined the suits against the PROMESA Board, Rafael Cox Alomar, a former Popular Resident Commissioner candidate, said that there appears to be consensus in federal court regarding the fact that the territorial clause grants the U.S. Congress absolute powers over the island: “The environment is completely different, and it is an environment where the theory that Congress has plenary powers, powers that are basically unlimited seems to be growing. In other words, the colonial character of the relationship has been reaffirmed,” he added, asserting that he believe the U.S. Supreme Court has established that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico does not have its own sovereignty with regard to double jeopardy cases, noting: “I do not think that, in the current environment, arguing that PROMESA is unconstitutional or that the Board does not have the power to do this, or that…or that Congress cannot get involved in legislating in internal affairs without the consent of Puerto Ricans, will be very successful,” suggesting “a new model based on the sovereignty of Puerto Rico is what is needed.”
Adding to the matter, the Popular Democratic Party caucus yesterday filed suit in federal court questioning the constitutionality of the creation of the PROMESA Board, as well as the alleged usurpation of powers, making it the third case filed in the wake of the PROMESA Board’s failure to certify the budget approved by the Legislative Assembly facing the breach of the agreement reached with Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, which included repealing the Law of Unjust Dismissal (Law 80-1976) as a requirement to, among other things, retain the Christmas bonus of public employees.
Indeed, the courtroom is in a traffic jam: last week, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares sued the Board for usurpation of his authority, while, in a separate lawsuit, the Legislative Assembly argued an excess of authority on the part of the PROMESA Board—or, as House Member Rafael “Tatito” Hernández put it: “The Board wants to rule, wants to legislate, and wants to establish public policy in Puerto Rico without being democratically elected. It does not have that power, and it does not result from any clause in PROMESA Law. We are not challenging PROMESA; we are specifically challenging the Board.”