A Human Rights Perspective on Puerto Rico’s Fiscal and Physical Future

October 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the consideration by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to perspectives on statehood—and whether the federal government is violating human rights in the U.S. territory created by the Jones-Shafroth Act.

Unequal Treatment? The United States, today, at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), meeting at the University of Colorado in Boulder, will defend itself from the denunciations of statesmen sectors who charge that the lack of voting rights for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, represents a violation of human and civil rights. In a way, that seems ironic, as the co-author of the Jones-Shafroth Act, as Governor of Colorado, before serving in the U.S. Senate, kicked the issue off, performing—in a three-piece suit—the opening kickoff in a game at Folsom Field in Boulder in a game between the U. of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines, prior to being elected to the U.S. Senate, where he co-authored the Jones-Shafroth Act—the issue under heated debate today, where the U.S. mission to the OAS, will seek to defend against a charge filed by statespersons who are seeking censure against the U.S. for denying Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico equal rights to vote and be represented in Congress—and in the electoral college. Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartúa is representing Puerto Rico. The U.S. alternate representative to the Organization of American States, Kevin Sullivan, has been requesting—in writing—since last June, the dismissal of the complaints—complaints some of which date back to 2006—which were not even admitted for consideration until last Spring, noting that the current status violates the U.S. Declaration of Human Rights. The Trump Administration response is that, under the current territorial status, Puerto Rico “has a distinctive status, in fact exceptional,” with a “broad base of self-government.” The Administration also asserts that Puerto Rico has a limited participation in federal processes, through the Presidential primaries and the election of a non-voting Representative in Congress. Attorney Orlando Vidal, who has represented former Governor Rosselló González in this process, today’s will help educate about the lack of political rights under the current territorial status, or, as he put it: “Sometimes, it is necessary that someone from the outside, as the Commission is here, and with an independent and objective point of view, clarify situations that for many, for so long plunged into this issue, it is perhaps difficult to perceive clearly,” adding, there is an easily available “friendly solution:” to direct the admission of Puerto Rico as a state. Today’s Commission session will be chaired by Margarette May Macaulay of Trinidad and Tobago.

More than a decade ago, under the George W. Bush administration, Kein Marshall, the Administration’s Director of the Justice Department’s Legal Office, appearing before the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, had recommended calling a referendum: “territory yes or no,” followed by, if the current status was rejected, a consultation to determine whether a governing path forward would be statehood or independence—with Mr. Marshall defending, in his testimony, the report of the Working Group of the White House which, among other things, affirmed in 2005 that the power of the Congress is so broad that, if it wanted, it has the authority to cede the island to another country.

From an international governance perspective, in the international forum, it was two years ago that, in an explanatory vote, in October of 2016, the Obama administration supported a U.N. resolution in favor of self-determination and independence; shortly before, however, on June 30, 2016, President Obama had signed the PROMESA, a statute roughly modeled after chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, except that, in imposing both a financial control board and a judicial process, the outcome, as we have seen, has been a ‘who’s on first, what’s on second’ process—with prohibitive fiscal costs, even as it creates the appearance of a denial of democracy for the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. It was 15 years ago that the IACHR determined, in analyzing a complaint filed by a civic group, that nations “cannot invoke their domestic, constitutional, or other laws to justify the lack of compliance with their international obligations.”

El Otro Lado. The other side, as it were, of the Jones‒Shafroth Act, was the Jones Act—an act sponsored by the co-author at the behest of the U.S. shipping industry which has vastly compromised the ability to provide assistance towards Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria—assistance desperately needed for this territory where an estimated 8,000 small businesses still remain shuttered—representing about 10% of the total according to the island’s Urban Retailers Association—and continues to undercut hopes for fiscal and economic recovery. The Jones Act, strongly lobbied for by the domestic shipping industry, mandates that  transportation of goods between two U.S. ports must be carried out by a vessel which was built in the U.S. and operated primarily by U.S. citizens—meaning the cost of materials to help the island recover cost far more than for other, nearby Caribbean nations—and meaning that millions of Americans, including Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria last year, are paying hugely inflated prices for gasoline and other consumer products which are vital to recovery—and to equity. The act mandates that carrying goods shipped in U.S. waters between U.S. ports to be U.S.-built, U.S.-registered, U.S.-owned, and manned by crews, at least 75% of whom are U.S. citizens. Mark J. Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan this week noted: “Because of this absurd, antiquated protectionism, it’s now twice as expensive to ship critical goods – fuel, food and building supplies, among other things – from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico, as it is to ship from any other foreign port in the world. Just the major damage done to Puerto Rico from the Jones Act is enough reason to tell us that now is the time – past due time – to repeal the anti-consumer Jones Act.”

As Arian Campo Flores and Andrew Scurria of Dow Jones last week pointed out, in Puerto Rica’s fiscal year which ended last June, the island’s economy had contracted by 7.6%. An estimated 8,000 small businesses remain shuttered; Teva Pharmacuticals has announced it will close a manufacturing plant in the municipio of Manati—and, manufacturing employment has decreased by 35%. More fiscally depressing: the Puerto Rico government is now projecting that its population will decline by 12% over the next five years—as an increasing number of young, educated, and trained citizens move to the mainland, leaving behind an older, poorer population.

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A Physical & Fiscal Bridge to the Motor City’s Fiscal & Physical Future

eBlog

October 1, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the commencement this week of a new international bridge connecting Detroit to Canada–a bridge no longer too far.

Not a Bridge Too Far. Construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge connecting Detroit to Canada is scheduled to begin Friday, with a projected completion in six years at a cost of $4.4 billion. The bridge will be jointly owned by the State of Michigan and Canada, with Canada fronting the funding, and Michigan paying its share via tolls collected on the U.S. terminus over the next few decades. CEO Windsor-Detroit Authority CEO Bryce Phillips described the new bridge as one which will be a “stunning addition to the Windsor and Detroit shared skyline.” The 1.5-mile span will be the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America—likely adding to what is already the busiest U.S.-Canada commercial crossing. The opening will mark the final public victory over the Moroun family, which owns the Ambassador Bridge—and which has long fought—and even requested support from President Trump—to bar the publicly funded project, not set to become one of the most vital pieces of infrastructure between the United States and Canada.

Canada is the largest market for U.S. exports, taking in 15 percent of American goods and services worth $337 billion annually, according to the U.S State Department. Together the quasi twin cities of Detroit and Windsor constitute the busiest trade crossing along the U.S.-Canada border, with more than one-fourth of all goods exchanged between the countries crossing the Detroit River to get to its final destination. On average, 7,000 trucks daily cross the Detroit River. It is the busiest link in the North American auto industry whose supply chains span both countries.

Notwithstanding this week’s commencement of construction, the Moroun family will continue to fight the project, adding to the twenty-five legal challenges they have already made—all rejected, as was a 2012 Michigan ballot measure, to which the Morouns devoted an estimated $50 million—a portion of which was to purchase a commercial on Fox News, urging President Trump to revoke the permit to build the publicly owned bridge based on The President’s “America First” policies.

The new bridge, expected to open by 2020, is expected to make the Motor City an international freight hub—or, as some note, it will define a new reawakening of a city which has emerged from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history. The six-lane bridge will add to the nearby Ambassador Bridge’s four lanes, allowing trucks access to a streamlined route at the Canadian side and creating more logistics opportunities in both nations due to more direct access to rail, highway, and air transportation. As part of the project, there will also be two state-of-the-art customs centers, with the opportunity to attract more private investment on both sides of the border.

To date, land acquisition in Canada is nearly complete: about 130 acres in Windsor, southwest of the Ambassador Bridge, will be used for the largest Canadian Port of Entry along the U.S. border. Meanwhile, on the U.S. side, acquisition is underway for the 300 houses and 45 businesses located within the 145 acres in southwest Detroit, which will be used for inspection facilities for both inbound and outbound vehicles at the U.S. Port of Entry. Also included in the Detroit portion of the project is a new I-75 interchange which will include four new crossing road bridges, five new pedestrian bridges, four long bridges crossing the railway and connecting I-75 to the US Port of Entry, and service roads and local road improvements.

Among the issues and details to be included in the RFP are the community benefits expected for the Delray neighborhood in Detroit as the host community for the project—benefits which will matter, because, according to Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Zeenat Kotval-Karamchandani at Michigan State University, while pockets of Detroit are experiencing economic growth, Delray is not among them; rather, he notes, the neighborhood, near downtown, and south of Mexicantown, is “completely surrounded by industry.” Nevertheless, the Professor notes, about 2,500 people make it home—and, of those, about one-third of the households are in poverty.

Thus, this could be a unique moment of not just physical connections and public infrastructure, but also neighborhood recovery—after all, the value of freight traveling between the U.S. and Canada fell to $575.2 billion in 2015, a 12.6% drop, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation; yet about $69.1 billion came through Michigan, the most of any state. Data also shows that trucks carried the most freight to and from Canada, at 58.3%, while rail accounted for 15.7%. Unsurprisingly, the most common freight is auto-related: vehicles and vehicle parts.

Not Florence Nightingale: The Governance Challenge of Life Threatening Storms

September 12, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, as Hurricane Florence bears down on the East Coast, the President, yesterday, patted himself on the back for what he deemed an “incredibly successful” job he had done in leading the federal government’s response to the human, fiscal, and physical devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, boasting: “I think Puerto Rico was “an incredible, unsung success,” referring to the devastating hurricane which caused the death of nearly 3,000 Americans.

Hurricane Relief? President Trump patted himself on the back yesterday for an “incredibly successful” job done in Puerto Rico, where the President, in the wake of the storm, had travelled to Ponce and thrown paper towels, deeming federal response efforts as one of his administration’s “best jobs.” Asked what lessons his administration might have learned as it prepares for this week’s Hurricane Florence, headed towards the nation’s capital later this week, the President responded: “I think probably the hardest one we had by far was Puerto Rico, because of the island nature, and I actually think it was one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about…The job that FEMA, and law enforcement and everybody did working along with the governor in Puerto Rico, I think was tremendous: I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success.” He added that his administration had received “A pluses” for its work in Texas and Florida following hurricanes last year. Yet, even as the official death toll in Puerto Rico has reached nearly 3,000—far in excess of FEMA’s original report of 64—and with electricity still not totally restored, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz yesterday stated: “If he thinks the death of 3,000 people is a success, God help us all.”

Speaking at the White House yesterday, the President sought to assure the public that the FEMA was ready for Hurricane Florence, noting: “We are as ready as anybody has ever been,” as he boasted that the federal government had earned excellent grades for its disaster response in Texas and Florida, but he complained that the even better job done in Puerto Rico had been ignored, describing his administration’s “incredible, unsung success,” by noting the Pentagon had deployed a “tremendous military hospital in the form of a ship” to the island, omitting mention of his failure to suspend the Jones Act and that the ship to which he referred was largely underused: prepared to support 250 hospital beds, it admitted an average of only six patients per day, or 290 in total, over its 53-day deployment. Yet the President described the White House response effort as “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” adding, falsely, that Puerto Rico’s electric grid and generating plant “was dead” before Hurricanes Irma and then Maria struck within weeks of one another—or, as the President asserted: “[W]hen the storm hit, they had no electricity, essentially, before the storm.”

As readers are all too aware, electricity was not restored to every customer in Puerto Rico until a few weeks ago. Worse, according to the director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, approximately a quarter of the federally financed $3 billion in repairs will likely have to be redone. San Juan Mayor Yulín Cruz was more direct, posting on Twitter, yesterday: “If he thinks the death of 3,000 people is a success, God help us all.”

Jose Andrés, a Spanish chef who organized an emergency feeding program on Puerto Rico in the wake of one of the U.S.’s most devastating storms, deemed the President’s comments “astonishing: The death toll issue has been one of the biggest cover-ups in American history…Everybody needs to understand that the death toll was a massive failure by federal government and the White House. Not recognizing how many people died in the aftermath meant the resources and full power of the government was taken away from the American people of Puerto Rico.”

Chef Andrés stressed that the failures spread to food and water distribution—a failure belatedly acknowledged by FEMA in a report released in July, acknowledging the agency was unprepared, with empty warehouses and few qualified staff to attend to the disaster, that it had brought the wrong type of satellite phones to Puerto Rico, and did not have truck drivers to deliver aid from the port, adding that the federal disaster relief agency had been without “situational awareness” of what was happening outside. FEMA’s Michael Byrne, the coordinator for the agency’s Puerto Rico response, has ironically confessed that, unlike the White House, “I think one of the most courageous things FEMA has done is to be honest and frank in the after action and say, ‘We need to work on these areas…And we’re going to. We’re going to get better,” adding that among the areas which needed to be improved was the process to inspect damaged homes: many of the 300,000 homes damaged in the storm are still covered by canvas. To which, Amarilis González, a former English teacher who founded Toldos Pa’ Mi Gente, or Tarps for My People, a group that collected house coverings: “Anyone who flies in to Puerto Rico may notice the amount of blue tarps as they are landing, and that is only a small representation of the rest of the municipalities…If that is a ‘success,’ I do not understand the concept.”

The White House reference this week to Puerto Rico as a “colony” made it clear, however, as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló put it: “The historical relationship between Puerto Rico and Washington is unfair and un-American…It is certainly not a successful relationship,” as the Governor called on the President to extend federal coverage to continuing work on housing restoration and clean-up which is still ongoing, noting the hurricane had constituted the “worst natural disaster in our modern history: Our basic

Why Is the Road Still Full of Mud?

eBlog

September 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider, as Tropical Storm Florence heads west across the Caribbean, efforts in the Congress with regard to addressing Puerto Rico.

‘Twas in another lifetime one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

With Congress returning this morning, Puerto Rico’s quasi Member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, who is permitted to vote in Committee, but not in the House, is seeking to make sure that Puerto Rico’s fiscal and physical future will gain constructive input in the House Natural Resources Committee as part of Chairman Rob Bishop’s (R-Ut.) hearing on the status of Puerto Rico and its pro-security project. With fewer than 30 days left in this Congress, she is anxious that the territory be a priority. Thus, she is attempting to find a way to depoliticize the island’s electric power tussles, especially with regard to the AEE, or Governing Board of the Authority Electrica, noting: “I’m going to make a report with the recommendations to discuss it with him and the Commission’s technicians,” adding, moreover, she intends to press on the longstanding issue with regard to Puerto Rico’s political status, related to her proposed pro-identity project 6246, which proposes the creation of a Congressional working group to adopt a transition process for the territory to statehood by January of 2021. She noted she was hopeful Chairman Bishop would not only call a public hearing, but also set a vote on the legislation. For his part, the Chairman noted: “We’re going to have the public view. From there, we start.” She added that she is deferring to the Equality Commission created by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares. Nevertheless, with so few days remaining in this Congress, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) has continued to warn there are insufficient votes to push forward the statehood proposal in the Senate.

The Puerto Rico governance challenge was further conflicted and muddied by the unelected PROMESA oversight Board, which has demanded Gov. Rossello Nevares to eliminate any reference to statehood from the fiscal plan, notwithstanding, as Commissioner Gonzalez tweeted, that the PROMESA statute “establishes that the Board cannot interfere with the future political status of the island.”

A Delicate, if stormy, balancing act. Part of the political challenge for Commissioner Gonzalez is to balance efforts to obtain equitable federal storm relief funds for Puerto Rico, even as she is seeking more equitable political respect and balance for Puerto Rico. Part of that includes her efforts to gain passage in the House this month of legislation to authorize the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a study on drug trafficking and the potential for terrorism, especially in the maritime zone which surrounds Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Inequitable Arithmetic? Hurricane Maria caused at least 2,975 deaths—more than any U.S. storm in a century. Now authorities have raised the death toll to 2,975, surpassing Hurricane Katrina (1,833) and the Okeechobee hurricane in Florida, which killed 2,500 people. Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico nearly one year ago, with deadly winds gusting up to 120mph, wrought destruction across the island, cutting power, communications and drinking water to nearly every home. Yet, unlike U.S. responses to the hurricane in Houston, the FEMA response and death tolls were radically different. The government, two weeks after the devastating storm, reported the official death toll to be just 16 people. Indeed, President Donald Trump made much of the low death count when he visited San Juan on October 3rd to throw rolls of paper towels; he said: “We’ve saved a lot of lives…If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and the hundreds that died…16 versus literally thousands of people…you can be very proud.” Although the death toll rose slowly over the weeks that followed, from 16 to 64 deaths, it remained surprisingly low given the severity of the storm. But that number hardly appeared credible. Last December, the New York Times analyzed mortality reports, and estimated Maria had killed as many as 1,052 Americans in the period to October 31st. A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine last May surveyed hurricane survivors and calculated that anywhere between 793 and 8,498 people had perished.

Unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico Governor, Ricardo Rosselló Nevarez doubted that figure—a figure which mostly relied on direct deaths from flying debris and the like, overlooking deaths from power cuts and lack of water that led to medical complications. Thus, last February the Governor commissioned an independent report by epidemiologists at George Washington University to arrive at a more accurate count—a report which GW on August 28th. The new report calculated a final death toll based on the observed excess mortality over and above what might be expected in normal weather, arriving at an estimated final death toll of between 2,658 and 3,290—a number which would make Maria the worst hurricane to affect the U.S. in more than a century.

Absurd Counting. It seems impossible to comprehend how the official death toll has remained at 64 for so long. Notwithstanding the difficulty—I can hardly forget when our volunteer team from Arlington County, Virginia raced down to Biloxi, Mississippi—only to find street signs had been blown away, causeways smashed, and electricity out, so that it was a severe challenge to even found our way—and that to respond to a fierce storm where the official death count is still disputed—and where the Mayor of New Orleans had simply said the death toll would a “shock the nation.” In contrast, the drastically inaccurate number in Puerto Rico may well have lessened the urgency of relief efforts: just one third of Americans reported they made contributions in the immediate aftermath, which is low by the America’s generous standards. That miserly response, with Puerto Rico in quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy—and an economy projected to shrink 8% this year, and the Commonwealth’s young and talented leaving for the mainland in droves—not to mention the sharp, 50% reduction in tourists has, has increased the perception of disparate treatment as Puerto Rico is still waiting for as much as $80 billion of federal funds to help its recovery. Delegate Gonzalez notes the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts, adding: “The American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.”

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.

Betting on the Garden City’s Fiscal Future

May 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we take a fiscal gamble that Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down the federal anti-gambling law could reap significant fiscal gains for Atlantic City, fueling its fiscal recovery from near insolvency.  

Betting on Atlantic City’s Fiscal Future?  In the wake of the U.S Supreme Court’s PASPA decision to legalize professional sports gambling [Murphy, Governor of New Jersey, et al. v. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 16-476] —a decision which could bring in as much as $10 billion in annual new revenues to the State of New Jersey, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam, expressed excitement, noting: “Sports betting could generate millions in revenue for Atlantic City and diversify our gaming market: I hope that New Jersey is an early adapter of legalized sports betting so we can capitalize on another revenue stream.” Indeed, it would appear that the state’s commitment over the last seven years of $9 million in taxpayer funds on the court battle to legalize sports betting at its casinos and racetracks will be great fiscal news for Atlantic City, which has spent the last few years recovering from the closure of multiple casinos, going into a state fiscal takeover, and skirting the threat of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Or, as New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) put it: “If legalized sports gambling was in place when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, just think what Atlantic City would have looked like.”

Atlantic City is, after all, celebrating its 40th year of casino gambling—albeit, in recent years, it has witnessed the closure of four casinos. Already, though, two of those, including the Hard Rock (which had replaced the former Trump Taj Mahal casino) are set to reopen this summer.  Even before the decision, gaming revenues were increasing: Rummy Pandit, the Executive Director of the Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality, and Tourism at Stockton University noted sports betting will add “another new segment” to provide fiscal sustenance to the boardwalk city. Daniel Wallach, a gaming and sports attorney, in response the query whether the decision would save Atlantic City, noted: “I don’t know that Atlantic City needs saving…but it will provide a dramatic, positive economic impact.”  Emily Raimes, a Vice President at Moody’s, noted that local and state governments which legalize sports betting will “see minor benefits from the incremental tax revenues, although it will take time to implement—adding: “States like New Jersey and Pennsylvania which planned ahead will see the benefits first…Cities like Atlantic City which have long desired sports gambling will see a positive impact depending on how states regulate it.”  

The landmark ruling striking down the federal law which barred states from drafting their own regulations for local sports betting, will allow legal sports books to begin operations throughout the country—something heretofore only allowed in grandfathered-in states Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana. The case here pitted the State of New Jersey versus the nation’s major sports leagues:  New Jersey had argued legalization of sports gambling would allow the state to capture a new and significant stream of revenue. In its 6-3 decision, the 6-3 majority sided with state authority to legalize sports betting on a case-by-case basis, citing PASPA’s provision prohibiting state authorization of sports gambling schemes as violating the anti-commandeering rule—and holding that PASPA’s provision prohibiting state “licens[ing]” of sports gambling schemes also violates the anti-commandeering rule. In Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion, the Court ruled that, “Congress can be allowed to regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own.”

The decision is expected to bring immediate fiscal benefits not just to the State of New Jersey, which has been fighting for legalized sports gambling since amending its state constitution in November of 2011—a reform which drew legal challenges from the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and the NCAA, whose lawyers were able to use PASPA as precedent to prevent the referendums New Jersey residents twice approved—with the Garden State pressing its case all the way to the Supreme Court, but also key to the fiscal recovery of Atlantic City: estimated revenue from now legalized sportsbooks is projected to bring up to $9 billion in new revenues to the city—with New Jersey one of 14 states which has active sports betting reforms chambered for debate in their local legislative bodies. Elected and appointed leaders in Atlantic City and Trenton are preparing to roll the dice by capitalizing on a soon-to-be regulated industry—with three members of the New Jersey Legislature already having proposed such legislation in the state Assembly.  State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Salem, Gloucester, and Cumberland) noted: “We want to act quickly to capitalize on the court’s decision so that we can get sports gaming in place and operating in New Jersey.”

New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved creating a constitutional amendment to allow sports betting in 2011. The following year, the state Legislature passed the Sports Wagering Act, which was sponsored by former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). Former Gov. Chris Christie signed off on legislation in 2012 and 2014 to enact the amendment. Five sports leagues challenged that statute: the NBA, NCAA, NFL, NHL and MLB — and the case was contested all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in December. Former Gov. Chris Christie noted: “The favorable Supreme Court ruling on sports gaming will significantly boost the economy of Atlantic City, Atlantic County, and New Jersey as a whole. It will create jobs, encourage tourism, and increase participation at our casinos and sports venues. With today’s ruling, New Jersey’s economy has taken great strides in the right direction;” while state Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) noted: “The timing could not be better. Atlantic City has seen major growth over the last year, with two new casinos opening next month and online gaming revenues rising. Thanks to today’s Supreme Court decision, we can add regulated sports betting to the list of Atlantic City attractions fueling a comeback. This is something the majority of New Jerseyans said they wanted, and now thanks to this decision, will benefit from, as additional funding will be available for social programs that are critical for our residents. This is a good day for Atlantic City and the State of New Jersey. “

Stop & Start Federal Governance, and Abandoning Puerto Rico

eBlog

February 9, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the outcome of last night’s deliberations to avoid another federal government shutdown and the nexus between New Jersey’s public pension system and Puerto Rico’s growing foreclosure crisis, and we consider the growing frustration of the Executive Director of the PROMESA Oversight Board with regard to the absence of any real commitment by the Congress.

Dysfunctional Governing & Creating Record Federal Debt. In the wake of still another shutdown of the federal government last night, he U.S. House of Representatives, earlier this morning, voted to approve Senate-passed legislation (71-28), including a sweeping budget deal to increase the national debt, increase federal deficits, and fund the federal government through March 23rd, voting 240-186 to forward the bill to President Trump for his signature. The new, temporary patch for the federal budget will come at a signal cost: it will boost federal spending for both defense and non defense programs by $325 billion over the next two years; it will suspend the debt ceiling for one year; it will give the White House, House, and Senate until March 23rd to write an omnibus spending bill for the remainder of the federal fiscal year and break the pattern of gridlock that has led to five temporary funding patches since last September. As passed, the legislation includes a number of other priorities for both parties, including nearly $90 billion for disaster relief, $6 billion to address the opioid crisis, a four-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and more than $7 billion for community health centers. As passed, the agreement includes a massive defense spending increase, and a smaller domestic discretionary increase. The legislation to reopen the federal government—temporarily—is estimated to add as much as $2 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. As passed, the legislation includes $15 billion in tax extenders, restoring nearly three dozen federal tax expenditures which expired at the end of last year, subsidizing owners of racehorses, NASCAR tracks, filmmakers, and railroads—that is, a Congress with the greatest debt and deficits of any in U.S. history already running a $1 trillion-plus annual deficit voted to subsidize businesses and individuals for activities they took in 2017.

Fiscal Imbalances. Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko stated the Board is making progress towards its goal of restoring the U.S. territory’s fiscal balance and renegotiating its public debt; the just adopted spending agreement this morning by Congress could help: it would allow full Medicaid access to Puerto Rico, laying a foundation to revive the territory’s health system for two years, and lay the foundations for rebuilding its power grid: the provisions, announced by the U.S. Senate leadership, could represent about $ 15 billion in direct allocations, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); the package which went to the White House this morning Florida), include $ 4.8 billion in Medicaid funds for the island, as an allocation that would represent full access to the program, based on the emergency caused by Hurricane Maria. The bill includes $2 billion for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to rebuild its infrastructure, a critical provision for the island, where, 141 days after Hurricane Maria, 28% of the territory’s citizens remain without power.

In an interview with El Nuevo Día, Director Jaresko stated there had been “measurable” fiscal progress, albeit “small, but important,” as she answered each of the questions regarding performance reported this week by this newspaper, assuring that there are “measurable progresses” that, although “small, are important.” She added, however, that the process of transformation driven by the oversight Board has not moved at the pace she would like; moreover, she said, the role of the Congressionally created entity is not understood either in Puerto Rico or by the Congress or White House; nevertheless, she added, the Board expects to resume the correct course that Puerto Rico needs: “Those who expected the Board to come to govern are disappointed. Those who expected the Board to be in favor of the creditors are not happy; and those who expected the Board to be against the creditors: the reality between what  the enabling law dictates, the powers of the Board and the relationship with the government is, by far, more complex than expectations.” She added: “I wish there was more support from Congress for Puerto Rico: More clarity is needed. The second round of the supplementary aid package to address the disaster is still pending; CHIP and Medicaid funds are still pending. We need more confidence and clarity,” noting fiscal quandary for the Board to be forced to make fiscal decisions without knowing clearly what federal resources Puerto Rico can realistically anticipate.

Her comments came as, this week, the Board advised Ricardo Rosselló that Puerto Rico’s fiscal plans do not comply with PROMESA, giving the government seven days to correct them. Among the requested or demanded changes: an update on the information with regard to the federal funds that Puerto Rico would receive for its recovery. She also made clear she was “disappointed,” because, in the newly enacted federal tax reform, the law does not include provisions to exempt U.S. multinational businesses operating in Puerto Rico from the new taxes on U.S.; nor did the law grant a transition period to counterbalance the impact of that decision on the local economy. She noted the PROMESA Board expects concrete actions by Congress, noting that, last month, the Board had invoked §103 of the PROMESA Law, requesting the transfer of federal employees to address the situation in Puerto Rico, with the request made to the departments of Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, Health, Housing, the U.S. Treasury, the General Services Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Her comments came as the Board’s 18-month anniversary of service nears next month—marking their halfway point. Next month, the members of the Board will have served 18 months in office, that is, half of their term since they accepted the task of restoring the fiscal balance and access of Puerto Rico to the capital markets—a period during which the only voluntary agreement with bondholders of Puerto Rico municipal debt (in the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority [PREPA]) was rejected, while the liquidation of the Government Development Bank (GDB) was approved. During her tenure, PREPA has exhausted its funding: it could cease operating as early as this month; bondholders this week have returned to Court for the Title III cases, determined to litigate their debts. Thus, to Director Jaresko, the progress of the Board must be measured in light of its dual federal partially funded mandate: fiscal balance and access to the capital market: a charge which she noted, to achieve, would require time and a series of reforms which the Board has just put on the table, in no small part by, this week, sending the Governor the first notices of violations to the PROMESA Law in the fiscal plans—and giving Puerto Rico until Monday, President Lincoln’s birthday, to respond.

Asked whether seven days were enough for the government to make all the changes that the Board has requested, Director Jaresko responded that “Most of the information being requested must be supporting information for the estimates in the plan. I understand the information is available, because, if they are talking about the savings they will achieve, the details of that policy have to be there,” adding that it is the Board’s intent to certify the fiscal plans on February 23rd. She added that the creation of the office of the government’s Chief Financial Officer will allow staff to engage in financial disclosure tasks without being at the mercy of a change of government. Finally, she noted that with the new fiscal plan, Gov. Rosselló had demonstrated a greater commitment towards the structural reforms needed—with those comments coming just as Gov. Rosselló reported that the negotiations to review the fiscal plans are still in place and that he will comply with the submission date imposed by the PROMESA Board.

Nevertheless, while the Director appears upbeat, that confidence is not felt in New Jersey, where members of the state investment council have made clear they would not be comfortable if the pension fund profited from the hardships of Puerto Ricans, warning that in the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is bracing for a mortgage crisis, with many residents now way behind on their payments. Thus, policymakers for New Jersey’s public-employee pension system are trying to make sure investments that were launched here years ago do not aggravate that fiscal and fiscal crisis: members of the New Jersey State Investment Council were recently notified that two private equity funds which the pension system owns have significant stakes in corporations which are pursuing foreclosures on Puerto Rico: the private equity funds are part of the $77.5 billion pension system’s substantial alternative-investment portfolio—and, private equity was a top performer for the system during the 2017 calendar year, according to the latest returns reviewed during the investment council’s public meeting this week: in all, the pension system enjoyed returns totaling nearly 15 percent last year, which more than doubled the 7 percent assumed rate of return. Currently, the federal government has placed a moratorium on most foreclosure proceedings in the wake of the hurricane; however, the moratorium is due to expire next month, creating uncertainty about what that might mean; however, the council members made it clear during a public meeting that they are not comfortable seeing the pension fund profit from the hardships being faced in Puerto Rico, with Chair Tom Byrne noting: “I don’t think any of us are looking to make three extra basis points on this fund by throwing people out of their homes in Puerto Rico.” said Tom Byrne, the panel’s chairman. The issue involves pension system’s ties to the companies pursuing foreclosures in Puerto Rico, ties related to a diversification strategy that the investment council launched more than a decade ago as it sought to protect against major losses that can occur during a market crash. The diversification strategy relies in part on alternative investments, such as hedge funds, venture capital, and private equity—investments which, however, wrest control from state pension decisions compared to some of the more conventional investments that are managed in-house by the Division of Investment, an agency within the New Jersey Department of Treasury. For example, three years ago, the Council was pressed to eliminate a stake in another private-equity firm, JLL Partners, in the wake of information the firm had ties to a Texas-based payday lending firm that was fined after being accused of heavy-handed lending practices—especially as the practice of payday lending is prohibited in New Jersey. Now, with an estimated 90,000 borrowers in Puerto Rico behind on their mortgages as a result of Hurricane Maria, memories of the Hurricane Sandy impact on New Jersey has resurrected memories of the many state citizens who were forced to pay rent for temporary housing and also cover the mortgages on their damaged homes. Jim Baker, from the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, told the council this week that some of the foreclosures were not just conventional mortgages, but also reverse mortgages that have been set up with senior citizens who are required to make property tax and homeowners insurance payments in order to receive payouts, as he urged the panel to get involved in the issue, saying the federal moratorium on foreclosures is “fast approaching” and it’s still not clear what is going to happen once it passes. Mr. Baker said he would like to see the moratorium extended for another year, which is something four U.S. senators, including New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, have asked the federal government to do.