The Phyical, Fiscal, & Governing Challenges of Rcovery

eBlog

May 3, 2019

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the obstacles to facilitating hurricane recovery assistance to Puerto Rico, before assessing the fiscal and physical status of Flint, Michigan.

Getting Aid to Puerto Rico. Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has offered the Democrats on the Committee proposed language which would accelerate the disbursement of funds to Puerto Rico, albeit with greater supervision and restrictions—but, critically, which would unblock the impasse so far barring Congress from passing legislation to address recent natural disasters. While the Chair has not made public his proposed language, he has shared it with Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Chair Shelby’s proposed language would not include new allocations for the U.S. territory in addition to the $600 million in food assistance funds which have not been opposed by the President—and $5 million focused on studying the impact of that nutritional aid. Here, Chairman Shelby’s offer came hours after on the pending disaster allocation project was reportedly briefly discussed at Tuesday’s Oval Office meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Ca.)—a meeting called by the President to discuss his newly proposed $2 billion infrastructure plan—a plan for which the proposed $2 billion remains unexplained and unfunded.

The Congressional Democratic Leaders left the session hopeful that there is interest to agree soon with consensus on a path to unblock critical natural disaster relief across the nation—relief to date blocked by the White House due to apparent opposition to any relief to Puerto Rico. There appeared to be some sense that the efforts have achieved progress—or, as one participant noted, in quoting the President: “I’m going to keep out” of this discussion—seemingly meaning he would not object. However, another source from the White House indicated that he understood that President Trump did not say that he would stay out of the discussions, but rather that an agreement must be reached; while Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla) tweeted that some progress was occurring in bipartisan talks. The House version approved at the beginning of the year includes $600 million in food assistance for Puerto Rico, $25 million to restore the Martín Peña Canal, $5 million to finance a study on the elimination of emergency nutritional assistance in the wake of Hurricane Maria—and restoration of the matching of funds that the government of Puerto Rico has to make in order to obtain the reimbursements of FEMA for the emergency measures. (In the wake of the President’s refusal to grant more funds to Puerto Rico, President Trump accepted that the Senate bill included the allocations related to nutritional assistance, but no other initiative for the island.

The negotiations come as the House is scheduled to pass legislation next week that adds another $3 billion in appropriations to address the March floods in the Midwest—legislation which retains the funds originally ratified for Puerto Rico last January. Indeed, at the White House meeting, the House and Senate Democratic leaders, and the President, agreed to work towards a legislative plan that allocates $ 2 billion to finance improvements to the transportation infrastructure of the United States—albeit without any agreement from whence such funds would come.

Wherefore Restoration of Self-Governance Authority? Meanwhile it appears President Trump plans to nominate the current PROMESA Oversight Board members to serve their terms through the end of August—plans which have gained praise from Democrats in Congress, as it may avert an interruption of the Board’s efforts to bolster the U.S. territory’s economy and fiscal management. The announcement came as the PROMESA Board prepared to launch law suits seeking to claw back payments made on and fees paid for more than $6 billion of Puerto Rico bonds. That is, the ongoing governance quandary with regard to whether a federal circuit court, the unelected oversight board, or the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico will actually be permitted to decide on the island’s future—a future further confused when, last February, the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals held in favor of municipal bondholders that the method of appointment of the board, as found in the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, was unconstitutional: ergo, for the PROMESA Board to continue to operate beyond May 16th, the court ruled the President must nominate and the Senate confirm the Board members. The President, in a posting to the White House website, noted he intends to nominate the current seven members to serve out their terms. (According to the PROMESA each term is three years, so if the Senate confirms the members, their terms would end on Aug. 31st.)

It is unclear how the U.S. Senate will react—especially in the wake of a White House statement: “Mismanagement, corruption, and neglect continues to hurt the people of Puerto Rico who deserve better from their government…The most important component for future health and growth of Puerto Rico is financial constraint, reduced debt, and structural reforms…The work of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico is providing the stability and oversight needed to address these chronic issues that will bring hope of a brighter future for Puerto Rico.” Given the exploding debt and deficits under the Trump administration, the statement appears most ironic.

Nevertheless, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Az.) hailed the move: “The President’s decision to nominate the members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico for Senate confirmation is welcome. Democrats supported PROMESA largely to enable Puerto Rico to restructure and reduce its debts. If the 1st Circuit’s ruling invalidating the original appointments had not been addressed, the Board would have collapsed and three years of work on debt restructuring would have been wasted….We are close to a final restructuring agreement on the largest remaining block of Puerto Rican debt, and it’s in the interests of the Puerto Rican people to finalize that agreement without interruption,” Chairman Grijalva noted, for his Committee, which oversees Puerto Rico. Similarly, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y) noted: “To essentially start over with new appointments to the Oversight Board would have injected serious uncertainty and chaos into the debt restructuring process…While I support the reappointment of these members to the Board, I will continue holding them to account to ensure they are always acting in the best interest of the people of Puerto Rico…Austerity measures are not the answer for Puerto Rico, and I’ll continue pushing the Board to put ordinary Puerto Ricans before Wall Street creditors and hedge funds.”

The PROMESA Board also released a statement welcoming the President’s announcement, with its statement coming in the wake of its request to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals to extend the May 16 deadline for acting as the Board; the PROMESA Board has also filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s February decision.

Not in Like Flint. Five years on, the Flint water crisis is nowhere near over: the state-caused fiscal and physical emergency devastating lives, assessed property values, and public trust continues. The Flint River courses some 142 miles through mid-Michigan, before a noticeable change occurs as it flows southwest into the city of Flint, where, abruptly, it is marked by concrete slopes, capped with wire fences, flank the water—adjacent to decaying bridge piers protruding from the center of the river. It is almost as if it were a cemetery to mark the five years since the city’s water source switch which, in a decision by a state appointed Emergency Manager—it is, rather, as studies have demonstrated, a municipality with drinking water lead levels nearly twice the amount that is supposed to trigger action under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards: That is, it is a municipality where the state action threatens adverse neurological effects in children, including reduced IQ and aggressive behavior; in a 6-month-old weighing 18 pounds, it takes just 12 millionths of an ounce of lead in the child’s bloodstream, about the same as one grain of salt, to exceed the level that the Centers for Disease Control considers a risk for children. That is, for a mother and father—leaving seems a vital goal—but for the municipality, such departures can have devastating implications for assessed property values and income taxes. Perhaps fortunately for the city, its budget only assumes some $4.6 million in property taxes—less than a third of what it anticipates in income taxes; however, therein lies a fiscal risk: while the city’s water system operators report they have significantly reduced lead since 1991, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first adopted a rule that mandates monitoring and treatment to reduce contamination caused by corrosion and other factors related to lead pipes, EPA notified the Governor there remained “serious and ongoing concerns with the safety of Flint’s drinking water system,” including “continuing delays and lack of transparency” in the state’s response. Flint switched back to the Detroit water system three and a half years ago, but public health effects from lead exposure prompted emergency declarations from the state and federal governments in early 2016. The city then launched an aggressive rehabilitation campaign, and, in the past three years, crews have explored 21,298 homes and replaced lead service lines at 8,260. The work should finish in July, according to Jameca Patrick-Singleton, Flint’s Chief Recovery Officer.

The most recent testing of Flint’s drinking water, sourced again from Detroit, marked lead at four parts per billion, well clear of the 15 that requires action. Those results account for a 90th-percentile rating: in other words, 90 percent of the homes comply with the federal standard. Nevertheless, Mayor Karen Weaver notes that tests will continue, and according to Patrick-Singleton, Mayor Weaver will not lift the city’s emergency declaration until the scientific and medical communities clear the drinking water.

Governance: Creating & Responding (or failing to respond) to a Human, Physical, & Fiscal Crisis.  Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office has fired special prosecutor Todd Flood from the Flint water criminal prosecution team because of documents discovered in a government building, which Michigan Solicitor Fadwa Hammoud confirmed Monday. Here, the special prosecutor’s contract expired on April 16, and he had been advised last week that the state would not be renewing his contract. The Solicitor Mr. Flood’s termination to the recent realization that legal “discovery was not fully and properly pursued from the onset of this investigation.” Last Friday, prosecutors asked a Genesee County judge for a six-month delay in the involuntary manslaughter case against former Michigan Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon after finding a “trove of documents” related to the Flint water crisis in the basement of a state building. (Mr. Flood had been named a special assistant attorney general in the Flint criminal cases after serving as a special prosecutor, serving more than three years: an appointee of former Attorney General Bill Schuette, Mr. Flood’s authority was curbed significantly when Mr. Hammoud was put in charge of the Flint prosecution, and then brought in Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to help the prosecution team.) Mr. Hammoud noted that Mr. Flood’s departure reflected the department’s commitment “to execute the highest standards” in the Flint prosecutions.

For his part, Mr. Flood noted: “In the time we have spent in Flint, we interviewed over 400 people, reviewed millions of
pages of discovery, and took pleas to advance the investigation: We conducted multiple court hearings and preliminary exams, placed hundreds of exhibits into evidence and successfully bound defendants over for trial. This complex case of official wrong-doing and betrayal of public trust has been prosecuted with the utmost attention to the professional standards that justice demands. I walk away knowing that I gave everything I had to give to this case. The people of Flint deserved nothing less.”

Mr. Flood originally charged 15 people in the Flint prosecutions; he struck plea deals with seven defendants who have pleaded no contest to misdemeanors; he successfully convinced 67th District Court judges to bind over for trial Mr. Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells on criminal charges related to the 2014-15 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak which led to the death of 12 individuals and sickened at least 79 others.

Preliminary exams against former gubernatorially-appointed Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, and Howard Croft, Flint’s former Public Works Director, were recently suspended as the Attorney General’s office continues its review of all of the criminal cases; it remains unclear what connection the recently rediscovered boxes have to Mr. Lyon, who has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak: he is accused of failing to warn the public in a timely manner about the respiratory disease before former Gov. Rick Snyder informed the public about it in mid-January 2016.

Will Justice Be Done? Mayor Weaver, in a statement Monday, noted: “I respect the decision that the Solicitor General has made regarding the changes to the prosecution team. I will continue to voice my desires to have truth, transparency, and justice for Flint residents…I ask that we not get caught up on the changes, but that we continue to keep the focus where it should be, and that is on making the residents whole after such a traumatic experience.”

The Governance Responsibility to Protect a City’s Children

October 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the physical and fiscal challenges of the Detroit Public Schools, before zooming south to assess whether the complex municipal financing in Puerto Rico’s recovery has perhaps exacerbated the U.S. territory’s debt challenges.

Protecting a City’s Children. A key challenge in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy was restoring trust in its public schools—a critical step if families with kids were going to move from the suburbs into the emptied city. That, of course, required making the schools not just trustworthy places for learning, but also safe—and not just safe from a gang perspective, but especially here from water contamination—Flint, not so far away, after all, is on many parents’ minds. Thus, the school district is developing plans to make drinking water safe inside its buildings, especially after a review of testing data shows one school had more than 54 times the allowable amount of lead under federal law, while another exceeded the regulated copper level by nearly 30 times. The Detroit News reviewed hundreds of pages of water reports for 57 buildings which tested for elevated levels of lead and/or copper in the water to provide a detailed look how excessive the metal levels were in the most elevated sources.

The News effort comes as Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti noted: “‎We discontinued the use of drinking water when concerns were identified without any legal requirement to do so, and hydration stations will ensure there is no lead or copper in all water consumed by students and staff, with the Superintendent yesterday reported the system expects to spend nearly $3.8 million enacting a long-term solution to widespread lead and copper contamination in students’ drinking water, with the cost including $741,939 to install 818 hydration stations and filters, $750,000 for water coolers until completed installation of the stations in the summer of 2019, $539,880 for environmental remediation costs, $1.2 million for maintenance services, and $282,000 for facilities maintenance—a tab unanimously approved yesterday by the Detroit Community Schools Board, with long-term plan to get drinking water flowing again inside the 106 Detroit schools after faucets were turned off ahead of the school year. The announcement followed Monday’s by Supt. Vitti, when he reported that he and the school board will reveal corporate funders for some $2 million in hydration stations he wants to install across the district.

The need, as the survey revealed, is urgent: among the elevated levels reported by the Detroit Public School District includes a kitchen faucet inside Mason Elementary-Middle School which had more than 54 times the amount of lead permitted the Safe Drinking Water Act; a drinking fountain inside Mark Twain School for Scholars was tested at more than 53 times the federal threshold; a drinking fountain on the first floor near the kitchen of Bethune Elementary-Middle School that had copper levels at nearly 30 times the permissible level—even as DPS officials still await the test results of 17 more buildings. Nevertheless, from the results so far, there is a failing grade: more than half of the 106 schools inside Michigan’s largest school district have contaminated water. Indeed, with EPA recommending lead limits of 15 micrograms per liter or 15 part per billion, water samples at Mason found extreme elevations of lead at Mason, Twain, Davis Aerospace Technical, and Bagley, and extreme levels of copper at Bethune Academy of the Americas elementary-middle school and Western International. Unsurprisingly, public health and water safety experts report that schools should use a tougher standard for lead levels, and nationally recognized Virginia Tech water expert Marc Edwards said: “Those are not good. There is no doubt there are worrisome lead levels: Whenever you take hundreds of thousands of samples in a school, you are going to get some results that are shockingly high.” At a Board of Education meeting last month, Superintendent Vitti said the most practical, long-term, and safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be to provide water hydration stations in every building—systems currently used in public school districts, including in Flint, Royal Oak, and Birmingham, as well as Baltimore: these stations, in addition to cooling water, more importantly remove copper, lead, and other contaminants.

Drinking water screening reports demonstrate that water was collected at some schools in April and others in August, with school district officials reporting sampling began in the district in the spring and continued through last August. In September, Superintendent Vitti said that DPS, through its environmental consulting firm, ATC Group, is following EPA protocol for collecting water samples, adding: “If testing occurred at a school after the regular school year, then it was done during summer school, where nearly 80 of our schools were offering classes,” adding that many of the schools with high levels had already identified for concern two years ago—and that those were the first group of schools to move to water coolers. Supt. Vitti initiated water testing of the 106 school buildings in May and August after initial tests results found that 16 schools showed high levels of copper and/or lead. Another eight tested for elevated levels in the spring after they were identified with concerns in 2016. Last month, the DPS District received more test results, which found an 33 additional schools with elevated contaminant levels, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 in a District already overwhelmed by some $500 million in building repair needs; moreover, the bad gnus could worsen: the total number of schools with high levels could increase as school officials await more test results on another 17 schools.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, noted for her expertise in Flint, who is a pediatrician and public health expert, concurred that Detroit’s policymakers need to set a much more aggressive limit on allowable amounts of lead in schools. In addition, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s school sampling guidance recommends that schools address fixtures which measure above 5 micrograms per liter, the same EPA standard as bottled water, according to Dr. Hanna-Attisha; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an action level of just 1 microgram per liter for drinking water in child care facilities and schools. Thus, as Dr. Hanna-Attisha warns: “This should be the District’s action level,” in a letter she co-authored with Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering, a consulting firm—a letter with which Superintendent Vitti said he agrees.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who witnessed lead levels in some Flint homes reach 22,000 micrograms per liter, said U.S. EPA school sampling guidance encourages schools to sample every drinking water tap a single time unless lead is detected at greater than 20 micrograms per liter, noting: “One low single tap sample is not sufficient to clear a tap as a potential source of lead, because lead release is sporadic.” Her words come with the benefit of her experience and practice as an associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, as well as Director of the MSU-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative. She adds: “It is not appropriate to use a single low sample that was taken as a follow-up to a high sample to conclude that a drinking tap is ‘safe to drink,’ although this is how many schools have interpreted sampling data.” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Director and Health Officer for the Detroit Health Department, said she recommends parents of children 6 and younger be tested for blood lead levels, because of the Motor City’s history of elevated levels for children, which has been primarily due to lead paint in homes, adding that the elevated rates in the tests were concerning: “I think, broadly speaking, I support Dr. Vitti in testing every water source in every school…For any school that comes back with elevated lead levels, the actual reasons for that school is not clear. It can be the infrastructure or the drinking fountain. Providing bottled water and other sources is the right thing to do.”

According to Michigan health officials, children are at higher risk of harm from lead, because their developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive. Lead can cause health problems for children, including learning problems, behavior problems including hyperactivity, a lower IQ, slowed growth and development and hearing and speech problems. That risk is not just physical, but also fiscal: A key part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment approved by the U.S. Judge Steven Rhodes was its focus on the importance of provisions to give incentives for families to move back to the Motor City‒a difficult parental choice in the wake of, four years ago, the Detroit News investigation which reported that nearly 500 Detroit children had died in homicides since 2000.

Notwithstanding the terrible health tragedy in Flint, Michigan has no rules mandating the state’s school districts to test for lead in their water supply, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. According to the GAO, at least eight states require schools to test for lead, and many others assist with voluntary testing. Dr. Khaldun said she supports creating a state law to mandate testing of water sources inside schools—a proposal which would entail substantial costs, creating the query: who will pay—and how?

According to Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Department supports any schools which wish to test, and the Department can offer technical assistance and general information on sampling, result interpretation, and recommended remedial actions in the event of elevated lead and/or copper results, adding that there are fiscal resources “available through the Michigan Department of Education,” and that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is providing information and guidance on best management practices for drinking water in schools to protect the health of students and staff.” In the meantime, the Detroit Public School District is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with the cost to have stations in every school, one for every 100 students, projected to be $2 million, with Dr. Vitti noting the goal is to deliver clean water, not replace the pipes, or as he put it: “We are not looking to replace the plumbing. The stations address the issue of older plumbing along with weekly flushing.”  

Unequal Treatment? The Financial Oversight and Management Board in Puerto Rico reports that over reliance on outside consultants with conflicts of interest and the failure to invest in a competent workforce have imposed huge costs on and severely weakened the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and other Puerto Rico government agencies, with the report including an entire chapter just on interest rate swap agreements, a complicated and high risk investment which, it estimates, has cost Puerto Rican government entities nearly $1.1 billion when they repeatedly bet the wrong way on interest rate movements—meaning that, instead of these investments reducing Puerto Rico’s debt, government entities, including PREPA, had to take on more debt to pay for the losses. It appears that the swaps, a novel means of transactions to Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank (GDB), where officials made these interest rate bets, or, as the report found, many of the GDB Board members who were required to approve the swap transactions, “were not familiar with the mechanics and risks associated with swaps. Many told us outright they could not describe how a swap worked. Instead, the GDB Board members told us they relied on the advice presented to them by the swap advisor.” That appears to denote that the GDB board members effectively ceded control over their investments in these very risky financial instruments to a third-party swap advisor—an advisor  that earned, and will garner fees for as long as the government of Puerto Rico continued to invest in the swaps, regardless of the outcome—an outcome in this case which entailed enormous losses. Moreover, the report demonstrated that, more generally, as the financial condition of Puerto Rico deteriorated, the deals became more complex and less transparent. An example of the utility PREPA’s overreliance on an outside restructuring advisor, AlixPartners, to lead PREPA’s debt restructuring negotiations with its municipal bondholders, as well as developing PREPA’s business plan and savings initiatives, revealed that PREPA paid Alix Partners $45 million in fees for a debt restructuring deal which was ultimately rejected by the PROMESA Oversight Board, which found the proposed financial agreement called for PREPA to pay more debt than the economy of Puerto Rico could support, and as the Puerto Rico Energy Commission found that the review lacked appropriate due diligence over the ongoing fees for legal counsel, financial advisors, and underwriters that would have accrued had the PREPA restructuring deal moved forward: the Commission specifically noted that the restructuring team charged with ensuring the reasonableness of advisor fees “includes the very advisors whose fees are in question…that is not the arm’s-length relationship necessary to protect consumers from excess fees.”

Investment in Good Governance. For elected state and local leaders, over reliance on consultants can go hand-in-hand with a failure to invest in the technical capacity and expertise of government staff. As noted by a Kobre & Kim report prepared on the evolving fiscal situation in Puerto Rico, PREPA has suffered over the years from a high degree of political interference, including the appointment of hundreds of political appointees to managerial and technical positions without regard for qualifications—appointments which appear to have not only cost considerably from a fiscal perspective, but also weakened the managerial competence of the agency. However, instead of recognizing this reality and implementing labor reforms designed to sharply curtail the influence of political appointees within the agency, the PROMESA Board has instead sought an across-the-board salary freeze and benefit cuts, even as the Board recognizes that PREPA has lost 30% of its workforce since 2012 and has severe shortages of skilled workers in key areas—and that it has developed no plan for workforce training and development, effectively seeming to force PREPA to continue to depend on consultants, rather than build its own expertise.

Is There Second Class U.S. Citizenship?

eBlog

September 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and await today’s PROMESA Board oversight hearing. We also examine pro-active efforts by the government to reduce future hurricane vulnerability on the island.   

Is There A Second Class U.S. Citizenship? The Trump administration has dismissed complaints filed by pro-statehood supporters, emphasizing that nothing prevents anyone from Puerto Rico who wishes to participate in the electoral process from moving to the mainland—with Kevin Sullivan, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. to the Organization of American States coming in response to complaints filed 12 years ago by former Governor Pedro Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartua.  The complains are to be considered October 5th at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights public hearing, as part of the 169th session of the OAS autonomous body, at the University of Colorado. According to Deputy Chief Sullivan’s communication with IACHR Executive Director, Paulo Abrao,  nothing in the American Declaration (of Human Rights) suggests that OAS member states cannot maintain federal systems in which their citizens participation in local and federal elections is determined by their residence or the state of the federal entity where they reside. Mr. Sullivan asserted that Puerto Rico’s current political status is not inconsistent with the American Declaration of Human Rights, and he defended the quasi-colonial position by arguing that it allows a limited participation, because Puerto Ricans can participate in voting in Presidential primaries, and they have the right to elect a non-voting Member to Congress. Mr. Sullivan went on to note that although Puerto Rico does not have state sovereignty, he claimed it has a “distinctive, in fact exceptional, status” with a “broad base of self-government.” Just over a year ago, Puerto Ricans, by referendum, voted for statehood for the first time on June 11, 2017, effectively initiating what Mr. Sullivan deemed a “political process,” the outcome of which, he said, “cannot be predicted by the United States,” even as he admitted that other territories’ petitions have been accepted. He added that Puerto Rican residents, who are U.S. citizens, are also free to move to any state, if they wish.

Proactive Shelter from the Next Storm. Luis Burdiel Agudo, Puerto Rico’s President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, has recommended making aid to homeowners rebuilding after Hurricane Maria contingent on their relocating out of flood-prone areas, with the President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, warning: “We need to move families to a safe place.”  Most local governments give homeowners the choice between raising their house or taking a buyout to move somewhere safer; however, elevating one’s home costs around $44,000, according to government estimates—an especially high bar in Puerto Rico, where the median income is $20,078, and the poverty rate is 43.5%‒the median home value is about $100,000. Those who remain in flood-prone areas also require flood insurance, which is difficult to obtain given the low-income rate in the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is withholding aid entirely unless residents move. 

Federal Assistance & Hard Choices. The federal government is expected to provide $20 billion in federal funding to rebuild after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and to better prepare for future storms—creating an almost Scylla versus Charybdis choice: thousands of the more than 100,000 homeowners on the island will have to choose between staying in their current property or rebuilding their homes. 

Could There Be Promise in PROMESA? The PROMESA Oversight Board is soliciting feedback on its report on the causes and development of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, the Board’s Special Claims Committee set to “pursue claims from the results” of a debt investigation, and a hearing set for today in San Juan—a hearing which will be streamed live on the Board’s website—with audio available in both English and Spanish. Board members Andrew Biggs, Arthur González, Ana Matosantos, and David Skeel are on the Special Claims Committee. The debt report includes a section which lays out numerous ways Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds and the steps that led to their issuance may have run afoul of laws and regulations. One issue which might or might not be addressed will be with regard to federal allocations promised to Puerto Rico to mitigate the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—some $41 billion, especially because authorities estimate that less than a quarter of those funds have, in fact, been disbursed. Moreover, the promised, but unreceived amount appears to be less than half the projected level of $100 billion needed to complete reconstruction. According to the data offered by the US government and Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día has only been able to detail disbursements of approximately $7.640 billion to government entities, businesses, and families in Puerto Rico. Omar Marrero, the Director of the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO), noted: “The reimbursement process has been really hard, particularly when FEMA has imposed some requirements on us as if we were a risk jurisdiction, when we were not declared so.” At the same time, the government of Puerto Rico has not managed yet to get funds flowing from the permanent project program under §428 of the Stafford Act, which will guide most repairs and new constructions. Director Marrero argues that the continued “discriminatory treatment” is an example of Puerto Rico’s lack of political power due to its territorial status. If anything, in the wake of the Whitefish scandal, attention on the management of emergency funds has increased, and, as recently as last weekend, President Trump fanned the idea that the government of Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt in the country.

To date, the bulk of the federal assistance has come via Congressional resolutions, with the distribution mainly through HUD, FEMA, and the Department of Health and Human Services: half of the allocations were made through the CDBG Disaster Recovery program; however, not even the first $1.5 billion has been made available—funds which were to be allocated last month to assist with the reconstruction of houses destroyed or damaged by the hurricane. Director Marrero noted: “It is still necessary to sign the agreement between HUD and the Puerto Rico Department of Housing. Without that contract, the funds cannot be disbursed,” adding that second part of the CDBG-DR package, which would reach $ 8.2 billion, will not arrive until next year, which would delay its impact on the economy and the development of infrastructure projects. He added that the funds are more important, especially because FEMA did not approve granting federal assistance for permanent reconstruction work, “based on having a bad experience with that program.” The wait may be understood as especially stressful, because the potential aid package from Congress includes nearly $2 billion in CDBG funding which must be used to rebuild the power grid. With the hurricane season still vicious, there are obvious fears at the delay. Thus, Puerto Rico is pressing to reactivate exemptions in the payment of part of the cost for debris removal and taking emergency measures in the face of a natural disaster. The disaster has also re-demonstrated a double standard: in the Lone Star State, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center, FEMA claimed it provided $13.820 billion in “the pockets of survivors” via federal and state grants, and flood insurance programs ($ 8.8 billion). In Puerto Rico, however, the percentage of homes with FEMA insurance is minimal.

Stormy Fiscal Warnings. Moody’s has warned that a “large part of the money (FEMA assistance) will not remain on the island,” a fiscal storm warning which could undercut Puerto Rico’s expectations of 2019 6.5% economic growth. Some of that projection assumes the government will be able to efficiently take advantage of the $4.8 billion in extra Medicaid assistance it received—funds which can be used until next September without a local match. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico must plan on the resumption of its contribution to the Mi Salud plan—a plan which will be complicated by the apprehension that Medicaid emergency funds may run out during in FY2020—an exhaustion which could carry a price tag of as much as $1 billion.

Has There Been a Double Standard? In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which sent a number of us from Arlington County, Virginia hurtling to Mississippi to try to assist in rebuilding, and which leveraged Congress to name a bipartisan committee, a mere seventeen days after the storm struck, to investigate the Bush Administration’s response to the storm, with, in the Senate, twenty-two FEMA oversight hearings in six months—and within eight months, the release of 500-plus-page investigations into the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis—investigations with dozens of recommendations for reform; there has been no comparable reaction from this Congress to a storm which caused a much greater loss of American lives—nearly 70% more. The U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA, has held just two hearings; neither the House nor the Senate has issued any major reports. Hurricane Maria, according to George Washington University’s report, killed an estimated 2,975 Americans in Puerto Rico—an estimate which, last week, the President claimed was a fake number. Or, as Irwin Redlener, the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University put it: “Puerto Rico is getting far less attention, in spite of it being one of the worst disasters in modern American history, than Katrina, and far less attention than we got for Superstorm Sandy…From the beginning, the handling of Maria’s consequences both from the White House and Congress has been abysmally inadequate.” Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s Gulf Coast devastation, House GOP leaders called for an investigation; they created a select committee to investigate the storm. That committee held nine public hearings; it reviewed more than 500,000 pages of documents, according to the 582-page report, titled “A Failure of Initiative,” which was released less than six months after Katrina struck. The Senate conducted its own investigation into the Bush administration’s response to Katrina, with the Senate Committee on Government Affairs holding nearly two dozen hearings with 85 witnesses; the Committee reviewed over 838,000 pages of documents; it heard testimony from 325 persons involved in the response. Many of the hearings focused on narrow issues, such as search-and-rescue efforts after the storm. In this Congress, in contrast, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has held two hearings related to the 2017 hurricane season, and it has reviewed more than 17,000 documents.  Last week, Ranking House Oversight Committee Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) released a report complaining about a lack of hearings and responsible oversight—a report which might have triggered Chairman Tray Gowdy (R-S.C), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to FEMA to request all communications from 13 FEMA officials related to 10 different aspects of FEMA’s response to the storm, including the lack of qualified personnel, wiring issues with the electrical system and problems with existing disaster plans. It was just the second letter requesting information about FEMA sent by the committee and the first since Oct. 11, 2017.

“Who’s on First? Who’s in Charge–elected or imposed leaders?

June 22, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the physical, fiscal, and mixed governance challenges which must be overcome in Puerto Rico.

Will There Be Luz? Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law a bill to partially privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, potentially affecting the authority’s $8.9 billion in outstanding debt. The new law is intended to provide for the sale of the public utility’s power generation units and make a concession of its transmission and distribution system, according to a statement by the Governor—a concession which could involve a lease arrangement, as was done for Puerto Rico’s main airport. Under the proposed privatization, revenues realized could be utilized to address PREPA’s debt. purchasers would not assume PREPA’s debt; instead the public utility would use proceeds from any sale of a power plant to pay off a portion of the debt, or, as the Governor put it on Wednesday, the money raised could be used, at least in part, to contribute to PREPA’s underfunded public pension system. The new legislation comes in the wake of, last April, the PROMESA Oversight Board’s certification of a fiscal plan which assumed PREPA privatization—but which did not impose assumptions with regard to how the proceeds would be used. Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia, an attorney-at-law and the former 15th President of the Puerto Rico Senate—as well as a former Fulbright scholar, noted: “The bill that Governor Rosselló signed today essentially authorizes the Governor to proceed with a ‘market sound[ing]’ and identify any and all potential private sector interest in the development of a new energy system in Puerto Rico,” adding: “Notable is that the bill does not authorize any sale before the Puerto Rico Legislature prepares, within 180 days, a statement of public policy specifically mandating what the new system will look like in 30 years.” Gov. Rosselló noted that Puerto Rico’s Public-Private Partnerships Authority would oversee the potential leasing of the transmission and distribution grid—a process expected to occur over the next year and a half. From a governance perspective, the Governor, PROMESA Oversight Board, and advisory teams plan to form a working group to steer the process.

Quein Es Encargado II? Meanwhile, the seemingly unending governance question with regard to who is in charge appears to be escalating. In putting an end, yesterday, to Puerto Rico’s debate on Law 80-1976, the Law on Unjustified Dismissal, the Puerto Rico Senate not only opened the door to annul the agreement reached by the Executive and the Oversight Board around the budget, but also appeared to intensify the power struggle between Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz; Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, and the PROMESA Oversight Board. Upon learning the Puerto Rico Senate did not support the repeal of the statute—as demanded by the PROMESA Board, the Governor accused Senate President Schatz of acting to the detriment of Puerto Rico, for political reasons, even as PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, who, like the Senate President, was in Washington, D.C. yesterday, warned that keeping the labor statute in force would imply reversing the certified tax plan, which includes cuts in vacation leave, days of sickness, and the Christmas bonus, stating: “There is a certified plan. If not (repeal it), we revert to the fiscal plan,” in the wake of his participation at forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.

Chair Carrión warned that reversion to the certified fiscal plan would mean at least $300 million in additional budget cuts over the next five years. He noted that the proposed structural reforms seek to “generate economic growth: We have limited powers (to make decisions that boost economic growth), but one of them is the labor area.”

The Board is scheduled to meet a week from today to discuss the upcoming fiscal year budget—scheduled to take effect at the end of next week.

In criticizing the actions of Senate President Rivera Schatz, Gov. Rosselló Nevares said that the upper House leader had opted to “hinder” his administration, and held him responsible for the millions of dollars in cuts that may wreak fiscal harm to the island’s municipios, as well as other governmental entities, noting, in a written statement: “Puerto Rico has just seen how politics is made and not how a future government should be made in times of challenges and difficulties, with this regrettable decision by the President of the Senate. We will follow the path of change and transformation that we have forged; however, this was the time to unite and together to get out of the shameful past we inherited. He chose to hinder, chose to follow the tricks of the past that have put us in this situation: the risk of the loss of billions of dollars for Puerto Rico as a result of restructuring the debt falls on this action. Likewise, the loss of millions of dollars in appropriations for the municipal governments that we had achieved also falls on the President of the Senate. Sen. Rivera Schatz added that he anticipated he would appear before a judicial forum to challenge the powers of the unelected PROMESA Oversight Board to alter Puerto Rico’s budget, noting: “The Senate ends the matter of Law 80. It is not going to repeal Law 80. If it were up to us to go to court to litigate against the Board, I advance that I already talked with lawyers to do so.” (The repeal of Law 80 was a specific condition presented by the Board in exchange for disbursing additional financial aid to municipios, the University of Puerto Rico, and guaranteeing holiday leave and sick days for private sector employees.)

At the same time, during the meeting of the majority caucus of the New Progressive Party, a proposal by Sen. Miguel Romero to ascribe to the Law against discrimination in employment (Law 100-1959) by adding some amendments to Law 80 was defeated  15 -5, with the prevailing majority choosing to defer consideration of the issue during the current session—which ends Monday. Sen. Romero proposed creating a system of fixed payments for dismissals that violate only the Anti-Discrimination Law 100, but insisted on repealing Law 80, which deals with another area of ​​labor law by providing remedies for severance without just cause.

Not unlike in the U.S. Congress, the Puerto Rico House and Senate do not always see ojo to ojo (eye to eye). The House intends to address Puerto Rico’s relationship with the Oversight Board differently, with House President Carlos “Johnny” Méndez stating, yesterday, that he has to study what is the probability of prevailing in a lawsuit with the Oversight Board defense of budget items, adding that he considers the controversy over Law 80 to be over. In response to a question whether the House would join a lawsuit initiated by the Senate to combat the cuts applied by the Board, Senate President Méndez replied: “We have to sit down to see what the arguments are and make a decision: the Promise law has supremacy over everything. It does not even allow us to sue the Oversight Board. We have to see what the arguments are, the legal basis for making a decision. It is not going to be a futile exercise. If we have more than a 50% chance of prevailing, of course we will be there.” He added that, if he opts for litigation, he would challenge the authority and ability of the unelected Oversight Board to establish public policy.

What about Manana? Even as the question of governance proceeded, two PROMESA Board members yesterday concurred with a panel of other experts that an overhaul Puerto Rico’s local labor laws is a key for the territory’s future growth. At a session in Washington, D.C. at the Heritage Foundation, PROMESA Chair Jose Carrion joined Anne Krueger, economics Professor at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, and fellow Board Member Andrew Biggs—with their discussion coming on some of the same issues. With Puerto Rico’s elected leaders considering instituting the same at-will employment statutes used in many states, as well as adding more restrictive rules for receiving food stamps and instituting an earned income tax credit to encourage work, the panelists described Puerto Rico’s labor laws as more restrictive than any state—a factor, perhaps, that could help explain the exodus from Puerto Rico of so many better economic opportunities on the mainland. The panelists noted the challenge will be to convince the people of Puerto Rico that a more competitive labor market will produce more jobs, with PROMESA Board member Andrew Biggs, noting that economists predict there would be an additional one percentage point of annual economic growth if the reforms were adopted. PROMESA Board Chair Jose Carrión noted he, as an employer in Puerto Rico, is only too well aware of how “onerous” the labor laws are, adding: “[I]t does not make Puerto Rico competitive with places to where we are losing our population such as Florida.” Employers in Puerto Rico, for instance, are required to give workers 24 hours off after they work 8 hours, said Professor Anne Krueger of Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, noting that the labor force participation rate is only 38% on Puerto Rico compared to 63% on the mainland, she said. In the end, the PROMESA Board appeared to reach an agreement with the Governor on proposed labor law changes. Now, warns Chair Carrión, if the legislature does not agree, the PROMESA Board will govern in place of Puerto Rico’s elected leaders.

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Leadership

08/07/17

Share on Twitter

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the fiscal challenge as election season is upon the Motor City: what kind of a race can we expect? Then we observe the changing of the guard in San Bernardino—as the city’s first post-chapter 9 City Manager settles in as she assumes a critical fiscal leadership role in the city emerging from municipal bankruptcy. Third, we consider the changing of the fiscal guard in Atlantic City, as outgoing (not a pun) Gov. Chris Christie begins the process of restoring municipal authority. Then we turn to what might be a fiscal turnaround underway in Puerto Rico, before, fourth, considering the special fiscal challenge to Puerto Rico’s municipios—or municipalities.

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Leadership. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the city’s first post-chapter 9 mayor, has been sharing his goals for a second term, and speaking about some of his city’s proudest moments as he seeks a high turnout at tomorrow’s primary election mayoral primary election‒the first since the city exited municipal bankruptcy three years ago, noting he is: “very proud of the fact the unemployment rate in Detroit is the lowest it has been in 17 years: today he notes there are 20,000 more Detroiters working than 4 years ago. In January 2014, there were 40,000 vacant houses in the city, and today 25,000. We knocked down 12,000 and 3,000 had families who moved in and fixed them up,” adding: “For most Detroiters, that means the streetlights are on, grass is cut in the parks, busses are running on time, police and ambulances showing up in a timely basis and trash picked up and streets swept.” Notwithstanding those accomplishments, however, he confronts seven contenders—with perhaps the signal challenge coming from Michigan State Senator Coleman Young, Jr., whose father, Coleman Young, served as Detroit’s first African-American Mayor from 1974 to 1994. Mr. Young claims he is the voice for the people who have been forgotten in Detroit’s neighborhoods, noting: “I want to put people to work and reduce poverty of 48% in Detroit. I think that’s atrocious. I also want mass transit that goes more than 3 miles,” adding he is seeking ‘real change,’ charging that today in Detroit: “We’re doing more for the people who left the city of Detroit, than the people who stayed. That’s going to stop in a Young administration.” Remembering his father, he adds: “I don’t think there will ever be another Coleman Young, but I am the closest thing to him that’s on this planet that’s living.” (Other candidates in tomorrow’s non-partisan primary include Articia Bomer, Dean Edward, Curtis Greene, Donna Marie Pitts, and Danetta Simpson.)  

According to an analysis by the Detroit News, voters will have some interesting alternatives: half of the eight candidates have been convicted of felony crimes involving drugs, assault, or weapons—with three charged with gun crimes and two for assault with intent to commit murder, albeit, some of the offenses date back as far as 1977. (Under Michigan election law, convicted felons can vote and run for office, just as long as they are neither incarcerated nor guilty of crimes breaching public trust.

Taking the Reins.  San Bernardino has named its first post-chapter 9 bankruptcy city manager, selecting assistant City Manager and former interim city manager, Andrea Miller, to the position—albeit with some questions with regard to the $253,080 salary in a post-chapter 9 recovering municipality where the average household income is less than $36,000 and where officials assert the city’s budget is insufficient to fully address basic public services, such as street maintenance or a fully funded police department. Nevertheless, Mayor Cary Davis and the City Council voted unanimously, commenting on Ms. Miller’s experience, vision, and commitment to stay long-term, or, as Councilman Fred Shorett told his colleagues: “As the senior councilmember—I’ve been sitting in this dais longer than anybody else—I think we’ve had, if we count you twice, eight city managers in a total of 9 years: We have not had continuity.”  However, apprehension about continuity as the city addresses and implements its plan of debt adjustment remains—or, as Councilmember John Valdivia insisted, there needs to be a “solemn commitment to the people of San Bernardino” by Ms. Miller to serve at least five years, as he told his colleagues: “During Mayor (Carey) Davis’ four years in office, the Council is now voting on the third city manager: San Bernardino cannot expect a successful recovery with this type of rampant leadership turnover at City Hall…Ms. Miller is certainly qualified, but I am concerned that she has already deserted our community once before.” Ms. Miller was the city’s assistant city manager in 2012, when then-City Manager Charles McNeely abruptly resigned, leaving Ms. Miller as interim city manager to discover that the city would have to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy—a responsibility she addressed with aplomb: she led San Bernardino through the first six months of its municipal bankruptcy, before leaving without removing “interim” from her title, instead assuming the position of executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments.

Ms. Miller noted: “I would remind the Council that I was here as your interim city manager previously, and I did not accept the permanent appointment, because I felt like I could not make that commitment given some of the dynamics…(Since then) this Council and this community have implemented a new city charter, the Council came together in a really remarkable way and had a discussion with me that we had not been able to have previously: You committed to some regular discussion about what your expectations are, you committed to strategic planning. And so, with all those things and a strategic plan that involves all of us in a stronger, better San Bernardino, yes I can make that commitment.” Interestingly, the new contract mandates at least two strategic planning sessions per year—and, she told the Council additional sessions would probably be wise. The contract the city’s new manager signed is longer than the city’s most recent ones—mayhap leavened by experience: the length and the pay are higher than the $248,076 per year the previous manager received. Although Ms. Miller is not a San Bernardino resident, she told the Mayor and Council she is committed to the city and said the city should strive to recruit other employees who do live in the city.

Not Gaming Atlantic City’s Future. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s administration last week announced it had settled all the remaining tax appeals filed by Atlantic City casinos, ending a remarkable fiscal drain which has contributed to the city’s fiscal woes and state takeover. Indeed, it appears to—through removal of fiscal uncertainty and risk‒open the door to the Mayor and Council to reduce its tax rate over the long-term as the costs of the appeal are known and able to be paid out of the bonds sold earlier this year—effectively spinning the dial towards greater fiscal stability and sustainability. Here, the agreements were reached with: Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s, the Golden Nugget, Tropicana, and the shuttered Trump Plaza and Trump Taj Mahal: it comes about half a year in the wake of the state’s tax appeal settlement with Borgata, under which the city agreed to pay $72 million of the $165 million the casino was owed. While the Christie administration did not announce dollar amounts for any of the seven settlements announced last week, it did clarify that an $80 million bond ordinance adopted by the city will cover all the payments—effectively clearing the fiscal path for Atlantic City to act to reduce its tax rate over the long term as the costs of the appeal are known and can be paid out of the municipal bonds sold earlier this year.  

In these tax appeals, the property owners have claimed they paid more in taxes than they should have—effectively burdening the fiscally besieged municipality with hundreds of millions in debt over the last few years as officials sought to avoid going into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Unsurprisingly, Gov. Christie has credited the state takeover of Atlantic City for fostering the settlements, asserting his actions were the “the culmination of my administration’s successful efforts to address one of the most significant and vexing challenges that had been facing the city…Because of the agreements announced today, casino property tax appeals no longer threaten the city’s financial future.” The Governor went on to add that his appointment of Jeffrey Chiesa, the former U.S. Senator and New Jersey Attorney General to usurp all municipal fiscal authority in Atlantic City when, in his words, Atlantic City was “overwhelmed by millions of dollars of crushing casino tax appeal debt that they hadn’t unraveled,” have now, in the wake of the state takeover, resulted in the city having a “plan in place to finance this debt that responsibly fits within its budget.” The lame duck Governor added in the wake of the state takeover, the city will see an 11.4% drop in residents’ overall 2017 property tax rate. For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian described the fiscal turnaround as “more good news for Atlantic City taxpayers that we have been working towards since 2014: When everyone finally works together for the best interest of Atlantic City’s taxpayers and residents, great things can happen.”

Puerto Rican Debt. The Fiscal Supervision Board in the U.S. territory wants to initiate a discussion into Puerto Rico’s debt—and how that debt has weighed on the island’s fiscal crisis—making clear in issuing a statement that its investigation will include an analysis of the fiscal crisis and its taxpayers, and a review of Puerto Rico’s debt and issuance, including disclosure and sales practices, vowing to carry out its investigation consistent with the authority granted under PROMESA. It is unclear, however, how that report will mesh with the provision of PROMESA, §411, which already provides for such an investigation, directing the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to provide a report on the debt of Puerto Rico no later than one year after the approval of PROMESA (a deadline already passed: GAO notes the report is expected by the end of this year.). The fiscal kerfuffle comes as the PROMESA Oversight Board meets today to discuss—and mayhap render a decision with regard to furloughs and an elimination of the Christmas bonus as part of a fiscal oversight effort to address an expected cash shortfall this Fall, after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, at the end of last month, vowed he would go to court to block any efforts by the PROMESA Board to force furloughs, apprehensive such an action would fiscally backfire by causing a half a billion dollar contraction in Puerto Rico’s economy.

Thus, we might be at an OK Corral showdown: PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III has warned that if the Board were to mandate furloughs and the governor were to object, the board would sue. As proposed by the PROMESA Board, Puerto Rican government workers are to be furloughed four days a month, unless they work in an excepted class of employees: for instance, teachers and frontline personnel who worked for 24-hour staffed institutions would only be furloughed two days a month, law enforcement personnel not at all—all part of the Board’s fiscal blueprint to save the government $35 million to $40 million monthly.  However, as the ever insightful Municipal Market Advisors managing partner Matt Fabian warns, it appears “inevitable” that furloughs and layoffs would hurt the economy in the medium term—or, as he wrote: “To the extent employee reductions create a protest environment on the island, it may make the Board’s work more difficult going forward, but this is the challenge of downsizing an over-large, mismanaged government.” At the same time, Joseph Rosenblum, the Director of municipal credit research at AllianceBernstein, added: “It would be easier to comment about the situation in Puerto Rico if potential investors had more details on their cash position on a regular basis…And it would also be helpful if the Oversight Board was more transparent about how it arrived at its spending estimates in the fiscal plan.”

Pensiones. The PROMESA Board and Puerto Rico’s muncipios appear to have achieved some progress on the public pension front: PROMESA Board member Andrew Biggs asserts that the fiscal plan called for 10% cuts to pension spending in future fiscal years, while Sobrino Vega said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has promised to make full pension payments. Natalie Ann Jaresko, the former Ukraine Minister of Finance whom former President Obama appointed to serve as Executive Director of PROMESA Fiscal Control Board, described the reduction as part of the fiscal plan that the Governor had promised to observe: the fiscal plan assumed that the Puerto Rican government would cut $880 million in spending in the current fiscal year. Indeed, in the wake of analyzing the government’s implementation plans, the PROMESA Board appeared comfortable that the cuts would save $662 million—with the Board ordering furloughs to make up the remaining $218 million. The fiscal action came as PROMESA Board member Carlos García said that the board last Spring presented the 10 year fiscal plan guiding government actions with certain conditions, Gov. Rosselló agreed to them, so that the Board approved the plan with said conditions, providing that the government achieve a certain level of liquidity by the end of June and submit valid implementation plans for spending cuts. Indeed, Puerto Rico had $1.8 billion in liquidity at the end of June, well over the $291 million that had been projected, albeit PROMESA Board member Ana Matosantos asserted the $1.8 billion denoted just a single data point. Ms. Jaresko, however, advised that this year’s government cuts were just the beginning: the Board fiscal plan calls for the budget cuts to more than double from $880 million in this year, to $1.7 billion in FY 2019, to $2.1 billion in FY2020.  No Puerto Rican government representative was allowed to make a presentation to the board on the issue of furloughs.

Not surprisingly, in Puerto Rico, where the unemployment rate is nearly triple the current U.S. rate, the issue of furloughs has raised governance issues: Sobrino Vega, the Governor’s chief economic advisor non-voting representative on the PROMESA Oversight Board, said there was only one government of Puerto Rico and that was Gov. Rosselló’s, adding that under §205 of PROMESA, the board only had the powers to recommend on issues such as furloughs, noting: “We can’t take lightly the impact of the furloughs on the economy,” adding the government will meet its fiscal goals, but it will do it according its own choices, but that the Puerto Rican government will cooperate with the Board on other matters besides furloughs. His statement came in the wake of PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III’s statement in June that if Puerto Rico did not comply with a board order for furloughs, the Board would sue.

Cambio?  Puerto Rico Commonwealth Treasury Secretary Raul Maldonado has reported that Puerto Rico’s tax revenue collections last month were was ahead of projections, marking a positive start to the new fiscal year for an island struggling with municipal bankruptcy and a 45% poverty rate. Secretary Maldonado reported the positive cambio (in Spanish, “cambio” translates to change—and may be used both to describe cash as well as change, just as in English.): “I think we are going to be $20 to $30 million over the forecast: For July, we started the fiscal year already in positive territory, because we are over the forecast. We have to close the books on the final adjustment but we feel we are over the budget.” His office had reported the revenue collection forecast for July, the start of Puerto Rico’s 2017-2018 fiscal year, was $600.8 million: in the previous fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s tax collections exceeded forecasts by $234.9 million, or 2.6%, to $9.33 million, with the key drivers coming from the foreign corporations excise tax, the sales and use tax, and the motor vehicle excise tax. Sec. Maldonado, who is also Puerto Rico’s CFO, reported that each government department is required to freeze its spending and purchase orders at 95% of the monthly budget, noting: “I want to make sure that they don’t overspend. By freezing 5%, I am creating a cushion so if there is any variance on a monthly basis we can address that. It is a hardline budget approach but it is a special time here.” Sec. Maldonado also said he was launching a centralized tax collection pilot program, with guidance from the U.S. Treasury—one under which three large and three small municipalities have enrolled in an effort to assess which might best increase tax collection efficiency while cutting bureaucracy in Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, noting: “We are going to submit the tax reform during August, and we will include that option as an alternative to the municipalities.”

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.

What Do Today’s Fiscal Storms Augur for Puerto Rico and New Jersey’s Fiscal Futures?

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 03/13/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the frigid challenges awaiting Puerto Rico in New York City’s Alexander Hamilton Building today, where even as a fierce winter storm promises heavy snow, the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico will likely confront its own harsh challenge by the PROMESA Board to its efforts to reassert ownership and control of Puerto Rico’s fiscal future. Then we turn south to New Jersey, where there are fiscal and weather storm warnings, with the former focused on a legacy of public pension debt that Governor Chris Christie will bequeath to his successors.

Is There Promise or UnPromise in PROMESA? In the wake of changes made by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to update its economic growth projections to address a concern expressed by the PROMESA Oversight Board, it remains unclear whether that will be certified by today—when the Board will convene in New York City in the Alexander Hamilton building to act on measures intended to guide the fiscal future of the U.S. territory over the next decade. The update was made in an effort to close a new gap between Puerto Rico’s projected revenue and expenditure projections, since the new economic projections altered all the Government’s revenue estimates. Gov. Rosselló, in an interview with El Nuevo Día, explained his administration had ordered four new measures to correct the insufficiency, which had been estimated at $262 million: the first measure would be an increase in the tax on tobacco products, an increase projected to add around $161 million in public funds, nearly doubling the current rate. The Governor proposed eliminating Christmas bonuses from the highest salaries in the government and public corporations, albeit without providing details with regard to the distinction between an executive salary and a non-executive salary, stating the changes would generate savings of between $10 million and $20 million. He also said the revised, updated plan would reflect an additional $78 million by means of the reconfiguration of the property tax through an appraisal process, as well as modifications to achieve $35 million in savings by means of changing the amount of sick and vacation days which public servants accrue, noting: “We were able to evaluate some of the economic development projections, and, even though our economists don’t agree with the Oversight Board’s s economists, we’ve used the Board’s economic projections within our model for the sake of getting the fiscal plan certified…(Due to the changes) we’ve prepared, some initiatives to have additional savings of up to $262 million. We had already assuaged some of the Board’s concerns within the same proposal we had made, and those were clarified.”

The Governor indicated that the decision taken yesterday does not imply that he will support other proposals made by the Board, noting that he especially opposed the suggestions to reduce the working hours of public employees by almost 20% and cutting professional services in the government by 50%, in order to reduce costs immediately in an effort to ensure the government does not run out of cash by the first two quarters of the next fiscal year, admitting that current projections suggest they are short by around $190 million, and warning: “This (the Board’s proposals) has a toxic effect on workers and on the economy.”

In response to the PROMESA Board’s apprehensions about the double counting of revenues in its submitted plan, the Governor noted: “We’ve established that our public policy is to renegotiate the debt. The idea is to keep everything in one place so we can work with it. The debt service will be affected depending on economic development projections, but we haven’t touched that part of the fiscal plan. We’re focusing on preparing the collection areas, because we’re aware that (government revenues) have been overestimated in the past. We’ve answered questions about healthcare, revenue, government size, and we’ve worked on the pension category within our administration’s public policy about protecting the most vulnerable as much as possible.”

As for today’s session in New York, noting that he believes the government has succeeded in answering the Board’s questions and concerns, and, using the Board’s economic growth numbers, the Governor believes the updated plan will address the revenue gap without major cuts, noting: “That’s no small thing. We’ve been able to dilute it and make the impact progressive, in the sense that those who have more have to contribute more, and keep the most vulnerable from losing access. We’ve established a plan of cost reduction. Now, the plan guarantees structural changes in the government so it operates better, as well as changes to the healthcare model and the educational model. It defends the most vulnerable, it doesn’t reduce the payroll by 30% or 20%, and it doesn’t reduce working hours like they’ve asked, and we reduced tax measures.” Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló noted that the Board’s proposed service delivery cuts of as much as 50% affect health care and education—defining those two vital government services as ones in which such deep proposed cuts could trigger a drop in the economy by 8% or 9%, noting: “I’m very aware that the ones that are in the middle of all this are the people of Puerto Rico.” Indeed, the plan considers cuts to retiree pensions, lapses in the basic coverage of the Mi Salud healthcare program, a freeze in tax incentives, agency mergers, privatizations, and reductions in transfers to the University of Puerto Rico and to municipalities. On the revenue side, the Governor’s proposal seeks to increase the collection of the Puerto Rico Sales and Use Tax, the property tax, and corporate taxes. In addition, it boosts the cost of insurance, penalties, and licenses granted by the Government.

With or without the endorsement of Governor Rosselló’s administration, when the PROMESA Board meets today in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, the agenda includes certifying a plan that some argue goes far beyond not only considering the Governor’s proposed fiscal recommendations, but to some marks a transition under which the PROMESA Board members will “will become both the Legislative and Executive powers in Puerto Rico.” That is to note that this and ensuing fiscal budgets, or at least until the government of Puerto Rico is able to balance four consecutive budgets and achieve medium- and long-term access to financial markets—will first be overseen and subject to approval by the Oversight Board, as well every piece of legislation which has a fiscal impact.

Balancing. The undelicate federalism balance of power will be subject to review next week, when the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Insular Affairs has a scheduled PROMESA oversight hearing.

The Stakes & States of Yieldy—or Kicking the Pension Can Down the Road.  Alan Schankel, Janney Capital Markets’ fine analyst has now warned that the Garden State’s lack of a significant plan to address New Jersey’s deteriorating fiscal conditions will lead to more credit rating downgrades and wider credit spreads, writing that New Jersey is unique among what he deemed the nation’s “yieldy states,” because the bulk of its tax-supported debt is not full faith and credit, lacks a credit pledge, and some 90% of the debt payments are subject to annual appropriation. If that were not enough, Mr. Schankel wrote that the state is burdened by another fiscal whammy: it sports among the lowest pension funding levels of any state combined with a high debt load and other OPEB liabilities. Mr. Schankel warned the fiscal road ahead could aggravate the dire fiscal outlook, noting that the recent sales tax reduction from 7% to 6.625%, combined with phasing out the estate tax under last year’s $16 billion Transportation Trust Fund renewal, will reduce the state’s annual revenue by $1.4 billion by 2021—long after Gov. Christie has left office, noting that the state’s unfunded pension liabilities worsened when in the wake of FY2014—16 revenue shortfalls, New Jersey reduced pension funding to a level below the scheduled-ramp up Gov. Chris Christie had agreed to his as part of New Jersey’s 2011 pension reform legislation, emphasizing that public pension underfunding has been “aggravated by current leadership,” albeit noting that such underfunding is neither new, nor partisan: “This long history of kicking the can down the road seems poised to continue, and although New Jersey appropriation backed debt offers some of the highest yields among all states, we advise caution…Given the persistent lack of political willingness to aggressively address the state’s financial morass, we believe the future holds more likelihood of rating downgrades than upgrades.”