The Tides of Immgration: Are there Fiscal Consequences?

June 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the tides of emigration as they fiscally challenge the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Today, more than one million Puerto Ricans live in New York City, just under one-third of Puerto Ricans who reside in Puerto Rico, with the likelihood of emigrating from Puerto Rico to Gotham increasing for single Puerto Ricans between the ages of 25 and 29 who have never married, do not own property, and whose income is limited, albeit not to the point of being below the federal poverty level. The majority are men, and the destinations of preference seem to be cities in Florida, New York, or Texas. In theory, about a fifth of those who left will return, judging by the rate of return reported on the immigration side to Puerto Rico. According to the most recent census data, in 2016, some 89,000 left Puerto Rico, a number which appears to indicate a rising trend, albeit, there is some evidence that the pattern might be changing—with that pattern affected by not only destination, but also by the level of academic achievement of those leaving Puerto Rico.

While we await, in December, 2017 emigration data, early indications based upon passenger counts at airports, appear to represent very high migration trends, finding, for instance, that last year, more than 281,000 Puerto Ricans left Puerto Rico than arrived there—an indication of the demographic impact of Hurricane Maria. Demographer Judith Rodríguez wrote in the 2016 Migrant Profile (published last week) that “The recent wave of migration in the last decade exceeds the Great Exodus of 1950-60, which has great impact on the social and economic level.” More recent data, however, indicates this demographic tide may finally be ebbing: during this year’s first month, January, 58,202 more arrived on the island than left, with the patter continuing the next month when there was a net positive inflow of 10, 698—a number which ebbed by March to 1,510—a change estimated to be temporary.

After New York, Florida appears to be the emigration state of choice: currently, around 30% of Puerto Rican emigrants choose a city in Florida, mainly in the central zone. At the same time, Texas is rising as a demographic state of choice. It appears more likely than not that New York City will continue to be a focal point of Puerto Rican emigration, due to cultural and family ties with Puerto Ricans since the migrations of the early twentieth century in the wake of the enactment of the Jones-Shafroth Act. According to the most recently updated Census figures, New York City is in the top three exodus destinations for emigrating Puerto Ricans.

But this is not all one-way traffic: many Puerto Ricans appear to be going home, with the largest such numbers coming from the states of Florida and New York; however, the number returning from the states of Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Washington make up more than half the total.

While it is more difficult to assess who is leaving and who is staying, Census data indicates that 48% of Puerto Ricans living in the D.C. metropolitan area have at least a bachelor’s degree, and, overall, 78% of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland have at least some level of university education, nearly three times the percentage of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Miami. Income wise, Washington, D.C. is the location, which appears to have drawn Puerto Ricans with both the greatest levels of scholastic achievement and the most income: the median household income for Puerto Ricans in the nation’s capital is $87,713. Next, after Washington DC, mainland cities with the highest median income for the Puerto Ricans are Miami ($50,945), Chicago ($47,232) and New Haven ($43,165). The disparity in annual income perhaps demonstrates the lure of emigrating from Puerto Rico, where the median income of a household is around $ 19,977, according to the Census data.

However, for Puerto Ricans leaving for the mainland, nirvana is not guaranteed: in the cities of Springfield and Boston, as well as in Hartford, there are high poverty levels are high for Puerto Ricans: in Springfield, more than one-third of the more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans live below the federal poverty level—a level comparable to the 31% below that level in the Boston metro region, and 26.5% in the Springfield metropolitan area have incomes that place them below the poverty level.  In addition, age is a discriminating factor: in Springfield, almost 50% of Puerto Ricans under the age of 18 live below the poverty line—a figure that compares unfavorably to the 46% of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico who fall below the federal poverty line of $12,060 for an individual.

The Prospects and Draws for Emigration. Demographic data with regard to those leaving Puerto Rico finds that the bulk of emigrants worked in 2016 as administrative office staff (6,822), followed by operators of production lines (5,445), vendors (4,870), and food preparers (3,264). According to the date, some 382 desperately needed doctors left—while some 1,376 nursing professionals left the island. Stateside, 82% of the 2.2 million Puerto Ricans who are working on the mainland are employed in the private sector; 4% have their own business. 14% of the jobs occupied by Puerto Ricans are in the government. In Puerto Rico, that figure rises to 22%, according to data from the Census Bureau. On the other hand, most of those who immigrated or returned to Puerto Rico were vendors (1,383) or educators (1,101).

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) The Puerto Rico Senate has killed a an agreement between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the PROMESA Oversight Board, potentially escalating the governance conflict with regard to Puerto Rico’s operating budget and the restructuring of the central government’s $51 billion of debt. Last Friday, Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz threatened a lawsuit against the Board if it continues to attempt to preempt Puerto Rico’s government in order to impose budget cuts or the repeal of worker protection measures. In a compromise with the Governor, the Board had agreed to maintain Puerto Rico’s mandatory Christmas bonus, vacation and sick day policies in exchange for Gov. Rosselló’s agreement to introduce at-will employment for all employers by repealing a 1976 law, Law 80. The House, at the end of last month, had approved the measure, before the Senate amended it to introduce at-will employment only for employees entering the workforce. Indeed, as we had previously noted, last Thursday, the Senate President had declared the Law 80 repeal to be dead, after speaking with other members of the majority New Progressive Party caucus in the Senate. Moreover, according to a video posted on the El Nuevo Día website, the Senate leader said he had consulted lawyers and was ready to fight in court, if the PROMESA Board seeks to preempt the island’s elected leaders. The power struggle came as the Puerto Rico House has added funding to a budget bill—spending which Puerto Rico House President Carlos Méndez and Treasury Committee President Antonio Soto said they expected the PROMESA Board would reject—relying on the Congressional PROMESA Act granting the Board the right to create and approve its own version of Puerto Rico’s budget—as is, for instance, the current budget. Puerto Rico’s new fiscal budget year begins this Sunday—a date by which, on normal years, like most states, but unlike the federal government, its fiscal year operating budget would normally have been adopted—but, where, last Thursday, PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, in New York City, stated that if the government opted not to repeal Law 80, the currently certified fiscal plan would operate—a plan which would mandate at-will employment to be introduced by January 1, 2019—a plan which, unsurprisingly, Senate President Rivera Schatz is set to challenge, especially after, on May 9th, Sergio Marxuach, the New Economy Policy Director, testified before the Puerto Rico Senate Committee on Federal, Political, and Economic Relations that repealing Law 80 would be a bad idea, noting that a 2016 International Monetary Fund study showed that in times of economic weakness, eliminating job protections would have had a negative economic impact in the short and medium term, noting: “By triggering a wave of layoffs, reforming employment protections further weakens aggregate demand and delays economic recovery.” Similarly, a 2017 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that in Portugal from 2006 to 2014 “reforms increasing the flexibility of the labor market negatively affect firms’ productivity both in the short- and long-run. A possible explanation is that higher job turnover reduces firms’ incentives to invest in job-specific training and reduce the scope for workers’ specialization.”

In response, Governor Rosselló released a statement: “Puerto Rico has just seen how politics is done and not how a future government should be made in challenging and difficult times, with this regrettable decision by the President of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz.”

Now Senate Finance Committee President Migdalia Padilla is scheduled to meet with the Governor’s fiscal team to discuss the changes which have been included in the joint resolutions that make up the budget for the next fiscal year; he will also  meet with Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency (Aafaf) Executive Director Raul Maldonado and the Secretary of Finance, Gerardo Portelo—with the Chairman noting: “They are going to have meetings with me so that we can all harmonize what we have observed, what the Board says, and what the Executive establishes.” Chairman Padilla added that he trusts that today will be constituted the conference committee to discuss the House amendments, especially after, at the end of last week, House approval of an FY2019 budget $33.2 million higher than the one presented by PROMESA Board—followed, the next day, by Senate approval, albeit with amendments intended to force a conference committee to settle the differences.

In addition to the perception of preemption, one of the legislature’s greatest reservations with regard to the PROMESA Board’s version of the budget their perception that that version underestimates the revenue estimate is $7,000 million, according to the President of the Finance Commission of the Chamber, Antonio Soto, who noted that the government will close the year with revenues of more than $9,172 million, but the fiscal entity estimates $8,400 million for the next fiscal year, despite the fact that it proposes a growth in the economy of 6.3%.

Senate President Padilla explained that one of the changes that will be introduced to the House version is aimed at addressing the $164,000 reduction for the Independent Special Prosecutor’s Panel Office (OPFEI), advising that he would be subtracting that $164,000 from the additional $2 million that the Chamber allocated in the budget to the Alliance for Alternative Education program. In its version, the Chamber dealt with the cuts contemplated in the PROMESA Board’s proposal for the oversight agencies, such as the Office of Government Ethics, the Office of the Comptroller and the Office of the Citizen Procurator, but left out the Special Prosecutor, noting: “I am not increasing the spending budget; I am simply moving part of an allocation of $2 million,” adding that it is inconsistent with the amendments submitted by the Chamber aimed at ensuring the functioning of the agencies under the Department of Public Safety, such as the Bureau of Emergency Management and Disaster Management, the Emergency Medical Bureau, the Bureau of the Corps of Firemen, and the Bureau of Forensic Sciences—all agencies with regard to which there is heightened concern in the wake of Puerto Rico’s devastating hurricanes and inequitable FEMA responses.  Indeed, Miguel Romero the vice president of the Senate Finance Committee, agreed on the need to assign the necessary funds to the Department of Public Security to ensure its operation: “There is a deficiency of over $40 million that we have to address.” In addition, Senator Padilla indicated the Senate would take a close look at the Board’s proposed $7 million cut to Court Administration, noting: “There is a need for appointment of judges and to maintain diversion programs with the correctional population.” Moreover, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz also indicated that the controversy centers on inconsistencies between the budget and the fiscal plan, both presented by the PROMESA Board, explaining, in the wake of discussions, that it had been “established that there is a gap between the approved budget and the fiscal plan: basically, regarding the collections we will have available to cover the budget.” With the session scheduled to end on Saturday, that date falls three days after the limit established by the PROMESA Board to approve the budget, with the Board anticipating that, if Puerto Rico does not comply with the agreement reached with the Governor to repeal the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal (Law 80-1976), it will revert the fiscal plan to the approved one.

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“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.

Getting Schooled on Fiscal Challenges

June 19, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal challenge in the Connecticut legislature with how to get the state’s capitol city back on its feet, before turning, as the new hurricane season gets underway, to assess the Detroit-kinds of challenges to a public school system when so many families are leaving.

Recovering from Near Municipal Bankruptcy. With the new fiscal year fast approaching, Connecticut Governor Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed bi-partisan legislation last Thursday which would have changed how the state board overseeing Hartford’s finances would have operated, and which would have required the continued financial support of Hartford for five years, but would allow the state to reduce other municipal aid to Hartford in the sixth year if the city failed to meet its obligations. The proposed legislation did not modify the debt assistance agreement signed by state Treasurer Denise Nappier and the provision which required the state to pay off the entire principal of Hartford’s bonded debt over the next 20 to 30 years, under which the state will make about $40 million in annual payments on the debt—all steps taken in the wake of the city’s teetering, last year, on the edge of municipal bankruptcy—when the state intervened to take on the city’s debt through the Municipal Accountability Review Board—a step, in retrospect, which has helped the city begin to rebalance its finances. However, it appears the city needs more time.

Republican legislators believed they should have been allowed to lower other municipal aid to Hartford in order to account for the obligations elsewhere in the budget, but the legislation Gov. Malloy vetoed sought to delay those types of decisions for at least five years. The Governor, however, noted: “The legislature may elect to offset contract assistance to Hartford in the future, and must approve state aid amounts for all communities; but it makes little sense to make an out year reduction without giving the program the opportunity to see results before imposing what amounts to a sanction.” In contrast, Senate Republican President Len Fasano (R-Wallingford) said the veto “demonstrates the Governor’s arrogance and lack of respect for taxpayer dollars,” adding: “Once again, when it comes to support for the city of Hartford, Gov. Malloy completely dismisses the intent and the voice of the legislature: this veto practically ensures a rough road ahead for Hartford, because, absent this fix, the legislature probably won’t be willing to help Hartford in the future.”

In his veto message—legislation which had gained bipartisan support, and which would have modified the $534 million bailout the legislature had approved last year in order to help the city it avoid filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the Governor wrote that Senate Bill 528, an Act Concerning State Contract Assistance Provide to Certain Municipalities, would make “significant, detrimental impacts to the new Account Review Board and its operations,” noting that the changes to the Hartford bailout were “a reflection of indignation on the part of some legislators,” who were upset that the Municipal Accountability Review Board “exercised its statutory authority in coming to the aid of our capital city.” Instead, he told legislators, it is critical for the state to have “a viable mechanism in place to allow it to intervene in the case of other troubled municipalities in a way that is both effective and that holds those municipalities highly accountable.” He noted that the Municipal Accountability Review Board works; ergo there was no reason for the legislature to seek to change it at this point in time.

The vetoed measure had been passed in the House 105-45, with all Republicans voting in favor, but more than half of the House Democrats rejected the proposal, arguing that five years was insufficient to assist Hartford with its financial difficulties—even as opponents insisted the bailout was a “major misunderstanding,” because they had understood they were voting only for a two-year bailout, not a long-term $500 million deal that stretched into the future. Now, it will be, unlike in neighboring New Jersey, the legislature’s budget and tax committees which would need to vote on any future financial bailout, with a series of fiscal trip wires if any municipality were seeking an agreement similar to the one which was approved last year for Hartford. For his part, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) noted: “This veto demonstrates the Governor’s arrogance and lack of respect for taxpayer dollars: once again, when it comes to support for the city of Hartford, Gov. Malloy completely dismisses the intent and the voice of the legislature. This veto practically ensures a rough road ahead for Hartford, because absent this fix, the Legislature probably won’t be willing to help Hartford in the future…This bill was the result of extensive bipartisan negotiations, supported by the Hartford delegation and the Mayor of Hartford: it defines what state assistance Hartford will be receiving and also puts into place needed protections to ensure taxpayer dollars are not squandered.’’

His counterpart, Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (D-New Haven) said no final decisions have been made with regard to whether the Senate would override the two latest vetoes, noting: “We will review the Governor’s veto messages and consult with our caucus members in order to determine any next steps the caucus may want to take.’’ A veto-override session is slated for Monday, because a little-known provision in the state Constitution provides that all veto sessions must be held on a Monday. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) said the House, where the measure had passed 105-45, is pushing to override at least two vetoes, while final decisions have not been revealed on the other five vetoes.

A key niggle is a growing recognition that whatever final legislation is signed into law will, in effect, create a fiscal blueprint: thus the legislature has adopted a bill to clarify the process for the state’s municipalities in the future, under which the legislature’s budget and tax committees would need to vote on any future fiscal rescues, in advance, with a series of financial trip wires if any municipality were seeking an agreement similar to the one which had been approved last year for Hartford.

A veto-override session is scheduled for Monday, June 25, because a little-known provision in the state Constitution says that all veto sessions must be held on a Monday. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin said the House is pushing to override at least two vetoes, while final decisions have not been revealed on the other five vetoes.

El Fin. Puerto Rico’s legislature is nearing the end of its regular session—even as the new hurricane season is opening its season, so the gale budgetary challenges are anticipated to dominate its closing days—with the key issues being approval of the new year’s fiscal budget and repeal of the island’s Unjustified Dismissal Law (Law 80-1976). The focus, this week, will be on getting revenues for FY2019, some $9.1 billion—or some $700 million greater than the amount proposed by the PROMESA Oversight Board, promising a fierce legislative battle. Víctor Parés, president of the Commission for Economic Development, Planning, Telecommunications, Energy and Public-Private Partnerships, and president of the Finance Committee, Antonio Soto,  had indicated they would meet this week with personnel from the Department of the Treasury to define how the income estimates included in the Board’s proposal will be readjusted. Mr. Parés noted:Government revenues have increased this fiscal year; it is new money; it has to be allocated; and it is part of what is going to be negotiated and agreed with the Executive,” identifying key priorities as education, health, and safety.

The first in that list is, perhaps, of greatest apprehension, with the Department of Education facing a cut of $191.5 million—a cut of such severity that as many as eight programs could be put at risk, including special education, where the proposed cut would be $78.2 million. The Board has also recommended a cut of $16.1 million to the Department of Health, and just under $50 million to the Department of Public Security—that is, a reduction which would likely mean laying off as many as 1,300 police officers. That sets up a challenge, this week, with the Puerto Rico House, on Thursday, scheduled to act on the budget.

The regular session will defer to a special session consideration of the Incentive Code, described as a “very technical document,” which could be approved in July during an extraordinary session that Governor Ricardo Roselló Nevares would convene. With regard to the version of pending legislation to repeal the House-passed Law 80, the future is uncertain: Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz announced the Senate would not agree to the amendments.  

A New Civil Code? Rep. Maria Milagros Charbonier is expected to introduce a proposed, renewed Civil Code, with debate deferred to August on the proposal—a comprehensive document dealing with family, persons, royals, obligations, contracts, and successions, but which does not address the issues of surrogate motherhood, domestic partnerships, and the minimum age. It proposes to increase the age to marry from 14 to 18 years, and limit marriages to the third degree of consanguinity. It would maintain the grounds for divorce for cruel treatment, adultery, as well as those of mutual consent and irreparable rupture. The new proposals come in the wake of four years of evaluation of the Civil Code.

Dying Communities? Verónica Dávila, a second-grade teacher at Pasom Palmas, in rural Puerto Rico, yesterday noted that a “community without a school…is a vacant community: It’s actually a dead community.” Pasom Palmas, located in Utuado in the central mountains of the island, is, in land area, the third-largest municipality in Puerto Rico (after Arecibo and Ponce): it has a population over 35,000 spread over 24 wards. The community derives its name from the Taíno word Otoao, which translates as “between mountains.” It is also known as La Ciudad del Vivi, because of the river which runs through it. It is the 11th oldest municipality in Puerto Rico—founded two hundred seventy-nine years ago. Her school has been teaching children for more than  70 years, but it closed its doors forever this month—one of some nearly 300 in Puerto Rico which are shutting down permanently this summer in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation: it smote Utuado especially hard. It took two months to reopen Paso Palmas after the storm, and the school remained without water and had only limited electricity from a generator, which took the Federal Emergency Management Agency seven months to provide. The school’s population fell to 55, as about a dozen students and their families left the area after Maria.

In April, the government listed 283 schools for permanent closure—subsequently granting relief to 18, a number further revised after a court, last week, ordered a halt to the closure of still nine others. Whatever the final number, the school math paints a grim fiscal and demographic picture. After spending cuts for public education of about $1.5 billion over the last six years, and school closures forcing relocation of about 60,000 students—and the new laws providing vouchers for students to attend private schools and paving the way for charter schools, one can sense the physical challenges ahead. In Paso Palmas, kids, no longer able to attend school there, are confronted with the closest school being a forty minute drive along difficult roads—and that is without counting the walk several students make each morning to reach a road passable by car—or that some families simply do not have cars or money for gasoline. It, of course, renders futile concepts of parents’ days or PTA participation.

Whose Math? The income estimate for the next fiscal year could be readjusted by the PROMESA Board to reflect an increase that would have a direct impact on the coffers of countless agencies, in response to issues such as this which have been raised in three days of public hearings with regard to how the proposed cuts by the Board will impact Puerto Rico. A key issue at the top of the list is the $78 million decrease in the budget dedicated to the Special Education Program of the Department of Education. Representative Antonio Soto said that in a meeting with the technical staff of the PROMESA Board, he told them that the income of this fiscal year should reach $9,100 million. In his opinion, it made “no sense” that the estimated income of the U.S. territory for the upcoming fiscal year would decline by $700 million when the government projects estimated economic growth, benefitting from the injection of federal assistance to provide a 6.3% boost to the economy—or, as he put it: “It’s simple math: They tell me that the estimated income they have is what we provided, so we have to validate the information.”

Paternal Governance?

June 12, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the demographic disparities in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, before turning to the human and fiscal challenges in the federal courtroom issue of keeping schools open in the face of quasi-municipal bankruptcy; then we view the ongoing governing challenges and wonder when there might be too many cooks in the fiscal kitchen.   

Demographic Devastation. According to new data from the Puerto Rican Demographic Registry, 68% of Puerto Ricans who died between September and December of 2017, during the emergency caused by Hurricanes Irma and María, were over the age of 70. The new data from the Demographic Registry finds that nearly half of the deaths recorded in this period occurred among people who were hospitalized in Puerto Rico. Moreover, the risk of death, according to the data, was higher for men: 54% of the deceased were male, even though males make up only 48% of the island’s current population. The new data also found that deaths attributed to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, septicemia, pneumonia, and chronic heart or respiratory conditions showed significant increases in the period which followed the hurricanes—or, as Puerto Rico demographer Judith Rodríguez noted: “This gives us a more specific idea of the health risk that the hurricane brought. That was the only significant factor to cause that increase seen in the data.” Ms. Rodríguez further reported that cases of septicemia doubled between August and September, reporting that this disease, often associated with infections in hospitals, noting: “The highest number of deaths is in hospital patients; however there were high-risk factors among people who were in care homes for the elderly, or who, in the middle of an emergency, were taken to an ER.”

Health and safety—especially for the most vulnerable—appeared to be related not just to damage caused by the hurricanes to the physical hospitals and clinics, but also by the stark disruptions of electricity: diesel supply to keep emergency generators operating, combined with failures in backup systems and telecommunications plagued the provision of vital health care services. Moreover, the issues took long to resolve: even as late as last December, at least two hospital were operating with electric generators. As the Senior Vice President of Operations at San Jorge Children’s Hospital, Domingo Cruz, noted: “It is always a risk (death) when there are patients in ventilators (artificial) and there is an outage.” Perhaps in a hope for the future, the data shows that death among Puerto Rican children due to the storms was less than 1%.

After storm reports also noted that even though tardy, the arrival from the mainland of hospital ships played a vital role: Good Samaritan Hospital Administrator Marilyn Morales reported that, due to their condition, many patients were transferred to the USNS Comfort hospital ship, the U.S. Navy’s largest such ship, as well as to the Medical Centers of Mayagüez and Río Piedras. The USNS Comfort is the largest U.S. Navy floating hospital. This ship and a series of field hospitals were set up in Puerto Rico during the first months that followed Hurricane Maria. Administrator Morales noted: “We understand that deaths (at the Good Samaritan Hospital) were minimal.”

It was not, however, just hospitals which were so adversely impacted: by early last October, access to vital pharmacies due to the loss of electricity and communications contributed to the health care emergency response breakdowns: some pharmacies did not have access to the system they use to process prescriptions; thus, they were only dispensing medicines if a patient paid the full price of the drug. According to the Health Department: “In the case of not having electronic systems for dispensing medications, the pharmacy must provide the medication to the patient and, then, it will have up to 60 days to process it.”

Many health professionals with private practices had to overcome many obstacles to offer services to their patients, mainly due to the lack of power, the impossibility of using some equipment only with a generator, and of billing for medical services. Demographer Rodríguez noted: “There are some conditions whose deterioration could be accelerated by issues associated with the emergency left by the hurricane. Chronic and degenerative diseases were the most affected in this process. These diseases skyrocketed, and many people might have died months later because of issues associated with the hurricane.”

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) As we have noted, in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies—in the minority of states which have authorized them, the state law determines the governance until a plan of debt adjustment is approved by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court. In Puerto Rico, under the PROMESA statute adopted by Congress, there is a hybrid form of governance—a form which has left unclear authority in this governmentally different circumstance where it is not a municipality which is fiscally exhausted, but rather a quasi-state—or, a U.S. territory. Thus, we have a Governor, a legislature, an oversight PROMESA Board imposed by the President and Congress, and a U.S. federal Judge.  It might be that some accommodation in governance is emerging: the PROMESA Board has proposed to the Puerto Rico Legislature that the raising of salaries or disbursement of allocated funds would not be allowed unless quarterly reports are presented and cuts established in the fiscal plan are executed, according to the its modified version submitted to the Legislature. Under the proposal, in order to ensure that the government does not spend more than it receives and complies with the spending cuts to which it committed in its certified fiscal plan, the budget modified by the Oversight Board restricts in a reserve fund the funds which would be used to increase the salaries of teachers and the Police. The Board also established that the government of Puerto Rico is mandated to submit quarterly reports beyond those required by PROMESA before it is authorized to appropriate any funding, with said conditions spelled out in the joint resolutions that the Board has sent to the Legislature as part of the budget certification process. Included in this unfunded mandate is a provision barring the Office of Management and Budget from disbursing funding to fulfill the promise made by Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to increase the salary of teachers and the Police, or to provide Social Security. In addition, the mandate bars the authorization of funding to Puerto Rican agencies absent Board approval.

The Board’s restrictions, adopted in an effort to ensure a balanced budget, in addition to the repeal of the Unjust Dismissal Law (Law 80-1976), which eliminates the statute which provided certain legal remedies to private sector employees, is part of a structural reforms package imposed by the Board as part of its agreement with Gov. Rosselló Nevares to avoid litigation in Court.

Gov. Rosselló’s representative to the PROMESA Board, Christian Sobrino, concurs that it makes sense that the Board has established conditions for granting the monthly increase of $125 to Police and teachers, starting in the upcoming fiscal year, and that these imposed conditions are also subject to the repeal of Law 80, because this move may impact the revenue projection required by the Board. Nevertheless, unsurprisingly, Mr. Sobrino described the Board’s new demands as “complicating” the interaction between Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Board: noting: “But there is a reality: you can provide the benefits (if)  you have the income to budgetary support. If you do not have them, you do not have them: The revenue projection is the key part that makes all these agreements and these other programmatic commitments possible.” Thus he stressed the importance of the Legislature proceeding with the repeal of Law 80: “The effect of not carrying out this repeal would imply a reduction in the budgetary revenues available to the government and make it very difficult to maintain a series of benefits , including that (salary) increase and also the Christmas bonus to public employees: If the agreement can be complied with, there should be no problem moving that allocation (the money for salary increase) to the Public Security umbrella. If that agreement is not maintained, then additional cuts have to be made.”

Nevertheless, the governance situation remains difficult, especially in the wake of the PROMESA Board’s conclusion that, for what it asserted was the second time, Gov. Rosselló’s budget did not comply with PROMESA, and then proceeded to preempt that authority and impose its own adjustments—a fiscal and governance move which would mark the first time that the government of Puerto Rico would have constraints to use its funds. As written, the preemption reads: “The Secretary of Treasury, the treasurer and Executive Directors of each agency or Public Corporation covered by the New Fiscal Plan for Puerto Rico certified by the [PROMESA] Oversight Board, and the Director of the OMB (or their respective successors) shall be responsible for not spending or encumbering during fiscal year 2019 any amount that exceeds the appropriations authorized for such year. This prohibition applies to every appropriation set forth in this Joint Resolution, including appropriations for payroll and related costs. Any violation of this prohibition shall constitute a violation of this Joint Resolution and Act 230-1974.” In addition, in another section of the document, the Board mandated that quarterly reports must be submitted no later than 15 days after the closing of each fiscal quarter and that the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA) and the OMB will certify that “no amount” of the Social Security Reserve funds in the Puerto Rico Police Department or the promised increases have been used to cover any expenses.

A Teaching Moment? In the wake of learning about the new conditions established by the PROMESA Board, Grichelle Toledo, the Secretary-General of the Puerto Rico Teachers Association-Local Union, noted that Gov. Rosselló had promised a monthly salary increase of $125 per month “beginning the 2018-2019 school year,” noting that it had been “10 years without a salary increase, and the cost of living has risen, benefits have been reduced and some have even been eliminated.”

Indeed, as we have noted previously, the loss of human capital—teachers, health care professionals, and others, harms the possibility of a sustained economic recovery. That is, the Board’s actions risk that Puerto Rico is in danger of losing one of its most critical assets, its skilled workforce, at a time when the island is in dire need of rebuilding: already teachers are leaving for more secure jobs on the mainland, a predictable outcome after the cash-strapped government announced it would close some 200 schools. Police, thousands of whom called in sick daily last year because they were not being paid overtime, are finding brighter futures in cities eager to find trained, bilingual officers.

An analysis by El Nuevo Día of the Governor’s proposed budget last month after agreement with the PROMESA Board, which focuses on the General Fund determined that the Board made sure to increase its own budget by 7.8%, plus another 3.7% to pay lawyers working in Title III cases, even as it cut FAFAA’s by nearly 10%. The Board met its part of its agreement with the Governor by not touching the Legislature’s budget, authorizing $ 50 million to municipios, and approving $25 million for the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) scholarship fund. However, the Board cut the Budget of the Health Insurance Administration by 41%, and cut the Office of Community Planning and Development by 21%, the State Commission on Elections by nearly 12%; the Police by 4%–and, of all places, the Fire Department by 11%, and the State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management by 14%–mayhap an ill omen as the new hurricane season has already commenced.

Investing in Fiscal & Human Futures

June 11, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of keeping Puerto Rico’s schools open in the face of quasi municipal bankruptcy; then we veer north to assess post-state taken over Atlantic City: What Are the City’s Fiscal Odds for Its Future?  

The Governance Challenge for Schools and Demographic Changes. Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio has ordered the suspension of the closure of three of the U.S. territory’s schools in Morovis, pending an explanation from Secretary of Education Julia Keleher of the reasoning behind her orders. His ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by the Municipality of Morovis challenging the closures of Alverio Pimentel, Manuel Alonso Díaz, and the Second David Colón Vega schools—and in the wake of the Judge’s earlier decisions ordering the closure of six other schools in the Arecibo region—closures also being challenged by the Teachers’ Association. In his order, Judge Osorio noted that all these claims will be evaluated in a court hearing scheduled for this morning—one to which he has invited the Secretary of Education or a representative to attend, noting: “This Court appreciates and recapitulates that the State must come prepared to justify in accordance with its regulations the closure, not only of the schools subject to this interdict, but of all the schools of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that the Department of Education has under its jurisdiction, and that it pretends according to the regulation to close.”

For his part, Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis explained the suit was filed in the wake of a non-response to her request for a meeting with Secretary Keleher, stating, in a press release: “Today we are taking an important step in the defense of public education for Moroveño children. To all parents, principals, teachers and school staff, I invite you to attend that hearing on Monday at the Arecibo Court, so that together we can continue to fight to keep schools open. As I assured them in the many meetings we had, although the power is in the hands of the central government, the reason is on our side and we are going to defend that reason. The fiscal and governance challenge-as we had experienced in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, is a state versus local authority issue. Indeed, as the Department’s legal division stated: “The opening and closing of the schools is under the authority of the Secretary of Education and this is established by Law 85 of 2018 (Law on Educational Reform).”

The Rebirth of an Iconic American City?  Victor Fiorillo, writing in the Philadelphia Magazine, asked in his article, “The Re-Re-Re-Birth of Atlantic City,” what if everyone was wrong about the fiscal implications of the closure of the city’s famed casinos. Writing that Atlantic City had first drawn him in about 15 years ago with the opening of the Borgata Casino—at a time when “most other casinos in Atlantic City were in various stages of decay, and here was this brand-new Vegas-style resort with casino restaurants that were actually good and the best shows in town.” But he also noted that, back then, it was really a family focus: “My wife and I spend as much of the summer as possible on the A.C. beach with our 10-year-old and 12-year-old, opting for the relative solitude of the town’s southern end, far from any casinos or bars.” But in revisiting the municipality today, he noted he is not one of the only “believers in Atlantic City,” noting there are “some surprising signs of life these days, not to mention some serious investment—from small ventures, like Longacre’s projects, to big bets like Stockton University’s new beachfront campus and this month’s opening of the $550 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the old Trump Taj Mahal.

Betting on the City’s Future. Mr. Fiorillo then turned to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sports gambling, noting: “There’s more money pouring into A.C. right now than in all of Philadelphia,” according to development mogul Bart Blatstein, but, as with gambling, quoting Temple Professor Bryant Simon, author of 2004’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America: “Atlantic City has risen and fallen innumerable times: “This is the story that has been told for a hundred years.” He added: “The irony, of course, is that this new resurgence is happening just a few short years after nearly half the city’s casinos went under, thousands of jobs disappeared, and Atlantic City itself seemed to be left for dead. Then again, maybe there’s no irony here at all. Maybe this more organic, up-from-the-ground rebirth of Atlantic City is exactly the kind of action that could mean sustained success for the city by the sea.”

Leaving on a Jet Plane. Mr. Fiorillo examined the city’s road to its state takeover from a non-fiscal perspective, writing: “It was right around this time that Atlantic City began to fade. Dissertations and books have been written about the many factors that led to the resort’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but a big one was the sudden ease of jet travel. You could get on a plane after breakfast and be on a beach in Miami for lunch. Atlantic City? Pfft. The Shore town began to disintegrate. By the mid-’70s, the city found itself at a pivotal crossroads. It could do nothing, ride out the downward trend, and see what happened. Or it could come up with some novel and wholly artificial way to inject new life into itself. It opted for the latter, betting that gambling would be Atlantic City’s salvation. Until that point, Nevada was the only place in the United States where you could open up a full-fledged casino. But in 1976, New Jersey citizens voted to make slots and table games legit in Atlantic City. The first casino, Resorts—which just turned 40 and is still standing — opened less than two years later.”

Noting that, for a time, business was booming, he credited Atlantic City’s casinos for bringing hundreds of millions of tourists to the Boardwalk during Atlantic City’s gambling heyday” “Some years, this city of 40,000 residents topped 34 million tourists. But outside the casino walls, the city struggled. The casino owners—including, for a time, Donald Trump—got fat, politicians got their kickbacks, and the impoverished residents of Atlantic City remained just that: And then everything went wrong. The new Atlantic City created in the late 1970s was premised almost entirely on maintaining a casino duopoly with Nevada; once casinos started popping up all over—including in Pennsylvania in 2006—Atlantic City imploded.”

Noting, as we have traced, the city’s fiscal nadir came to a head in January of 2014, when the Atlantic Club, which had opened as the Golden Nugget in 1980, collapsed, followed by Showboat, followed by the Revel, followed shortly thereafter by the Trump Plaza, noting: “Finally, in October 2016, one month before its namesake was elected to the Oval Office, the lights went out at Trump Taj Mahal. In just two and a half years, five casinos vanished, their cavernous buildings shuttered. Atlantic City had bottomed out economically in the most spectacular fashion possible.”

Tracing a Fiscal Turnaround. Writing that when assessed property values drop low enough, neighborhoods become more and affordable—and, ergo, more attractive to developers who could “pick up buildings for pennies on a dollar,” he noted that “Atlantic City suddenly became a risk worth taking”—adding: “Investing in Atlantic City now makes a lot more sense than it did five years ago, but it’s hardly a no-brainer. The city, with its 37% poverty rate) is overwhelmingly poor. Taxes are overwhelmingly high. And walking around on Atlantic or Pacific Avenue, the city’s two main north-south boulevards, which run parallel to and within blocks of the Boardwalk—can be nerve-racking after hours. In daylight, panhandlers accost and prostitutes solicit. Politically, things are hardly ideal: Then-governor Chris Christie instituted a state takeover in 2016.

John Longacre, who has acquired a reputation for building a business by spotting potential where others see potential disaster, and he works primarily in South Philadelphia, where he specializes in recovery projects that save buildings, convert seedy bars into trendy restaurants and turn vacant eyesores into neighborhood hubs, told Mr. Fiorillo: “Every bank in the region is terrified of Atlantic City.” Indeed, Mr. Longacre added: “If you look at the policy surrounding everything that exists in Atlantic City, it’s the perfect storm to keep investors out: From the state handling the zoning to the tax base to rent control, everything that happens from a policy level makes it seem like New Jersey is trying to make Atlantic City fail.” Nevertheless, he seems convinced the fabled city will not fail. Or, as Mr. Fiorillo described it, there are a new breed interested in the fabled city who likely will play an essential role in the city’s future: “It’s not about Aunt Edna and Uncle Fred and their casino bus trips anymore. It’s about younger people who aren’t into Atlantic City for the gambling. It’s about people who don’t just feel comfortable in but desire urban environments, with all their flaws and character. It’s about people who respect and require diversity. It’s about people like me and my wife, who, to be honest, cringe when we drive into a place like Avalon.”

Describing this fiscal and physical revival, he writes about the relationship of small projects complemented by large ones: “The Hard Rock Hotel is finally going to open on the Boardwalk later this month, where the Taj Mahal was until October 2016. Pottstown native Todd Moyer, senior vice president of marketing for this new outpost of the rock-and-roll-themed company, got his start in the casino business in 1990, when he worked as a tuxedoed greeter at, coincidentally, the Taj. I was working for Hard Rock out West, when I got the chance to come home: I jumped at it. Sometimes I would be at a bar or restaurant and hear people talking about Atlantic City being dead, and I’d jump in. I’m a defender and a giant supporter of A.C. We’re building hotels all around the world, but really, all the focus lately has been on Atlantic City.”

As for Mr. Longacre, his view is that he would “love for every casino to go out of business and see Atlantic City re-create itself without them, as an urban beach town.” Nevertheless, he believes there is one massive Atlantic City development which will be a game-changer: Stockton, the nearly 50-year-old public university, which has its main campus in Galloway Township, about 20 minutes from the Boardwalk: it is set to debut a brand-new beachfront Atlantic City campus this September, when one thousand students will use the campus, and many of them plan to live in town. Thus, he notes: “Stockton is huge. It’s the first real institutional investment in years that’s not a casino.”

Rolling the Fiscal Dice? As significant as these fiscal changes appear to be, they almost seem to pale against the city’s real world challenges: Atlantic City has a poverty level three times higher than the statewide rate: more than three times the number below the poverty level—and a disability rate among non-poor residents of just under 25%. In its rental housing, the percentage of residents below the federal poverty level is over 90%. A consequent governing challenge for the post-taken over city and the Garden State remains. Mr. Fiorillo notes that whether the gambles being made by Mr. Blatstein, Mr. Longacre, and others are successful remains to be seen—as does the question with regard to whether all the investment will put much of a dent in Atlantic City’s poverty rate or help the town’s current residents. He adds: “And it’s not going to be this summer or next summer when we find out who, if anyone, wins. Nevertheless, he wrote: “When I consider Point Breeze circa 2008 and that same area today, I have hope for this complicated Shore town. There will always be casinos here, for better or worse, and there will always be crime and poverty and grime. This is, after all, a city. But, 10 years from now, when my own kids are (I hope) in very good colleges, it’s not too hard to imagine us spending a summer weekend at some boutique hotel on New York Avenue. We’ll stop into the Boardwalk La Colombe for a draft latte, served up by a very hip-looking third-year Stockton student on break. For lunch, HipCityVeg down in the inlet. Happy hour will be at some John Longacre-owned brewpub overlooking the Atlantic.”

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

June 8, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of unincorporated areas: what are the fiscal implications?

In many U.S. states, it’s not uncommon for homeowners to reside in what are known as “unincorporated” areas, meaning portions of the state or county that are not contained within the boundaries of an incorporated city, town, village or similar local governmental entity. From a municipal perspective, that means a community not governed by its own local municipal corporation, but rather is administered as part of larger governmental administrative division—such as a township, parish, borough, county, or city—governance entities which, depending upon the pertinent state laws, may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, dissolve, disincorporate, or, as we noted in today’s eGnus, make even separate. Widespread unincorporated communities and areas are a distinguishing feature of both the U.S. and our neighbor Canada—but rare in any other countries around the globe. In fact, unincorporated areas are mostly found in this country in Texas—an enormous state, but which has the nation’s smallest municipality: McAllen, in Jim Hogg County, with a population of 6.

When it comes to unincorporated areas within states, Pennsylvania appears unique: it is, after all, the state with the greatest number of local governments or political subdivisions: the Census Bureau puts the number at 5,000—putting the state only behind Texas and Illinois; but maybe ranks it first in terms of imposing vast and conflicting arrays of taxes—taxes which, however, are imposed on shrinking tax bases. Indeed, the fiscal stress has reached such a point that the state’s House Urban Affairs Committee recently convened a public hearing on legislation intended to assist smaller municipalities mired in cycles of financial distress—threatened with insolvency absent outside assistance. House Bill 2122 would allow these communities, after gaining approval in a voter referendum, to dissolve themselves and have their functions absorbed by the county. The co-sponsors, Representatives Dom Costa and Harold English, offered the bill as a means they described to provide for the voluntary dissolution of municipal corporations (cities, boroughs, towns, & townships) within counties of the second class (Allegheny), and the substitution of an unincorporated districts as a new form of government to be administered by the county. Under the proposed legislation, the process of dissolution would be initiated by the governing body of the municipal corporation through passage of a non-binding resolution to engage in discussion with the county over a period of six months, during which time they would develop a proposed essential services-transition plan as part of an intergovernmental cooperation agreement.: such a plan would be subject to public meetings in the community and would have to be voted on by the governing body of the municipal corporation, as well as the County Council: should both the municipal corporation and county governing bodies approve said plan, a referendum would be scheduled—an election where, if approved by the voters, a six-month winding down of the affairs of the municipal corporation would begin. At the conclusion of such a period, an unincorporated district administered by the county would go into effect, and the essential services-transition plan would become an official ordinance of the county. That would entail significant powers to said county to administer and manage such a district; the county would also retain the tax levying power and authority to assess fees and service charges previously authorized to that particular class of municipal corporation. All taxes and fees levied within the service district would have to be used for the benefit of the district.

Finally, the bill provides for the potential merger and consolidation of the unincorporated district with another municipal corporation or would permit the district to re-incorporate itself as another type of municipal corporation in accordance with the existing municipal codes applicable to such entities.

They reported the legislation was carefully crafted with input from the staff of the bicameral/bipartisan Local Government Commission, confident that it represents a unique voluntary agreement between municipalities – one in which a given city, borough or township would be able to ensure a more efficient and effective delivery of services to their residents while retaining their municipal identity. 

Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development administers Act 47, as we have previously noted, a program to help “distressed” communities as designated under the terms of the state’s Act 47, under which the state could ultimately take on the task of providing local services. However, it appears that Deputy Secretary for Community Affairs Rick Vilello, the department’s deputy secretary for community affairs and development, HB2122 might provide a better option, or, as he testified: “We’ve not timed out [on recovery options] on a community who we felt wasn’t ready to try to make it on their own…But we are fast approaching a time when several municipalities will time out. When municipalities time out, there are very few good solutions from that point forward. House Bill 2122 provides a potential solution for local leaders facing hard decisions and is a tool worth trying.” Secretary Vilello testified that to date, only 31 municipalities in the state had ever reached “distressed” status out of 2,560. Of those 31, nine were in Allegheny County.

The Secretary noted: “House Bill 2122 could be a life-preserver for communities that have been treading water for a very long time: Who knows, if it works in [Allegheny County], what would be possible next. House Bill 2122 is a tool for the elected officials and for the citizens of distressed municipalities to make a choice about their future.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald testified that the proposed legislation could be useful, not only to those communities whose finances have spiraled out of control, but also to those that have managed to avoid financial disaster by cutting essential services to minimal levels:  “Some of them, quite frankly, have not gone into Act 47…They just quit providing the services. They haven’t gone into the debt problem, but they haven’t provided the services their citizens have wanted. And what [residents have] basically been doing is voting with their feet. They’ve been leaving, [and] those municipalities have been shrinking in population.” The County Executive emphasized that the legislation could not lead to any municipality being dissolved against its will; similarly, he testified that no county could be forced to absorb a municipality against its will: both governments would have to agree to the terms of the disincorporation before it even went to the voters for approval.

Under the proposed legislation, the unincorporated community would retain some level of local governance through the establishment of a district advisory committee appointed by the county council. The advisory committee would hold open meetings in the former municipality and issue reports to the county on matters pertaining to local residents.

Nevertheless, Melissa Morgan, legislative and policy analyst for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, warned the proposed legislation would go too far in wresting local power and vesting it in a higher level of government, telling legislators her organization, which she said represents 1,454 townships in the state, opposes the passage of HB2122 or any other legislation that would allow for the dissolution of municipalities: “County government should not be given additional powers to administer unincorporated territory…Instead, the Legislature should consider relieving unfunded mandates for municipalities, such as those requiring benefits to uniform employees to help alleviate financial challenges.” County Executive Fitzgerald said he was in favor of the Legislature taking other steps such as those suggested by Ms. Morgan to ease the plight of struggling communities; however, he noted that HB2122 was also a good option to have on the books in case those other steps fail to provide relief: “It’s a voluntary program: It’s just giving people an option. And to me, that’s what democracy is about, giving people the choice. Right now, they don’t have that choice.”

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Election, and How Does a City, County, State, or Territory Balance Schools versus Debt?

June 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider tomorrow’s primary in post-chapter 9 municipally bankrupt Stockton, and the harsh challenges of getting schooled in Puerto Rico.

Taking New Stock in Stockton? It was Trick or Treat Day in Stockton, in 2014, when Chris McKenzie, the former Executive Director of the California League of Cities described to us, from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court courtroom, Judge Christopher Klein’s rejection of the claims of the remaining holdout creditor, Franklin Templeton Investments, and approved the City of Stockton’s proposed Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein had, earlier, ruled that the federal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy law preempted California state law and made the city’s contract with the state’s public retirement system, CalPERS, subject to impairment by the city in the Chapter 9 proceeding. Judge Klein determined that that contract was inextricably tied to Stockton’s collective bargaining agreements with various employee groups. The Judge also had stressed that, because the city’s employees were third party beneficiaries of Stockton’s contract with CalPERS, that, contrary to Franklin’s assertion that CalPERS was the city’s largest creditor; rather it was the city’s employees—employees who had experienced substantial reductions in both salaries and pension benefits—effectively rejecting Franklin’s assertion that the employees’ pensions were given favorable treatment in the Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein, in his opinion, had detailed all the reductions since 2008 (not just since the filing of the case in 2012) which had collectively ended the prior tradition of paying above market salaries and benefits to Stockton employees. Moreover, his decision included the loss of retiree health care,  reductions in positions, salaries and employer pension contributions, and approval of a new pension plan for new hires—a combination which Judge Klein noted meant that any further reductions, as called for by Franklin, would have made city employees “the real victims” of the proceeding. We had also noted that Judge Klein, citing an earlier disclosure by the city of over $13 million in professional services and other costs, had also commented that the high cost of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceedings should be an object lesson for everyone about why Chapter 9 bankruptcy should not be entered into lightly.

One key to the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment was the provision for a $5.1 million contribution for canceling retiree health benefits; however a second was the plan’s focus on the city’s fiscal future: voter approval to increase the city’s sales and use tax to 9 percent, a level expected to generate about $28 million annually, with the proceeds to be devoted to restoring city services and paying for law enforcement.

Moody’s, in its reading of the potential implications of that decision opined that Judge Klein’s ruling could set up future challenges from California cities burdened by their retiree obligations to CalPERS, with Gregory Lipitz, a vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s, noting: “Local governments will now have more negotiating leverage with labor unions, who cannot count on pensions as ironclad obligations, even in bankruptcy.” A larger question, however, for city and county leaders across the nation was with regard to the potential implications of Judge Klein’s affirmation of Stockton’s plan to pay its municipal bond investors pennies on the dollar while shielding public pensions.

Currently, the city derives its revenues for its general fund from a business tax, fees for services, its property tax, sales tax, and utility user tax. Stockton’s General Fund reserve policy calls for the City to maintain a 17% operating reserve (approximately two months of expenditures) and establishes additional reserves for known contingencies, unforeseen revenue changes, infrastructure failures, and catastrophic events.  The known contingencies include amounts to address staff recruitment and retention, future CalPERS costs and City facilities. The policy establishes an automatic process to deposit one-time revenue increases and expenditure savings into the reserves.  

So now, four years in the wake of its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Republican businessman  and gubernatorial candidate John Cox has delivered one-liners and a vow to take back California in a campaign stop in Stockton before tomorrow’s primary election, asking prospective voters: “Are you ready for a Republican governor in 2018?”

According to the polls, this could be an unexpectedly tight race for the No. 2 spot against former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat. (In the primary, the two top vote recipients will determine which two candidates will face off in the November election.) Currently, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is ahead. Republicans have the opportunity to “take back the state of California,” however, candidate Cox said to a group of more than 130 men and women at Brookside Country Club—telling his audience that California deserves and needs an honest and efficient government, which has been missing, focusing most of his speech on what he said is California’s issue with corruption and cronyism worse than his former home state of Illinois. He vowed that, if elected, he would end “the sanctuary protections in the state’s cities.”

Seemingly absent from the debate leading up to this election are vital issues to the city’s fiscal future, especially Forbes’s 2012 ranking Stockton as the nation’s “eighth most miserable city,” and because of its steep drop in home values and high unemployment, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s ranking of the city as seventh in auto theft—and its ranking in that same year as the tenth most dangerous city in the U.S., and second only to Oakland as the most dangerous city in the state.

President Trump, a week ago last Friday, endorsed candidate Cox, tweeting: “California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime, and lowering taxes. John Cox is the man‒he’ll be the best Governor you’ve ever had. I fully endorse John Cox for Governor and look forward to working with him to Make California Great Again.” He followed that up with a message that California is in trouble and needs a manager, which is why Trump endorsed him, tweeting: “We will truly make California great again.”

Puerto Rico’s Future? Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Superior Court last Friday issued a provisional injunction order for the Department of Education to halt the closure of six schools located in the Arecibo educational region—with his decision coming in response to a May 24th complaint by Xiomara Meléndez León, mother of two students from one of the affected schools, and with support in her efforts by the legal team of the Association of Teachers of Puerto Rico. The cease and desist order applies to all administrative proceedings intended to close schools in the muncipios of Laurentino Estrella Colon, Camuy; Hatillo; Molinari, Quebradillas; Vega Baja; Arecibo; and Lares—with Judge Cordero Osorio writing: “What this court has to determine is that according to the administrative regulations and circular letters of the Department of Education, there is and has been applied a formula that establishes a just line for the closure without passion and without prejudice to those schools that thus understand merit close.”  

With so many leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland, the issue with regard to education becomes both increasingly vital, while at the same time, increasingly hard to finance—but also difficult to ascertain fiscal equity—or as one of the litigants put it to the court: “The plaintiff in this case has clearly established on this day that there is much more than doubt as to whether the Department of Education is in effect applying this line in a fair and impartial manner.” Judge Osorio responded that “this court appreciates the evidence presented so far that the action of the Department of Education regarding the closure of schools borders on arbitrary, capricious, and disrespectful;” he also ruled that the uncertainty he saw in the testimonies of the case had created “irreparable emotional damage worse than the closing of schools,” as he ordered Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher to appear before him a week from today at a hearing wherein Secretary Keleher must present evidence of the procedures and arguments that the Department took into consideration for the closures.  

Meléndez León, the mother who appears as a plaintiff in the case, stated she had resorted to this legal path because the Department of Education had never provided her with concrete explanations with regard to why Laurentino Estrella School in Camuy, which her children attend, had been closed—or, as she put it: “The process that the Department of Education used to select closure schools has never been clarified to the parents: we were never notified.” At the time of the closure, the school had 186 students—of which 62 belonged to Puerto Rico’s Special Education program—and another six were enrolled in the Autism Program. Now, she faces what might be an unequal challenge: one mother versus a huge bureaucracy—where the outcome could have far-reaching impacts. The Education Department, after all, last April proposed the consolidation of some 265 schools throughout the island.