What Municipal Fiscal Items Might Be Found in Stockings?

December 11, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the ongoing and renewed fiscal challenges confronting Connecticut–albeit with some hints that Santa might have paid an early visit and filled some stockings in Hartford; then we observe the still unmet, post-hurricane fiscal and physical storms which have slammed the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico–but where the federal response has been less than anemic.

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Coal in the Fiscal Stocking? Barely weeks after Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the state’s FY2018 budget, Connecticut has a new round of fiscal crises—meaning the Governor will have to go back to the fiscal drawing board to come up with a new fiscal plan to address a state deficit of at least $207 million, even as he is confronted by a hurtling insolvency for the state’s special transportation fund: Connecticut statutes mandate the Governor to submit a mitigation plan within 30 days when a shortfall exceeds 1% of the general fund. Ergo, Gov. Malloy alerted bond rating municipal bond rating agencies that the fund, key to back stopping critical transportation projects, could be in the red by the beginning of next summer, noting to reporters: “It’s the same things I’ve been telling you guys for years, that we’ve got do something about the transportation fund: “Revenue is coming in, and was predicted to come in slower in large part because people are buying less gas and gas is cheaper.” His remarks follow by just under three years is then announcement of a 30-year, $100 billion transportation infrastructure program—a program which, however, has scarcely commenced. Now, as the Governor anticipates the state’s budget deficit to rise, given delays in implementing reductions in medical benefits which had been projected to play a key fiscal role in the state’s $41 billion biennial spending plan, the Gov. added: “Unless they’re selling new hats that deliver rabbits, a mitigation plan means there only two things you can do—cut spending, raise revenue, or do a combination of both,” with his comments coming a day after huddling with legislative leaders about the hemorrhaging deficit—just two months after the Governor had signed—four months’ late—and now as Congress is on the precipice of sending the White House a tax cut bill that will signally increase the federal debt and deficit—and impose Medicaid cuts and discombobulate Connecticut’s budget—even if the federal government does not shut down. With the Constitution State on the market to sell $400 million of taxable general obligation bonds and $350 million of GO bond anticipation notes, S&P has been less than optimistic, with analyst David Hitchcock indicating a 33% chance the agency could lower Connecticut’s rating within two years, writing: “The outlook reflects what we believe to be increasing constraints on achieving long-term structural balance, highlighted by Connecticut’s delay in enacting a fiscal 2018-2019 biennial budget.” The rating agency is apprehensive about the state’s above-average debt, high unfunded public pension liabilities, as well as OPEB unfunded post-employment benefit liabilities—all coming at a time of population declines, economic stagnation, and weak reserves. Likewise, Fitch warned Connecticut was a state to flag in the new year: “The state has struggled in recent years with revenues failing far short of projections,” while Municipal Market Analytics indicated it anticipates the new state deficit to trigger aid cuts, cuts which will adversely impact the state’s municipalities, writing: “There is a significant medium-term downside scenario developing for the paper of middle-class and poorer Connecticut towns.” Thus, Gov. Malloy said he expects the General Assembly to reconvene for a special session prior to Christmas, especially due to the potential fiscal impact of the announced CVS takeover of Aetna—the state’s largest employer, based in Hartford, and Stanley Black & Decker’s announcement that it will open a 23,000-square-foot advanced manufacturing center in downtown Hartford—kind of a pre-Christmas good gnus/bad gnus combination. , giving the global tools maker its first presence in the Capital City. Almost as if Santa had left an early fiscal stocking present, the twin developments indicate that Hartford, notwithstanding its fiscal and financial struggles and economic decline, is resilient: a city now at a crossroads, with the addition of more than 1,000 new housing units, the opening of the University of Connecticut’s new campus at the old Hartford Times building.

Build Back Mejor! Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló flew to New York yesterday for fiscal and physical reconstruction meetings, after meetings with Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Leader Carlos Méndez, as he sought to reach consensus on a unified strategy and position with Congress and the Trump administration—hoping that President Trump will agree to some special dispensations for the U.S. territory—especially with regard to manufacturing. His voyage comes as the Justice Department has filed a constitutional defense of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, arguing the law gives the federal government flexibility in making appointments to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis—with the trip coming as the federal government, last week, responded to an August 7th filing by hedge fund Aurelius Capital in the Title III bankruptcy case: PROMESA Oversight Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko said the board supported the U.S. filing in defense of PROMESA’s constitutionality, noting: “We welcome the United States Solicitor General’s legal arguments in support of PROMESA and the board’s constitutionality…The devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria make it even more important to have in place an orderly process for restoring the island’s finances, providing oversight and increasing confidence among residents and businesses while upholding equitable treatment for creditors.” Potentially at stake are the fates of $74 billion in outstanding public sector debt, $49 billion in pensions, and the control not only of Puerto Rico’s government, but also its public corporations: in the complaint, Aurelius said the Title III bankruptcy petition should be dismissed, because its filing was not validly authorized by the validly constituted oversight board: in particular, Aurelius charged that the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution was breached in appointing the PROMESA board’s members, arguing that, according to the Constitution, all “principal officers” of the United States must be appointed by the President of the United States, and approved by the U.S. Senate. In its August complaint, Aurelius had argued that the board members are “principal officers” of the U.S. In a responding federal brief, the federal government wrote that the PROMESA appointments scheme “is not subject to the Appointments Clause, because the Oversight Board is a component of the territorial government,” noting that Congress enacted PROMESA under the Territory Clause of Article IV of the Constitution, which gives Congress “‘broad latitude to develop innovative approaches to territorial governance,’ Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle (2016),” with the U.S. attorneys writing: “The Appointments Clause does not govern the appointment of territorial officers, including members of the Oversight Board, because Congress may legislate for the territories ‘in a manner…that would exceed its powers or at least would be very unusual, in the context of national legislation enacted under other powers delegated to it.’ Palmore v. United States (1973).” The attorneys added that historical practice shows that the “Appointments Clause is inapplicable to the appointment of territorial officers.” (In 1900, Congress passed the Foraker Act, which said that a locally-elected house of representatives should work alongside a governor and 11-member elected council nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In 1947, the U.S. government gave Puerto Rico the power to also elect a governor.) Ergo, the federal lawyers argued that these local elections are not in conformity with the Appointments Clause, but rather have historically been practiced without challenge. Not dissimilarly, Aurelius Capital had also argued that PROMESA’s appointment mechanism for the Oversight Board also encroached on the U.S. President’s executive authority in violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers: while the statute encouraged the President to pick six of the seven board members from those nominated by Congress, according to the act: “he could have requested the recommendatory lists to be supplemented with additional candidates or nominated his own candidates for Senate confirmation under PROMESA’s appointments structure.”

Will There Ever Be Shelter from the Storm? More than two months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory, unlike Houston or Florida, has yet to receive any of the $4.9 billion of short-term loans promised in the storm aid package Congress passed at the end of October. Gov. Christian Sobrino, Gov. Rosselló representative on the PROMESA oversight board, confirmed last Friday that no Puerto Rican entity has received any portion of the funds, which were requested for basic functions—with the inexplicable delay raising fear after the Puerto Rican government told the oversight board that the island utility, PREPA, and water utility, PRASA, would run out of money this month—as discussions with the U.S. Treasury and Department of Homeland Security remain unsettled. Puerto Rico has requested $94 billion in federal aid, only a portion of which has been granted, as Members of Congress have raised concerns over how the island’s government will steward billions in federal money—an ironic concern given the current Congressional tax cut proposals projected to add $1.4 trillion to the federal debt, raising questions with regard to not just discrimination, but also a double standard. Puerto Rico Rep. Rafael “Tatito” Hernandez, of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, last Wednesday wrote to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin with regard to the status of the loan package—an epistle to which, at least as of last Friday, he has received no response. Rep. Hernandez noted that Members of Congress still need reassurance that the funds will be well spent, adding that: “A lot of them have some issues.” Whether their issues in any way are comparable to the scale of as much as $100 billion of damage to Puerto Rico, however, or to the challenge to the PROMESA Board as it seeks to unwind the equivalent of the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history is another question. Now Puerto Rico warns it will have to redraw plans for economic reforms. As fabulous Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics noted: “There is a risk that Puerto Rico will use the operating loans and rebuilding dollars as short-term financing to avoid making hard choices in terms of making economic reforms.” As of last Friday, Puerto Rico’s utility, PREPA, was generating only 68% of the power needed and 7% of customers still lacked access to clean water. 

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