The Fiscal Challenges of Inequity

May 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the small municipality of Harvey, Illinois—a city fiscally transfixed between its pension and operating budget constraints in a state which does not provide authority for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we turn east to assess Connecticut’s fiscal road to adjournment and what it might mean for its capital city of Hartford; before heading south to Puerto Rico where there might be too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen, both exacerbating the costs of restoring fiscal solvency, and exacerbating the outflow of higher income Americans from Puerto Rico to the mainland.

Absence of Fiscal Balance? After, nearly a decade ago, the Land of Lincoln—the State of Illinois—adopted its pension law as a means to ensure smaller municipalities would stop underfunding their public pension contributions—provisions which, as we noted in the case of the small municipality of Harvey, were upheld when a judge affirmed that the Illinois Comptroller was within the state law to withhold revenues due to the city—with the Comptroller’s office noting that whilst it did not “want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the City of Harvey.” But in one of the nation’s largest metro regions—one derived from the 233 settlements there in 1900, the fiscal interdependency and role of the state may have grave fiscal consequences. As we previously noted, U. of Chicago researcher Amanda Kass found there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with unfunded pension liabilities similar to that of Harvey. Unsurprisingly, poverty is not equally distributed: so fiscal disparities within the metro region have consequences not just for municipal operating budgets, but also for meeting state constitutionally mandated public pension obligations.

Now, as fiscal disparities in the region grow, there is increasing pressure for the state to step in—it is, after all, one of the majority of states in the nation which does not authorize a municipality to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: ergo, the fiscal and human challenge in the wake of the state’s enactment of its new statute which permits public pension funds to intercept local revenues to meet pension obligations; the state faces the governance and fiscal challenge of whether to provide for a state takeover—a governing action taken in the case of neighboring Michigan, where the state takeover had perilous health and fiscal consequences in Flint, but appeared to be the key for the remarkable fiscal turnaround in Detroit from the largest municipal chapter 9 bankruptcy in American history. Absent action by the Governor and state legislature, it would seem Illinois will need to adopt an early fiscal warning system of severe municipal fiscal distress—replete with a fiscal process for some means of state assistance or intervention. In Harvey, where Mayor Eric Kellogg has been banned for life from any role in the issuance of municipal debt because of the misleading of investors, the challenge for a city which has so under-budgeted for its public pension obligations, has defaulted on its municipal bond obligations, and provided virtually no fiscal disclosure; Illinois’ new state law (PL 96-1495), which permits public pension funds to compel Illinois’ Comptroller to withhold state tax revenue which would normally go to the city, which went into effect at the beginning of this calendar year, meant the city reasons did not take effect until January 2018. Now, in the wake of the city’s opting to lay off nearly half its police and fire force, the small municipality with the 7th highest violent crime rate in the state is in a fiscal Twilight Zone—and a zone transfixed in the midst of a hotly contested gubernatorial campaign in which neither candidate has yet to offer a meaningful fiscal option.  

Under Illinois’ Financial Distressed City Law ((65 ILCS 5/) Illinois Municipal Code) there are narrow criteria, including requirements that the municipality rank in the highest 5% of all cities in terms of the aggregate of the property tax levy paid while simultaneously in the lowest percentage of municipalities in terms of the tax collected. Under the provisions, the Illinois General Assembly would then need to pass a resolution declaring the city as fiscally distressed—a law used only once before in the state’s history—thirty-eight years ago for the City of East St. Louis. The statute, as we have previously noted, contains an additional quirk—disqualifying in this case: Illinois’ Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act mandates an entity must have a population of less than 25,000—putting Harvey, with its waning population measured at 24,947 as of 2016 somewhere with Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone. Absent state action, Harvey could be the first of a number of smaller Illinois municipalities unable to meet its public pension obligations—in response to which, the state would reduce revenues via intercepting local or municipal revenues—aggravating and accelerating municipal fiscal distress.

Capital for the Capitol. In a rare Saturday session, the Connecticut Senate passed legislation to enable the state to claw back emergency debt assistance for its capital city, Hartford, through aid cuts beginning in mid-2022, with a bipartisan 28-6 vote—forwarding the bill to the House and Gov. Dannel Malloy—as legislators raced to overwhelmingly approve a new state budget shortly before their midnight deadline Wednesday which would:  restore aid for towns; reverse health care cuts for the elderly, poor, and disabled; and defer a transportation crisis. The $20.86 billion package, which now moves to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, does not increase taxes; it does raise the maximum tax rate cities and towns can levy on motor vehicles. In addition, the bill would spend rather than save more than $300 million from this April’s $1 billion surge in state income tax revenues. The final fiscal compromise does not include several major changes sought by Republicans to collective bargaining rules affecting state and municipal employees. And, even as the state’s fiscal finances are projected to face multi-billion-dollar deficits after the next election tied in part to legacy debt costs amassed over the last 80 years, the new budget would leave Connecticut with $1.1 billion in its emergency reserves: it will boost General Fund spending about 1.6 percent over the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, and is 1.1 percent higher than the preliminary 2018-19 budget lawmakers adopted last October. The budget also includes provisions intended to protect Connecticut households and businesses which might be confronted with higher federal tax obligations under the new federal tax law changes. Indeed, in the end, the action was remarkably bipartisan: the Senate passed the budget 36-0 after a mere 17 minutes of debate; the House debated only 20 minutes before voting 142-8 for adoption.

In addition to reacting to the new federal tax laws, the final fiscal actions also dealt with the sharp, negative reaction from voters in the wake of tightening  Medicare eligibility requirements for the Medicare Savings Program, which uses Medicaid funds to help low-income elderly and disabled patients cover premiums and medication costs—acting to postpone cutbacks to July 1st, even though it worsened a deficit in the current fiscal year, after learning an estimated 113,000 seniors and disabled residents would lose some or all assistance. As adopted, the new budget reverses all cutbacks, at a cost of approximately $130 million. Legislators also acted to restore some $12 million to reverse new restrictions on the Medicaid-funded health insurance program for poor adults, with advocates claiming this funding would enable approximately 13,500 adults from households earning between 155 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level to retain state-sponsored coverage.

State Aid to Connecticut Cities & Towns. Legislators also took a different approach with this budget regarding aid to cities and towns. After clashing with Gov. Malloy last November, when Gov. Malloy had been mandated by the legislature to achieve unprecedented savings after the budget was in force, including the reduction of $91 million from statutory grants to cities and towns; the new budget gives communities $70.5 million more in 2018-19 than they received this year—and bars the Governor from cutting town grants to achieve savings targets. As adopted, the fiscal package means that some municipalities in the state, cities and towns with the highest local tax rates, could be adversely impacted: the legislation raises the statewide cap on municipal property taxes from a maximum rate of 39 mills to 45 mills. On the other hand, the final legislation provides additional education and other funding for communities with large numbers of evacuees from Puerto Rico—dipping into a portion of last month’s $1.3 billion surge in state income tax receipts tied chiefly to capital gains and other investment income—and notwithstanding the state’s new revenue “volatility” cap which was established last fall to force Connecticut to save such funds. As adopted, the new state budget “carries forward” $299 million in resources earmarked for payments to hospitals this fiscal year—a fiscal action which means the state has an extra $299 million to spend in the next budget while simultaneously enlarging the outgoing fiscal year’s deficit by the same amount. (The new deficit for the outgoing fiscal year would be $686 million, which would be closed entirely with the dollars in the budget reserve—which is filled primarily with this spring’s income tax receipts.) The budget reserve is now projected to have between $700 million and $800 million on hand when the state completes its current fiscal year. That could be a fiscal issue, as it would leave Connecticut with a fiscal cushion of just under 6 percent of annual operating costs, a cushion which, while the state’s largest reserve since 2009, would still be far below the 15 percent level recommended by Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo—and, mayhap of greater fiscal concern, smaller than the projected deficits in the first two fiscal years after the November elections: according to Connecticut’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the newly adopted budget, absent adjustment, would run $2 billion in deficit in FY2019-20—a deficit that office projects would increase by more than 25 percent by FY2020-21, with the bulk of those deficits attributable both to surging retirement benefit costs stemming from decades of inadequate state savings, as well as the Connecticut economy’s sluggish recovery from the last recession.

As adopted, Connecticut’s new budget also retains and scales back a controversial plan to reinforce new state caps on spending and borrowing and other mechanisms designed to encourage better savings habits; it includes a new provision to transfer an extra $29 million in sales tax receipts next fiscal year to the Special Transportation Fund—designed in an effort to avert planned rail and transit fare increases—ergo, it does not establish tolls on state highways.

Reacting to Federal Tax Changes. The legislature approved a series of tax changes in response to new federal tax laws capping deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000: one provision would establish a new Pass-Through Entity Tax aimed at certain small businesses, such as limited liability corporations; a second provision allows municipalities to provide a property tax credit to taxpayers who make voluntary donations to a “community-supporting organization” approved by the municipality: under this provision, as an example, a household owing $7,000 in state income taxes and $6,000 in local property taxes could, in lieu of paying the property taxes, make a $6,000 contribution to a municipality’s charitable organization.

Impacts on Connecticut’s Municipalities. The bill would enable the state to reduce non-education aid to its capital city of Hartford by an amount equal to the debt deal. It would authorize the legislature to pare non-education grants to Hartford if the city’s deficit exceeds 2% of annual operating costs in a fiscal year, or a 1% gap for two straight year—albeit the legislature would be free to restore other funds—or, as Mayor Luke Bronin put it: “I fully understand respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years.” Under the so-called contract assistance agreement, which Gov. Malloy, Connecticut State Treasurer Denise Nappier, and Mayor Luke Bronin signed in late March, the state would pay off the principal on the City of Hartford’s roughly $540 million of general obligation debt over 20 to 30 years. With Connecticut’s new Municipal Accountability Review Board, not dissimilar to the Michigan fiscal review Board for Detroit, having just approved Mayor Bronin’s five-year plan. In the wake of the legislative action, Mayor Bronin had warned that significant fiscal cuts in the out years could imperil the city at that time, albeit adding: “That said, I fully understand and respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years, and my commitment is that we will continue to work hard to earn the confidence our the legislature and the state as a whole as we move our capital city in the right direction.”

Dying to Leave. While we have previously explored the departure of many young, college-educated Puerto Ricans to the mainland, depleting both municipio and the Puerto Rico treasuries of vital tax revenues, the Departamento of Salud (Health Department) reports that even though Puerto Rico’s population has declined by nearly 17% over the decade, the U.S. territory’s suicide rate has increased significantly, especially in the months immediately following Hurricane Maria, particularly among older adults, with social workers reporting that elderly people are especially vulnerable when their daily routines are disrupted for long periods. Part of the upsurge is demographically related: As those going have left for New York City, Florida, and other sites on the East Coast, it is older Americans left behind—many who went as long as six months without electricity, who appear to be at risk. Adrian Gonzalez, the COO (Chief Operating Officer at Castañer General Hospital in Castañer, a small town in the central mountains) noted: “We have elderly people who live alone, with no power, no water and very little food.” Dr. Angel Munoz, a clinical psychologist in Ponce, said people who care for older adults need to be trained to identify the warning signs of suicide: “Many of these elderly people either live alone or are being taken care of by neighbors.”

A Hot Potato of Municipal Debt. Under Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed FY2019 General Fund budget, the Governor included no request to meet Puerto Rico’s debt, adding he intended not to follow the PROMESA Board’s directives in several parts of his budget—those debt obligations for Puerto Rico and its entities are in excess of $2.5 billion: last month’s projections by the Board certified a much higher amount of $3.84 billion. Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics described it this way: “Bondholders have to wait until the Commonwealth makes a secured or otherwise legally protected provision to pay debt service before they can begin to (dis)count their chickens: The alternative, which is where we are today, is an assumption that debt service will be paid out of surplus funds. ‘Surplus funds’ haven’t happened in a decade and the storm has only made things worse: a better base case assumption is the Commonwealth spending every dollar of cash and credit at its disposal, regardless of what the budget says: That doesn’t leave much room for the payment of debt service and is good reason for bondholders to continue to litigate.” Under the PROMESA Board’s approved fiscal plan, Puerto Rico should have $1.13 billion in surplus funds available for debt service in FY2023—with the Board silent with regard to what percent the Gov. would be expected to dedicate to debt service. The Gov.’s budget request does seek nearly a 10% reduction for the general fund, with a statement from his office noting the proposal for operational expenditures of $7 billion is 6% less than that for the current fiscal year and 22% less than the final budget of former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla. The Governor proposed no reductions in pension benefits—indeed, it goes so far as to explicitly include that his budget does not follow the demands of the PROMESA Oversight Board for the proposed pension cuts, to enact new labor reforms, or to eliminate a long-standing Christmas bonus for government workers.

Nevertheless, PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, appears optimistic that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s government will correct the “deficiencies” in the recommended budget without having to resort to litigation: while explaining the Board’s reasoning for rejecting the Governor’s proposed budget last week, Director Jaresko stressed that correcting the expenses and collections program, as well as implementing all the reforms contained in the fiscal plan, is necessary to channel the island’s economy and to promote transparency and accountability in the use of public funds, adding that approving a budget in accordance with the new certified fiscal plan is critical to achieve the renegotiation of Puerto Rico’s debt—adding that, should the Rosselló administration not do its part, the Board would proceed with what PROMESA establishes: “The fiscal plan is not a menu you can choose from.”

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The Absences of Fiscal Balances

May 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we note the deepening road towards insolvency of the Harvey, Illinois; then we turn south to consider the potential adverse municipal fiscal impacts were the State of Georgia to enable the de-annexation of the small city of Stockbridge. Finally, we journey back to Puerto Rico, where House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop is headed for a first-hand assessment of the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges and federal emergency assistance still needed. 

An Absence of Fiscal Balance? In the Land of Lincoln, Illinois, where the state’s courts have heard requests for municipal bankruptcy relief; but where chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is not authorized; relief appears only to have been granted when not challenged. Under 65 Illinois Comp. Statute 5/8-5-1, smaller municipalities may, if not home rule jurisdictions, seek judicial relief. Under the state’s Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act (50 Ill. Comp. Stat. 3200) a municipality with a population under 25,000 suffering a “fiscal emergency” may, after securing a two-thirds vote of the governing body, petition the state to establish a financial planning and supervision commission to address such “fiscal emergency.” Ironically, Harvey, with a population of 25,282, just exceeds that level—some 1,052 Illinois municipalities have less than 25,000 residents. Now, with the municipality unable to meet its police and fire pensions, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza is holding up more than $1 million in state funds the town is owed—under Illinois statutes which authorize the state to withhold tax revenues a municipality is slated to receive if it does not make the required payments into its police and firefighter pensions: the funds withheld go right into the pension fund instead of town services—which, in the case of Harvey, amount to about $1.4 million, leading to, as we have previously noted, the town’s announcement that it will lay off nearly half of its police and fire department. Making the fiscal situation more dire, the city’s Mayor, Eric Kellogg, has been banned for life from the municipal bond market for misleading investors; the municipality appears to be in a chronic pattern of underfunding its public safety pension funds, even as its operating budget chronically spends more than the revenues it brings in. Ergo, as we have written, under Illinois’ Public Act 96-1495, the Comptroller may be compelled to withhold state tax revenues, which would traditionally be in order to ensure pension payments are made to a municipality which has failed to make full pension payments for years.

In a situation which risks compromising public health and safety, Harvey has laid off nearly half its police and fire force—even as it has warned it might not be able to make payroll—especially with inadequate municipal fiscal resources now being rerouted to oppose the state actions in court.

It being Illinois—and an election year—Gov. Bruce Rauner has been uncharacteristically silent about the brewing fiscal catastrophe. The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, has joined with the exceptional Chicago Civic Federation in drafting legislation, the Local Government Protection Authority, which includes a provision to:

  • establish an oversight board,
  • set up a clear procedure for dealing with a stressed city, and
  • allow filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. (Legislation which has, to date, gained no traction in the legislature.)

Harvey Town Attorney Bob Fioretti reports: “We are going to find some solution, if possible,” signaling that the municipality was still negotiating with its police and fire pension funds, but warning that, if those discussions falter:  “Layoffs will occur. But the safety of the population is key, and that will continue.”

Mayhap ironically, Illinois adopted its pension law eight years ago as a way to ensure smaller municipalities would stop shorting their pension fund contributions—provisions upheld the week when a judge affirmed that the Illinois comptroller was within the state law to withhold the revenue. Thus, while the Comptroller’s Office issued a statement that it “does not want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the city of Harvey.”

Nor does Harvey appear to be an isolated case: According to an analysis by Amanda Kass, a researcher at the University of Chicago, there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with similar unfunded pension liabilities—leading Chicago Civic Federation President Laurence Msall to note: “If they ignore the law and don’t make the contribution as Harvey has, then yes, those municipalities all around the state have ability to seek an intercept of state revenues that would otherwise come to the municipality.”

The complicating factor for Harvey is, however, not just that it has had years of decline and corruption in government, but also with declining assessed property values and very high property taxes, the municipality has a shrinking set of fiscal options—or, as Mr. Fioretti puts it: “We have an aging population, a declining population, a fixed-income population, and our revenues aren’t even being collected from the real estate taxes. We’re below 50 percent for the year on those collections,” noting that the delinquent real estate tax money is costing the town $12 million this year.”

Uneasy Fiscal Options. While Mr. Msall notes that the State of Illinois helped create the fiscal mess by setting up the pension funds and setting all of the pension levels; now, he notes, Illinois must either dissolve Harvey’s pension into the state fund, or put together an emergency financial team to sort through the wreckage of this and other distressed towns—adding: “Let’s create a board that could be independent with real financial expertise to guide these local governments, not to push them into [municipal] bankruptcy: The best path forward for Harvey is independent oversight that could sort out why they’re not making their financial reports on a regular basis.”

The Cost of Municipal Annexation. Municipalities across Georgia could face higher borrowing costs if the state government enables the “de-annexation” of about half of one small city, that city being Stockbridge, one settled in 1829 when the Concord Methodist Church was organized near present-day Old Stagecoach Road—and, especially, when Stockbridge was granted a post office on April 5, 1847, named for a traveling professor, Levi Stockbridge, who had passed through the area many times before the post office was built. Albeit that heritage remains a matter of some dispute: others contend that the city was named after Thomas Stock, who was State Surveyor and the Georgia State President in the 1820s. The small municipality was incorporated as a town in 1895 and, subsequently, as a city on August 6, 1920. Now, however, more change might be on the way, especially if Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signs into law Senate bills 262 and 263—bills which, if enacted, would de-annex just over half of Stockbridge’s assessable residential and commercial property. Why? Because proposed SB 263, an Act to incorporate the City of Eagles Landing, provide a charter for the City of Eagles Landing; provide for a referendum; provide for transition of powers and duties; provide for community improvement districts; and repeal conflicting laws would effectively have disconcerting fiscal impacts on City Hall in Stockbridge, which was financed with municipal revenue bonds. Neither of the two bills apportions the revenues involved between the to-be two entities—a requirement which, according to some legal experts, is based upon precedent-setting court cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and Georgia when the boundaries of a governmental entity are changed.

Thus, unsurprisingly, during the Georgia Municipal Association’s Georgia Cities Week last week, Stockbridge officials and representatives of the Eagle’s Landing effort held separate meetings with Gov. Deal.  Stockbridge City Attorney Michael Williams described their session as “very productive: The Governor said he would consider the series of points we made…I’m certainly taking him at his word that he will.” Nevertheless, the municipality is hedging its fiscal bets: it has hired three outside law firms to challenge the laws if Gov. Deal approves them.

Should that happen, however, the much reduced City if Stockbridge would still would be obligated to pay off about $13.02 million of privately placed Urban Redevelopment Agency lease-revenue bonds, and $1.5 million of water and sewer notes issued through the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority—municipal bonds owned by Capitol One Public Funding LLC. Unsurprisingly, the Romulus and Remus of Eagles Landing have expressed no eagerness to help make those payments: sharing only goes so far. The lease-revenue bonds, issued in 2005 and 2006 for projects including funding to purchase land and build city hall, backed by general fund revenues and the city’s taxing power, if needed, even though the city does not currently impose a property tax.

Also unsurprisingly, Jim Spiotto’s firm, Chapman and Cutler LLP, which represents Capital One, wrote to the city a day after the General Assembly ended its session last month, warning it could face potential litigation: “SB 262 and SB 263 infringe Capital One’s constitutional rights under the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution by taking away a significant source of the security and source of repayment for the bonds that was contractually bargained for by the bondholders,” Chapman and Cutler partner Laura Appleby wrote to the City Attorney. Unless the bonds are properly apportioned between Stockbridge and Eagle’s Landing, and the [municipal] bondholders have the benefit of the full security that they were originally promised, Ms. Appleby wrote, “We have serious concerns regarding the ability of [Stockbridge] to continue to pay debt service on the bonds because it will have lost a large portion of its ad valorem tax base.”

Jonathan Lewis, Capital One Public Funding’s president, has written to Gov. Deal also requesting a meeting, writing: “The failure of SB 262 and SB 263 to provide for the apportionment of the [municipal] bonds between the City of Stockbridge and, if formed, the City of Eagle’s Landing, is not only an inequitable result for the City of Stockbridge, it is an infringement on Capital One’s constitutional rights under the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution, as it removes a significant portion of the security and source of repayment for the bonds…Capital One has come to trust that the State of Georgia will take those actions required to maintain, preserve, and protect the pledges made by its municipalities to their bondholders…Permitting SB 262 and SB 263 to become law would no longer allow us to rely in the State of Georgia [based] on the bedrock public finance principle of non-impairment,” adding that such a “de-annexation” would impair Capital One’s municipal bonds and “create new, unprecedented risks for existing holders and prospective purchasers of State of Georgia local debt.” Mr. Lewis last week also communicated to Georgia Municipal Association Executive Director Larry Hanson, whose organization is made up of 521 municipalities, that if enacted, the de-annexation would require all lenders to Georgia municipalities to “consider, and price in, the potential loss of security from future de-annexations,” because the legislation does not apportion Stockbridge’s outstanding debt: “GMA’s members would bear the burden of this new, Georgia-specific risk in the form of higher interest costs: “The uncertainty created by such a shift sets a dangerous precedent and could produce additional negative unintended consequences as lenders consider municipal financing opportunities within the state.”

Who’s on First? Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) of the House Natural Resources Committee, the committee of jurisdiction for U.S. territories, yesterday confirmed he would got to Puerto Rico to meet with island leaders to assess the recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, noting: “This trip will allow me to better understand the ongoing challenges and the emergency assistance that is still needed.” He is scheduled to meet with Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, as well as Chairman Jose Carrion of the PROMESA Board as part of an effort the Chairman described as a “first hand look at recovery efforts,” pointing out that, in his view, it would be irresponsible for Governor Rosselló, who apparently the Chairman had not advised of his visit, not to implement the government reforms ordered by the PROMESA oversight board—making clear the fiscal gulf between the two leaders, with the Governor observing that Chairman Bishop, with his demands in favor of a dialogue with creditors, seems to be supporting the causes of the territory’s municipal bondholders over the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.

Unlike chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, wherein state laws create a process—where permitted—for a municipality; there are many fiscal chefs in the kitchen in Puerto Rico, with growing questions with regard to the limits of their respective legal authority under the PROMESA law. A key issue, the final decision with regard to the implementation of cuts to the pension system and the labor reform may yet take a few months. The fiscal stakes, however, especially on an island where there has been a steady stream of college graduates and young professionals moving to the mainland—leaving behind  disproportionate number of older, retired Puerto Ricans, increasingly creates a greater and greater fiscal imbalance. That is now front and center in the wake of the Board’s proposed 10 percent average reduction in pensions—a proposal Gov. Rosselló has rejected, but, as one commentator noted, it is the Board which holds all the cards. The challenge is in interpreting the PROMESA Board’s authority to use its fiscal plans to provide “adequate funding” to Puerto Rico’s public pension systems: under the proposed fiscal plan, the Board cut in pensions would not begin until FY2020—giving time for the PROMESA Board to submit to U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain a quasi-plan of chapter 9 debt plan of debt adjustment by the end of this year.

It is not that the Governor believes pension should be off the table—after all, he had recommended a 6% reduction last year; thus, there remains some chance that the government and the Board could reach an agreement and avoid the heavy costs of fighting the fiscal issues out before Judge Swain. Indeed, as we saw in San Bernardino, those back door negotiations between the government and creditors can save an awful lot in lawyers’ fees—or, as former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gerardo Carlo-Altier put it: “The ideal thing would be for the Board, the government, and the groups of creditors to reach an agreement in advance and go together to court.”

A key sticking point appears to be the Board’s insistence of labor reforms: under its proposed plan, the Puerto Rico Legislature should approve the labor reform by the end of this month, so that the seven-day reduction for vacation and sick leave would take effect immediately. The elimination of the protections against unjustified dismissal, the mandatory Christmas bonus, and work requirements for the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) are proposed for next January—with the PROMESA Board estimating that, absent the enactment of such labor reforms, including: such as employment at will, reductions in sick and vacation leaves, and non-mandatory Christmas bonus; the government of Puerto Rico would stop receiving $330 million within the next five years. They estimate another $ 185 million to cuts in pensions—all of which has led the PROMESA Board to project that, absent the adoption of the reforms proposed in the five-year fiscal plan, Puerto Rico’s economic growth and capacity to finance its public debt service would fail.

Who Will Govern? Are there too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen? In Central Falls, Rhode Island: there was one individual in charge of steering the small city, aka Chocolateville, out of bankruptcy. Similarly, in Detroit, Governor Snyder named Kevyn Orr as Emergency Manager—effectively suspending the governance authority of the Mayor and Council during the pendency of the city’s chapter 9 proceedings until U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment. Yet, in Puerto Rico—a territory which is neither a state, nor a municipality; there are a multiplicity of actors—including, now, Chairman Bishop, the Governor, the Legislature, and the PROMESA Board—a Board which Constitutionalist Professor Carlos Ramos González of the Inter-American University Law School believes, even given the power conferred upon it by Congress over Puerto Rico’s elected government, is uncertain with regard to its own authority to implement the structural reforms it favors—or, as he has noted: “Nobody wants to be blamed for cutting pensions: in all the chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy cases, there were pension reductions,” adding that, as we saw especially in the case of Detroit, the issue of equity is challenging: how to make those cuts without plunging many retirees into poverty—a problem of even greater resonance on an island experiencing an outflow of its young professionals, so that the demography already risks insufficient revenues to meet a clearly growing demand.  

Then there is a second challenge: while PROMESA appears clear in its grant of authority to the Board to certify the fiscal plan, it appears to lack any authority to implement it on its own. Unlike Central Falls, Detroit, San Bernardino, or other chapter 9 plans of debt adjustment approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Courts; the current PROMESA statute does not authorize a federal court to control Puerto Rico’s legislative process: there is a separation of powers issue.  Nevertheless, in the wake of the approval of the fiscal plan, the PROMESA Board is trying: it has submitted a preliminary labor reform draft to the Puerto Rico Legislature, where Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz has invited PROMESA President José Carrión III to defend the proposed changes and cuts—an invitation, however, which has not been accepted.  

Former Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who lectures for a Separation of Powers class at the Law School of the University of Puerto Rico, finds it self-evident that the Legislature will not give way to the Boards proposed labor reforms, noting: “I think the Board has a very weak case in terms of imposing the labor reform. It has a better case in other measures, because they are directly tied to Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.” Similarly, Governor Rosselló usually quotes §205 of the PROMESA Act, which refers to the fact that the Board can make “recommendations to the Governor or the Legislature on actions the territorial government may take to ensure compliance with the Fiscal Plan, or to otherwise promote the financial stability, economic growth, management responsibility, and service delivery efficiency of the territorial government.” While Carlo Altieri adds to the debate §108, which, regarding the general powers of the Board, warns that: “Neither the Governor nor the Legislature may— (1) exercise any control, supervision, oversight, or review over the Oversight Board or its activities; or (2) enact, implement, or enforce any statute, resolution, policy, or rule that would impair or defeat the purposes of this Act, as determined by the Oversight Board.”

Indeed, an attorney for the Governor, Richard Cooper of Cleary Gottlieb, noted: “Congress did not grant the Board the power to pass laws or appoint or replace government officials…it left the government of Puerto Rico the capacity and responsibility to make the law (as long as it is consistent with the adopted fiscal plan and adjustment fiscal plan) and manage the government, with all that it entails.” Indeed, in an earlier ‘who’s in charge dispute,’ when the PROMESA Board tried to appoint a trustee to monitor the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), alleging that PROMESA recognizes it as representative of the “debtor,” Judge Swain stated that no section of the PROMESA law granted the Board power with regard to the “the implementation of those (fiscal) plans and budgets,” instead comparing the statute Congress adopted in the 1990’s creating a fiscal control board over Washington, D.C. with PROMESA. She concluded that the Board has the task of establishing the “rails” for the “territorial government” to move “towards credibility and fiscal responsibility.” Indeed, the Congressional Record appears to make no reference to the power of the Board to impose structural governmental reforms—just as Congress lacks any authority to impose such on a state—especially in a nation where it was the states which created the nation, rather than vice versa. Rather, the Congressional debate on Puerto Rico reflected an emphasis on the power of the PROMESA Board to restructure the debt, which is the main burden of Puerto Rico—and, in Congress, Republicans and Democrats have expressed no interest in amending the act, either to strengthen or soften the powers of the Board.

For his part, Chairman Bishop believes that the act allows the Board to implement structural reforms and that it would be an irresponsible attitude of the Puerto Rican government to block them. That indicates there could well be intriguing fiscal and governmental discussions this weekend—albeit it seems most certain that, as Gov. Rosselló has made clear: “We are not going to allow an imposed Board to dictate the public policy of Puerto Rico.”

Notwithstanding their differences over the extent of the powers of the PROMESA Board, Gov. Rosselló and the Board are not at complete odds: they appear to have made common cause before regarding the case of Aurelius investment group and the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union, the main union of PREPA, to defend the constitutionality of the appointment of the Board members, because six of the seven were proposed by the Congressional leadership; rather, Gov. Rosselló’s administration has limited itself to challenging actions of the Board, not its existence—even as one of his predecessors, former Governor Acevedo Vilá, noting that, even under the colonial situation and the doctrine of Insular Cases decided a century ago by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has repeatedly validated the so-called “plenary powers” of Congress in Puerto Rico, the government of Puerto Rico must challenge the existence of the Board as a violation of the U.S. Constitution under the theory that “to the extent that Board has executive and legislative powers, even under the Insular Cases, it is unconstitutional,” adding that: “Even when organizing the territories, Congress has to guarantee a minimum system of separation of powers.”

The Puerto Rico Debt Tango. While the PROMESA Oversight Board and Gov. Rosselló are engaged in a complicated dance over future debt payments and policy, their complicated dance steps are not dissimilar: In successive versions of a fiscal plan that the Governor submitted to the Board in January, February, March, and last month; the Governor said the amount of debt Puerto Rico should carry should be determined through a comparison with debt medians in the 50 mainland states—quite similar to the Board’s certified plan.  Like the Governor’s proposed fiscal plans, the board certified plan has a comparison to the medians for the 50 states and to the 10 states with the highest levels of four measures of debt. The Board certified plan stated: “The implied debt capacity and expected growth in debt capacity in debt capacity must be sufficient to cover both the payments due on the restructured debt, and all payments due on future new money borrowings.” Accordingly, the aggregate debt service due on all fixed payment debt issued in the restructuring of the government’s existing tax-supported debt should be capped at a maximum annual debt service level: “The cap would be derived from the U.S. state rating metrics, and specifically what Moody’s [Investors Service] calls the ‘Debt Service Ratio.’” (The debt service ratio is defined as ratio of total debt payments due in a year divided by a state-government’s own source revenues.)

Under such a construct, it would appear that Puerto Rico could pay about $19 billion of the roughly $45 billion that the central government and its closely related lending entities owe, according to the plan’s exhibit 26. In the same exhibit, the PROMESA Board alternately suggests that one should use an average of a set of four measures of debt capacity and not just own-source revenues. Using this composite measure would mean that Puerto Rico should pay back about $10.7 billion in outstanding debt. But the Board plan notes this would be optimistic for a promised level of payments, rather, it reports, the fixed amount committed to should be cut by 10% to 30% to allow for “implementation risk.” It suggest that 20% should be used and the coupon be adjusted to 5%. These would lead to Puerto Rico committing to pay 19% of its debt—adding: “Any additional cash flow above the maximum annual debt service cap applied to the restructured fixed payment debt that is generated over the long-term from successful implementation of the new fiscal plan could be dedicated to a combination of contingent ‘growth bond’ payments to legacy bond creditors, debt service due on future new money borrowings needed to fund Puerto Rico’s infrastructure investments, and additional ‘PayGo’ capital investment to reduce the government’s historically out-size reliance on borrowing to fund its needs, among other purposes.”

Fiscal Fire in the Hole

April 24, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the Windy City region and the small Chicago suburb of Harvey, as it teeters on the edge of insolvency in a state where municipalities are not authorized to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, albeit under Illinois’ Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act (see 50 Ill. Comp. Stat. 320), a local Illinois government with a population under 25,000 suffering from a “fiscal emergency” may—if it secures a two-thirds vote of its Council, petition the Governor to appoint a financial planning and supervision commission to recommend that the local government be granted the authority to file for chapter 9 via submission to the Illinois Legislature—something which happened twenty-nine years ago in the case of East St. Louis.

Fire in the Hole. Illinois Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Ill.), whose Chicago suburban district includes all or portions of Wheaton, Warrenville, West Chicago, Winfield, Carol Stream, Lisle, and Naperville—and who served on the Wheaton City Council prior to being elected to the Legislature, yesterday said the embattled, small municipality of Harvey was not alone in its inability to meet Illinois’ pension demand, adding the small city should strongly consider filing for municipal bankruptcy. In the wake, as we have noted, of the state’s withholding of funds to Harvey because of its non-payment into the pension system, firefighters and police officers have been laid off. That is, there is a growing human risk—and, as with fire, it is a risk which could spread to other municipalities in the region—from Burbank to Niles to Maywood, small cities in comparable fiscal straits. With boarded up businesses on the main street, it appears, as Rep. Ives notes, that “Bankruptcy is the only way out.”

In the wake of the State of Illinois’ decision to withhold state assistance because of its failure to make mandatory public pension contributions, the city laid off nearly one-third of its 67 firefighters and 12 of its 81 police officers. Harvey has not kept pace with pension payments for more than 10 years. With boarded up businesses on the municipality’s main street, Rep. Ives, ergo, notes: “Bankruptcy is the only way out.” Adding, in reference to the small city’s layoffs: “Forty-two retired Harvey firefighters have saved a collective $1.42 million, but have already collected nearly $25 million in retirement.” Her comments came in the wake of the Cook County Appellate Court overturning of a prior decision by the Cook County Circuit Court and grant of a temporary restraining order against the Illinois State Comptroller with regard to the hold of $1.4 million from the City of Harvey. The Mayor, Eric Kellogg, has released a statement noting: “We will not entertain any conversation concerning the filing of bankruptcy;” however, the municipality’s fiscal options are limited. Even though the Appellate Court of Cook County has overturned the prior decision of the Cook County Circuity Court and granted a temporary restraining order against the Illinois State Comptroller regarding the hold of $1.4 million from Harvey, the option of raising local taxes appears most unlikely—or, as one local taxpayer who used to own a restaurant there put it: “My property taxes were $80,000 a year: How many hot dogs can you sell?”

As our insightful colleagues at the Municipal Market Journal observe, Illinois’ statute, P.A. 96-1495, “potentially transforms pension funding problems into service funding issues and may accelerate fiscal deterioration of some municipalities. The law, which recently became effective, requires that the Illinois Comptroller to withhold and divert state revenues targeted for a municipality to police and fire pension plans when requested to do so by the funds, because of the failure of the sponsor to make required contributions. The Journal goes on to observe: “The City of North Chicago is the second, but according to a recently published paper by the University of Chicago’s Amanda Kass, there are over 600 individual police and fire pension funds in the state and 29% were less than 50% funded in 2016 (Chicago excluded). This suggests that, if the court upholds that the state must divert money away from municipalities that short their police and fire pensions, more governments may be thrust into fiscal distress.” Their note adds: “Because of a lack of readily available information, the paper uses the Illinois Department of Insurance’s calculations regarding what should have been contributed to the pensions during the period from 2003-2010 to determine the municipalities that are more likely to be at risk of a diversion. Fifty-four municipalities responsible for 71 funds contributed 50% or less of what the Illinois Department of Insurance said should be paid, and, as a result, the funds are worse off with a 47% funded ratio in 2016 compared with a state average (again, excluding Chicago) of 60%. Notably, over 50% are in Cook County. The Department of Insurance (DOI) is one of three sources that can determine the contribution (an actuary hired by the fund or by the municipality can also make the determination).