The Leadership Challenges on the Road to Fiscal and Physical Recovery

September 29, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico; Hartford’s steep fiscal challenges; and Detroit’s ongoing road to fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Fiscal Safety Net? The White House yesterday announced President Trump had agreed to waive the Jones Act, which will temporarily lift shipping restrictions on Puerto Rico and enable the hurricane-ravaged island to receive necessary aid; however, the waiver from the shipping law, which mandates that only American-made and-operated vessels may transport cargo between U.S. ports, will only last for 10 days, after which the equivalent of a 20 percent tax will be reimposed. The delayed U.S. response to the save U.S. citizens compared unfavorably to the response to save and protect foreign citizens in Haiti seven years ago, when the U.S. military mobilized as if it were going to war—with the U.S. military, in less than 24 hours, and before first light, already airborne, on its way to seize control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince. Within two days, the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route; within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated U.S. citizens, according to a briefing by an Army general yesterday, in addition to about 1,000 Coast Guard members.

The seemingly inexplicable delay in waiving the Jones Act—temporarily—was due to opposition of the waiver by the Department of Homeland Security, which had argued that a federal agency may not apply for a waiver unless there is a national defense threat (as, apparently, there might have been in Houston and Florida). Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) has, for years, sought to repeal this discriminatory law: The 1920 Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by vessels 1) built in the U.S., 2) majority-owned by American firms, and 3) crewed by U.S. citizens.

Key House and Senate members, since Monday, had been pressing for a one-year waiver from the rules in order to help accelerate deliveries of food, fuel, medical, and other critical supplies to Puerto Rico, especially with current estimates that Puerto Rico could be without power for six months. On Wednesday, 45 U.S. Senate and House Members had signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D.-N.Y.) warned: “If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico – and this will become his Katrina.” The temporary suspension of the onerous and discriminatory Jones law came only in the wake of a fierce backlash against the Trump administration for its inexplicable delay in not immediately lifting the federal law for Puerto Rico, especially after it issued a two-week waiver for Texas and Florida in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Nevertheless, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz praised the administration’s decision: she said it could help bring down the cost of emergency medical and other supplies, as well as vital construction materials by nearly 33 percent. Nevertheless, she warned there are still thousands of containers sitting idle at the ports of San Juan, a problem she blamed on “jurisdictional” and bureaucratic issues.

The belated Presidential action came as Puerto Rico continued to suffer the after effects of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Executive Director Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez warned it could take PREPA as much as half a year to restore electricity.

Meanwhile, it appears the PROMESA Oversight Board is ready to revise the amount of debt to be paid in the next nine years. The Board is scheduled to meet today in New York City to revise the March-approved fiscal plan: the current Board fiscal plan specifies there should be enough funds to pay approximately 24% of the debt; however, it appears the Board will have little choice today but to revise every fiscal plan. Clearly none of the previous underlying assumptions can hold, and now the Board will have to await the actions and finding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while the Treasury Department will have to work with Puerto Rico to settle on a massive restructuring—or, as Puerto Rico House Representative Rafael Hernández Montañez put it: “We can’t have money spent on corporate lawyers and PowerPoint producing technocrats while funding is needed for immediate reconstruction efforts.” While FEMA has committed to paying for 100 percent of the costs of some work, on others, it is mandating a match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work—a match which appears out of reach for the most savagely damaged municipalities or municipios—now confronted not just by enormous new capital and operating demands, but also by sharply reduced revenues.

Wednesday morning, the PREPA Bondholders Group offered up to $1.85 billion in debtor in possession loans to the authority. According to the group, part of the package would be a new money loan of up to $1 billion. Another part would be their possible acceptance of an $850 million in DIP notes in exchange for $1 billion in outstanding bonds owed to them—or, as the Group noted: “The new funding would allow PREPA to provide the required matching funds under various grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.” In response, PREPA’s Natalie Jaresko said: “We welcome and appreciate the expression of support from creditors…The Board will carefully consider all proposals in coordination with the government, but it is still very early as we begin to navigate a way forward following the catastrophic impact Hurricane Maria had on the island.”

The existing fiscal PREPA plan specifies there should be enough funding to pay about 24% of the debt due over the next decade; that, however, has raised questions with regard to the underlying assumptions of the Board, especially with regard to when FEMA will complete its work on the island.

Rafael Hernández Montañez, a member of Puerto Rico’s House, noted that Hurricane Maria put Puerto Rico’s territory-wide and municipal governments in very difficult financial situations. While FEMA has committed to paying for 100% of the costs of some work, he notes that the federal relief agency is still mandating a government match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work: “It’s going to be a huge effort to cover that 20% with the government’s unbalanced budget,” adding that the hurricane will also lead to reduced revenues for the local governments.

On Wednesday, 145 U.S. Representatives and Senators signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement–the same day as the PREPA Bondholders Group offer. 

The Category 4 Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid; it left the island desperately short of food, clean water, and fuel—and sufficient shipping options, notwithstanding the claim from the Department of Homeland Security that: “Based on consultation with other federal agencies, DHS’s current assessment is that there is sufficient numbers of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.” Thus DHS opposed a waiver of the Jones Act (Under the Jones Act federal cabotage rules, the entry of merchandise into Puerto Rico can only be made on US flag and crew ships – the most expensive fleet in the world.), which has been suspended in past natural disasters, to allow less expensive, foreign-flagged ships bring in aid. Former President George W. Bush suspended the Act after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and President Barack Obama suspended it after superstorm Sandy in 2012. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. McCain criticized the department for waiving the Jones Act in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but not for Puerto Rico. The Senator, who has long sought a repeal of the Jones Act, noted: “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies, and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster: Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act.”  Only the Department of Defense may obtain a Jones Act waiver automatically, which it did to move petroleum products from Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The White House is expected to send Congress a request for a funding package for Puerto Rico in the next few weeks, a senior congressional aide said.

The Road to Hartford’s Default. Citing deep cuts to higher education, sharp reductions in aid to distressed communities, and unsound deferrals of public pension payments, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday made good on his pledge to veto the budget that legislature, earlier this month, had adopted, deeming it: “unbalanced, unsustainable, and unwise,” adding his apprehension that were it to be implemented, it would undermine the state’s long-term fiscal stability and essentially guarantee the City of Hartford’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. His veto came as the Governor and top legislators continued bipartisan talks in an attempt to reach a compromise; however, despite legislative attempts to pass a bill to increase the hospital provider tax to 8 percent, a 25 percent increase over the current level, the legislature will not meet today. In his executive order, the Governor allowed key stated services to remain operating; however, he ordered steep cuts to municipalities and certain social service programs: under his orders, approximately 85 communities would see their education cost sharing grants, the biggest source of state funding for public education in Connecticut, cut to zero next month—no doubt a critical element provoking the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, which represents more than 100 of the state’s smallest communities, to seek an override in a special session the week after next in order to avoid local property tax increases. Nevertheless, Gov. Malloy stood strongly against the Republican plan and a potential override, stating: “This budget adopts changes to the state’s pension plan that are both financially and legally unsound…This budget grabs ‘savings’ today on the false promise of change a decade from now, a promise that cannot be made because no legislature can unilaterally bind a future legislature.” He added his apprehensions that the changes proposed to the state’s pension system could expose Connecticut taxpayers to potentially costly litigation down the road: “Prior administrations and legislatures have, over decades, consistently and dangerously underfunded the state’s pension obligations,’’ a strategy, he noted, which he said has led to crippling debt and limited the state’s ability to invest in transportation, education, and other important initiatives. Nonetheless, Republican leaders urged the Governor to sign the two-year, $40.7 billion budget, saying it makes significant structural changes, such as capping the state’s bonding authority and limiting spending. Fiscally conservative Democrats who bolted to the Republican side had criticized a Democratic budget proposal which had proposed new taxes on vacation homes, monthly cellphone bills, and fantasy sports betting, as well as increased taxes on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel room rates.

House Republican leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) warned she and her colleagues will try to override the veto—a steep challenge, as in Connecticut, that requires a two-thirds vote in each chambers, meaning 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate. The crucial Republican amendment passed with 78 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate—well short of the override margin in both chambers. The action came as S&P Global Ratings this week lowered Hartford’s credit rating, writing that its opinion “reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty,” albeit noting that the city could still avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy by restructuring its debts. The agency wrote: “In our view, the potential for a bond restructuring or distressed exchange offering has solidified with the news that both bond insurers are open to supporting such a measure in an effort to head off a bankruptcy filing. Under our criteria, we would consider any distressed offer where the investor receives less value than the promise of the original securities to be tantamount to a default. The mayor’s public statement citing the need to restructure even if the state budget provides necessary short-term funds further supports our view that a restructuring is a virtual certainty.” Hartford’s fiscal plight is, if anything, made more dire by the fiscal crisis of Connecticut, which is still without a budget—and where the Legislature has under consideration a budget proposal from the Governor to slash state aid to the state’s capitol city of Hartford—where the Mayor notes that even were the state to make the payments it owes, Hartford would still be unable to pay its debts—so that S&P dropped the city’s credit rating from B- to C—a four-notch downgrade, writing: “The downgrade to ‘CC’ reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty.”

The Steep Recovery Road. Almost three years after exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy, Detroit is meeting its plan of debt adjustment, but still confronts fiscal challenges to a full return to the municipal market, even as it nears its exit from Michigan state oversight next year. Detroit’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer and City Finance Director, John Hill, this week noted that while the Motor City recognizes that any debt the city plans to issue will still need a security boost from a quality revenue stream and some enhancement, such as a state intercept, Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment did not assume the need for market access in a traditional and predictable way, without added security layers, for at least a decade. That assessment remains true today, as Detroit nears its third anniversary from its exit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. With chapter 9, Mr. Hill adds: “Everything that we have been able to do since exiting bankruptcy has an attached revenue stream to it: You secure it, and bond lawyers agonize over how that will be protected in the unlikely event of another bankruptcy, because everyone has to ask the question now. Then there is a strong intercept mechanism that goes to a trustee like U.S. Bank where the bondholders now know this is absolutely secure.”

Municipal Market Analytics partner Matt Fabian notes that Detroit continues to struggle with challenges which predate its chapter 9 bankruptcy, adding the city is unlikely to regain an ability to access the traditional municipal markets on its own in the near-to-medium term: “They don’t have traditional reliable access where if they need to go to the market, you can predict with certainty that they will and they will be within a generally predictable spread,” adding that reestablishing its presence in the traditional market is important, because it indicates whether bondholders have confidence in the city as a going concern. In fact, Detroit has adopted balanced budgets for two consecutive years; it is on a fiscal path to exiting Michigan Financial Review Commission oversight, and the city ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus in its general fund; however, Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast shows an annual growth rate of only about 1%.

The city’s public pension obligations, mayhap the thorniest issue in cobbling together its plan of debt adjustment, are to be met per its economic plan, via a balloon payment.  Mr. Fabian notes that the Motor City’s recovery plan and future revenue growth is complicated by the need to set aside from surpluses an additional $335 million between Fy2016 and Fy2023 to address that significant, unfunded pension liability, worrying that while the plan is “fiscally responsible;” nevertheless, it comes “at the expense of using these funds for reinvestment and service improvement.”

The plan to address pension obligations is aimed at shoring up the city’s long-term fiscal health and Naglick says it shows the city has recognized the need to tackle it. Detroit developed a long-term funding model with the help of actuarial consultant Cheiron, obtained City Council approval for changes to the pension funding ordinance that established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million into this IRS Section 115 Trust. This fund, said Detriot CFO John Naglick, will grow to over $335 million by 2024 and will provide a buffer to increased contributions beginning then. “More importantly, the growing contributions each year from the general fund to the trust will build budget capacity to make the increased contributions in future years,” he said.

Mayor Mike Duggan claimed during his 2016 State of the City speech that consultants who advised the city through bankruptcy had miscalculated the pension deficit by $490 million. Pension woes aren’t the only challenge the city faces. Fabian said that economic development has been limited to the city’s downtown and midtown areas. The rest of Detroit’s neighborhoods haven’t fared so well.

Dan Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Gerry Anderson, the Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, are regarded to be among the important business leaders in Detroit, two key sectors of the Motor City’s economy, who see Detroit’s fiscal and economic trajectory as intertwined with the future of their companies; they  have headquarters in downtown and employ thousands of people including Detroiters—companies which had been making conscious and deliberate investments in the city. Asked recently to offer their perspectives about where Detroit is headed and how to include the many who are left out of the recovery, Mr. Loepp responded: “I’m a native Detroiter, and I lead a company that’s been a business resident of Detroit for nearly 80 years. I remember how uneasy it felt to be in Detroit when the national economy collapsed 10 years ago. It was hard and scary…From then to now, I strongly believe Detroit’s comeback is one of the best stories in America. The downtown is pulsing with growth and action. You’ve got business and residential development that has connected the river to Midtown and is now expanding into neighborhoods.” He added Detroit today is clear of debt and venture capital flowing backed by a city leadership which is “working well together, noting Detroit today is “now positioned to compete and win investment and jobs against any city in the country. All of this is great for Detroit.”

Notwithstanding, he warned that challenges remain: “The bankruptcy, while hard, gave the city’s leadership a clean slate to solve challenges faced by residents. The Mayor and council are working together on issues like lighting, infrastructure, zoning, and demolition…the Mayor, especially, has spent considerable energy advocating for the people of Detroit—doing things like making sure new housing developments hold space for working people of all incomes. This will promote a stronger, more diverse Detroit…Institutional issues, like improving the city’s schools and making neighborhoods safer for city residents, will take time to solve. They will take a constant, steady focus. And they need people within state and local government to work hand-in-hand with people from the neighborhoods to do the tough labor of finding sustainable solutions.” Nevertheless, he cautioned that the Motor City’s recovery is incomplete without participation of the majority: “Detroit can’t truly ‘come back’ if people living in the city are left behind. We need to always make sure there is a focus on people and that we make people a priority. Schools need to be improved. Transit needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. Employment opportunities and housing need to be part of the master plan.”

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Is There a PROMESA of Recovery?

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy, after which we journey north to review the remarkable fiscal recovery from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of one of the nation’s smallest municipalities.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico is trapped in a vicious fiscal whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet short-term obligations to its creditors all across the U.S., including laying off some 30,000 public sector employees and increasing its sales tax by nearly 75% have seemingly backfired—doing more fiscal harm than good: it has devastated its economy, depleted revenue sources, and put the government on a vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006, while its poverty rate has grown to 45%. At the same time, a demographic imbalance has continued to accelerate with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly 500% greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Thus, with the island’s hedge-fund creditors holding defaulted municipal general obligation bonds on the verge of completing a consensual agreement earlier this week, the PROMESA oversight board intervened to halt negotiations and place Puerto Rico under the Title III quasi municipal bankruptcy protection. That will set up courtroom confrontations between an impoverished population, wealthy municipal bondholders in every state in the domestic U.S., and hedge funds—pitted against some of the poorest U.S. citizens and their future. Nevertheless, as Congress contemplated, the quasi-municipal bankruptcy process enacted as part of the PROMESA statute provides the best hope for Puerto Rico’s future.

Thus the PROMESA Board has invoked these provisions of the PROMESA statute before a federal judge in San Juan, in what promises to be a long process—as we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, and other cities, but with one critical distinction: each of the previous municipal bankruptcies has involved a city or county—the quasi municipal bankruptcy here is more akin to a filing by a state. (Because of the dual federalism of our founding fathers, Congress may not enact legislation to permit states to file for bankruptcy protection.) Unsurprisingly, when Puerto Rico was made a U.S. territory under the Jones-Shafroth Act, no one contemplated the possibility of bankruptcy. Moreover, as chapter 9, as authorized by Congress, only provides that a city or county may file for chapter 9 bankruptcy if authorized by its respective state; Puerto Rico inconveniently falls into a Twilight Zone—to write nothing with regard to access to such protections for Puerto Rico’s 87 municipalities or muncipios.

Moreover, while from Central Falls, Rhode Island to Detroit, the role of public pension obligations has played a critical role in those chapter 9 resolutions; the challenge could be far greater here: in Puerto Rico, retired teachers and police officers do not participate in Social Security. Adopting deep cuts to their pensions would be a virtual impossibility. So now it is that Puerto Rico will be in a courtroom to confront hedge funds, mutual funds, and bond insurers, after the negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors over a PROMESA Board-approved fiscal plan that allocates about $787 million a year to creditors for the next decade, less than a quarter of what they are owed, was deemed by said creditors to be a slap in the face—with the Board having pressed for a combination of debt restructuring spending cuts in its efforts to revive an economy trapped by a 45% poverty rate—and where the Board had proposed upping water rates on consumers, liquidating its decades-old industrial development bank, and seeking concessions from creditors of other government agencies. Moreover, amid all this, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has recently renegotiated to mitigate politically unpopular fee increases on residents, now finds himself nearly transfixed between desperate efforts to sort out governance, meet demands of his constituents and taxpayers, and negotiate with a federally imposed oversight board, even as he is in the midst of a campaign for U.S. statehood ahead of a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s political status—and in the wake of being named a defendant in a lawsuit by hedge funds after the expiration of a stay on such suits expired this week. Hedge funds holding general obligation and sales-tax bonds filed the suit on Tuesday, naming Gov. Rosselló as a defendant—albeit, the suit, and others, are nearly certain to be frozen, as the main judicial arena now will fall into a quasi-chapter 9 courtroom epic battle. And that battle will not necessarily be able to fully look to prior chapter 9 judicial precedents: while Title III incorporates features of chapter 9, the section of the U.S. bankruptcy code covering insolvent municipal entities, courts have never interpreted key provisions of Title III—a title, moreover, which protections for creditors which chapter 9 does not.

The Rich Chocolatey Road to Recovery! Moody’s has awarded one of the nation’s smallest municipalities, Central Falls, aka Chocolate City, Rhode Island, its second general obligation bond upgrade in two months, a sign of the former mill city’s ongoing recovery from municipal bankruptcy—an upgrade which Mayor James Diossa unsurprisingly noted to be “very important.” Moody’s noted that its upgrade “reflects a multi-year trend of stable operating results and continued positive performance relative to the post-bankruptcy plan since the city’s emergence from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012,” adding that it expects the city will enhance its flexibility when its plan of debt adjustment period ends at the end of next month—at which time one of the nation’s smallest cities (one square mile and 19,000 citizens) will implement a policy of requiring maintenance of unassigned general fund reserves of at least 10% of prior year expenditures. In its upgrade, Moody’s reported the upgrade reflected Central Falls’ high fixed costs, referring to its public pension obligations, OPEB, and debt service–costs which add up to nearly 30% of its budget—and what it termed a high sensitivity to adverse economic trends compared with other municipalities, with the rating agency noting that a sustained increase in fund balance and maintenance of structural balance could lead to a further upgrade, as could a reduction in long-term liabilities and fixed costs and material tax-base and growth.

 

On the Brink of Governmental Bankruptcy

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique federalism and fiscal challenges confronting Puerto Rico—a U.S. territory in the Rod Serling Twilight Zone between a state and a municipality. 

Mayday. With a May Day midnight deadline looming under the PROMESA law, the PROMESA Oversight Board, meeting in New York City, officially put on the table the possibility of using the PROMESA Title III judicial bankruptcy mechanism as a chapter 9-like mechanism to initiate the use of judicial proceedings to allow the U.S. territory access to the use of quasi-judicial proceedings to allow Puerto Rico to escape from some $70 billion of debt, adopting a resolution permitting such a fateful decision today in an executive meeting, without the need for a public meeting, using the mechanism contemplated under Title III of PROMESA. At its New York City session, the PROMESA Board resolution adopted this weekend, provides that “[B]etween the closing of this session and the opening of the next public meeting, the Board may consider in executive session any matters that it is authorized to consider under PROMESA,” in the wake of the adoption of the fiscal plans of four Puerto Rican public corporations, three of them with important amendments aimed at revising rates and examining models of privatization. Now, in order to bring the Board’s debt restructuring proposal before a judge, who must be appointed by the presiding Justice of the US Supreme Court, five of the seven Board members have to vote in favor of a restructuring.

At a press conference, PROMESA board Chairman José Carrión III stated: “We reserve the right to deal with any presentation of a resource or certification in an executive session;” however, he avoided commenting on what would happen if May 2nd arrives and the Government of Puerto Rico has not reached an agreement with its creditors—with a critical focus on the U.S. territory’s main investment funds via general obligation bonds, those which have preference under Puerto Rico’s Constitution, and the Corporation of the Appealing Interest Fund (Cofina). Thus, while the Government of Puerto Rico has been hoping to achieve an extrajudicial agreement with its main creditors which would have allowed it to continue debt discussions after today, that option appears to have died. For his part, Chair Carrión, meanwhile, hoped that any decision to go to federal court to ask for the creation of a territorial bankruptcy court. He said he hoped that any restructuring of Puerto Rico’s general obligation debt would gain the support of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration: “We want to be aligned with the government, and I think they have been able to see that the work has been done together. The government has raised its fiscal plans, we have contemplated changes, made suggestions and the government has welcomed them.”

The Mayday deadline marks the expiration of a moratorium on the judicial litigation for collection of the debt of the Government of Puerto Rico, which has served as a shield for the U.S. territory’s authorities since last June 30th, thus, as in a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, serving to prevent claims from jeopardizing essential public services. Unsurprisingly, neither the members of the PROMESA Oversight Board, nor the government of Governor Ricardo Rosselló has wanted to declare how ready they are to bring debt restructuring cases to the courts. Under a unique mechanism, the members of the PROMESA Board will be able to vote today by e-mail, as the authorizing resolution reads: “Between the adjournment of this meeting and the opening of the next public meeting, the Board may consider in an executive meeting any matters that it is authorized to consider under PROMESA,” referencing the resolution, which was the first agreement ratified at this weekend’s PROMESA Board meeting in New York, where the Board adopted the tax plans of four public corporations, three of them with major amendments focused on revising rates and examining privatization models. In order to bring the debt restructuring proposal before a judge, per the unique process described above, five of the seven members of the Board must vote in favor thereof. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III noted the Board reserves “the right to deal with any appeal or certification, at an executive meeting.”  At the very least, the Government of Puerto Rico hopes to reach an extra-judicial settlement with its major creditors that enables continuation of talks after today–without being sued—notwithstanding how difficult it would be to adopt any agreement which would prevent judicial actions by other holders of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds. (Note: the key focus has been with regard to the U.S. territory’s main investment funds which hold general obligation bonds, which have a preferred status according to Puerto Rico’s Constitution, and the Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA)).

For his part, Chair Carrión has hoped that any decision to resort to the federal court to request the creation of a territorial federal bankruptcy court would have the support of Gov. Rosselló’s administration, noting: “We’re trying to do our best and trying to do the right thing by all the stakeholders and the people of Puerto Rico.” The Chairman told reporters after the meeting. “It’s a very difficult situation. These folks have lent Puerto Rico money, and we are where we are, and it’s not a situation where we don’t understand…We want to be aligned with the government, and I believe you have seen that these efforts have been made jointly.  The government has proposed its fiscal plans; we have contemplated changes, made suggestions; and the government has accepted them.” The extraordinary federalism here led Elías Sánchez, Gov. Rosselló’s representative before the PROMESA Board, to assert that the PROMESA Board should act on the basis of a debt adjustment requested by the head of a dependency. That is, the PROMESA statute, unsurprisingly, did not specifically specify whether the PROMESA Board is obligated to have Puerto Rico’s support. Chair Carrión, over the weekend, said that the U.S. Treasury Department had discarded the idea that Congress may be entertaining any amendment to postpone the possibility of using the judicial bankruptcy mechanism contemplated in PROMESA—with the statement coming as some conservatives in Congress have been distributing a potential amendment to the next omnibus bill set to be considered before the end of this week, which would allow blocking the territorial bankruptcy mechanism—apparently backed by groups of creditors of the Government of Puerto Rico.

Legal Deadline. The decision comes with tonight’s expiration of a legal stay which has sheltered Puerto Rico from lawsuits filed by its municipal bondholders after a series of escalating defaults, and in the wake of making little meaningful headway in negotiations with creditors, leading, seemingly intractably to the courts—as was the case in Detroit, Stockton, Jefferson County, Central Falls, and San Bernardino—and marks the end of a last gap effort by some of the U.S territory’s general obligation bondholders to achieve a “consensual solution that is based on a credible financial forecast and that avoids the free fall Title III that the Oversight Board seems intent on imposing.” Indeed, as late as Saturday, Gerardo Portela Franco, the Executive Director of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, said Puerto Rico was committed to reaching a consensual resolution with its creditors, noting the territory’s proposal was “intended to maximize returns to its creditors in a manner consistent with Puerto Rico’s goals for economic growth equitably,” and adding: “The government anticipates the discussions to continue over the coming weeks.” He was discussing an offer to repay general-obligation bondholders as much as $10.25 billion of the $13.2 billion they are owed, according to the proposal, and that sales tax bondholders would receive as much as $10.2 billion of $17.6 billion of sales tax bonds. Under said proposal, investors would exchange their existing municipal securities for two different types of debt: tax-exempt senior bonds with a constitutional priority maturing in 30 years, and cash-flow bonds that would be repaid after the senior securities, depending on the commonwealth’s liquidity. That proposal would have meant providing g.o. bondholders a recovery range of as little as 52%. Nonetheless, Puerto Rico bondholders had rejected Governor Rossello’s debt-restructuring proposal days before today’s deadline—effectively triggering the PROMESA provision.  

In a separate but related action, the PROMESA Board approved winding down Puerto Rico’s government development bank, which financed public works on the island until it defaulted during the crisis. Elias Sanchez, Governor Ricardo Rossello’s PROMESA representative stated: This will provide a viable path for an orderly process for the Government Development Bank with the least impact for stakeholders involved.”

Meanwhile in the Nation’s Capital. With Congress in OT after failing to act by last Friday, Congressional negotiations over including healthcare funding for Puerto Rico may have been stymied in the pending Continuing Resolution (CR) in the wake of President Trump’s tweet denouncing the idea; nevertheless, there appear still to be efforts in Washington to negotiate health care assistance in return for Puerto Rico’s agreement to a temporary hold on any use of bankruptcy-like provisions available under PROMESA. In the negotiations, Democrats in the House and Senate had been pushing to get Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico included in the CR, with some indications that Republican leaders have agreed that some type of Medicaid funding is needed for the Commonwealth—which is expected to exhaust its Medicaid funding under the Affordable Care Act by the end of the year, putting a huge strain on its ability to provide healthcare to its citizens—deemed a “Medicaid cliff” by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who, over the weekend noted: “This is not a bailout…This is what was allotted to Puerto Rico in the first place and is what is needed for us to have a runway in the next year so we can execute certain changes to our health industry.”

However, in a pair of tweets, President Trump blasted the possibility of Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico in a continuing resolution; he also took the opposite view in a pair of tweets late Wednesday and early Thursday last week which linked Democrats’ calls for funding help in Puerto Rico with insurer subsidies under Obamacare, writing: “Democrats are trying to bail out insurance companies from disastrous #ObamaCare, and Puerto Rico with your tax dollars. Sad!” The next day he tweeted: “The Democrats want to shut government if we don’t bail out Puerto Rico and give billions to their insurance companies for OCare failure. NO!” Thus, with Congress in overtime this week, the extra time could provide Congress more time to debate a potential agreement which would delay the Commonwealth’s ability to seek in-court restructuring of its debts in exchange for the Medicaid funding—albeit, the clock, as noted above, expires today.  

Confronting the Challenges of Insolvencies

eBlog, 03/17/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the suit filed by the Detroit Public Schools District seeking to prevent the closure of any additional schools in the city; then we snow shovel our way through the high drifts in Cambridge, Massachusetts to explore its creative issuance of mini municipal bonds, before racing to the warmth of Puerto Rico to observe the legal challenge between different kinds of municipal bondholders against Puerto Rico.

Schools of Hard Fiscal Knocks. In response to a threat by the Michigan School Reform Office (SRO) to target up to 16 Detroit public schools for closure in the newly created Detroit Public School District, created in the wake of the old system’s physical and fiscal insolvencies: to move as many as 7,700 students—permitting them to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts; the Detroit Public Schools Community District is seeking to make a preemptive strike against said state plans to shutter some of its schools: the district board has voted to sue the state’s School Reform Office (SSRO) over the threat of school closures in the newly state-created district, suing to prevent the State of Michigan from closing any of its struggling schools, after the Board of Education, in the wake of a five-hour meeting, voted unanimously to file suit against the state School Reform Office, the State of Michigan, and Michigan School Reform Officer Natasha Baker. Detroit School Board Vice President Sonya Mays noted: “The action preserves the full range of our options.” The vote appeared to be in response to the state office’s identification last January of 38 schools statewide for potential closure, because they have ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years: more than two-thirds of those public schools were in Detroit: 16 in the Detroit district, 8 in the Education Achievement Authority, and one charter school. However, a Moody’s report last month said that the student loss would have been somewhat offset by the school district’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure

The suit was filed even though the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) had offered a proposal to school districts with schools on that closure list under which, if said districts reached agreement with the state agency on a plan to turn the schools around, then the school reform office would hold off on closure decisions. Detroit Public Schools Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather not only had said the district is interested in entering into such an agreement with the MDE, but also is planning to schedule a meeting soon—even as, notwithstanding, the board remains intent on moving forward with the lawsuit. It is unclear how much of the District’s resources will be siphoned out of the city’s ailing physically and educationally system’s budget to finance the litigation. Board President Iris Taylor stated: “We want to make it clear that filing suit is not a rejection of MDE’s offer to enter into a partnership agreement…It is simply the Board and the district ensuring that all options are available to us as we work through these challenges.” Ms. Taylor told the Detroit News that the board believes the school reform office actions were unlawful, because the board believes legislation approved last June which provided a financial rescue to the Detroit Public Schools—and which created the Detroit Public School District—provided the new district a clean slate: “Our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” However, Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte last summer issued an opinion noting that if the Michigan Legislature had intended to give the district a three-year reprieve, the legislature would have clearly stated such an intent, noting that it had not.

In a city seeking to be a beacon to young families with children as critical towards re-growing its tax base, the suit seeks to bar the state from taking any additional steps to close any DPSDC schools until the court decides whether or not the SSRO has authority to close schools and whether the action taken to create the SSRO and the legislation itself is constitutional. That is, it is a suit regarding governance power and authority—and one in relation to which DPSCD Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather stated: “Closing schools creates a hardship for students in numerous areas including transportation, safety, and the provision of wrap around services…As a new district, we are virtually debt free, with a locally elected board, and we deserve the right to build on this foundation and work with our parents, educators, administrators, and the entire community to improve outcomes for all of our children.”

The lawsuit was filed, however, even as the Michigan Department of Education had offered the district and all others impacted by the threat of school closures a proposal under which duly elected school boards and district leadership would remain in full control of their schools, the curriculum, and their districts—an offer which Board President Taylor said the School Board was not necessarily rejecting, but rather in an effort to ensure “all options are available to us as we work through these challenges,” adding: “We appreciate Governor Snyder for hearing our concerns and taking action; however, we continue to believe that SSRO’s actions were unlawful. Among other things, we believe the legislation that created DPSCD in 2016 gave us a clean slate, which means, under the law, our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” (Michigan’s legislation enacted in 2009 provides authority for the state to close schools ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years.) This year, however, was the first time the SSRO has announced potential closures of schools under the state legislation—closures which carry a potential cost of foregone state aid from the $617 million state bailout of the fiscally and physically insolvent Detroit Public Schools district, under a state statute to overhaul the old Detroit Public Schools system. The newly created district operates schools and is scheduled to receive future state aid payments under the restructuring backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers. The SSRO threat has targeted up to 16 schools: the Detroit public school system would be at risk of the loss of not just 7,700 students, but also the state revenues that those students would have brought. Under the state proposal, students in the district could opt to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts. Moody’s, last month, had reported that any such student loss would have been somewhat offset by DPSCD’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure. The state-run Education Achievement Authority is scheduled to close in July.

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood Municipal Bonds? Cambridge, Mass., a municipality of just over 107,000 across the Charles River from Boston, has succeeded in raising some $2 million through a sale of community-sourced general obligation minibonds, which the city’s underwriter, aptly named Neighborly, notes could reshape the municipal marketplace. The firm’s head of finance, James McIntyre, notes: “Our intention is to democratize access to municipal bonds.” Here the city will use the proceeds to fund capital projects such as school building renovations, and street and sidewalk improvements. The municipal bonds themselves were offered only to city residents, even though neither my daughter nor her husband, residents, seemed to be aware: individual orders are limited to $20,000, and lowered to a minimum investment amount to $1,000 from the customary $5,000. The opening for orders began selling at the close of business last month, closing last week: the Series A minibonds bonds pay a tax-exempt interest rate of 1.6% and will mature in five years. The firm notes that more than 240 individuals invested in the minibonds—municipal bonds to which Fitch Ratings, S&P Global Ratings, and Moody’s Investors Service assigned AAA ratings, with Cambridge City Manager Louie DePasquale noting: “This will not only engage residents, but we will make them a financial partner in our infrastructure investments.” Indeed, the city has helped via the distribution of “invest in Cambridge” mass-transit posters, a video, and a huge sign in front of City Hall. According to Neighborly founder Jase Wilson, “The most exciting thing about the Cambridge minibond issue is that it’s not a new idea at all…in fact the way our nation’s communities used to borrow money to build public projects.” Indeed, it was just 27 years ago that Denver issued its first minibonds; three years ago the Mile High City generated $12 million through a crowdfunding in $500 increments, as part of a $550 million transaction to finance city road improvements, leading Elizabeth FU of GFOA to note: “The minibonds definitely met Denver’s goal of helping residents invest in the community, so the project was well worth the additional resources and effort…Of course, this tool isn’t for everyone,” she added, noting some municipalities might experience trouble with the additional workload, the level of resources needed for administration, or the additional cost. Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, the municiplity also sold $56.5 million in general obligation municipal purpose loan of 2017 Series B bonds competitively on March 1. Morgan Stanley submitted the winning bid with a true interest cost of 2.303%. Proceeds from that sale will benefit sewer and stormwater, energy efficiency and street repair citywide, including Cambridge Common and Harvard Square. Neighborly’s director of business development, Pitichoke Chulapamornsri, said the firm structures municipal bond financings to connect a city’s capital plan with its residents—or, as he put it: “We are excited to help redefine the ‘public’ in public finance….Communities that are innovative and engaged are usually college towns: They are the ones with the most participation.”

Stay or Not? Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jennifer González Colón reports that an extension the stay on litigation of the PROMESA debt litigation stay is unlikely, notwithstanding Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed extension as incorporated in his proposed fiscal plan the Governor said he was seeking, with Del. González Colón (D-P.R.), Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative Congress noting there simply was insufficient time for Congress to act to amend PROMESA before the end of the stay. (PROMESA set the stay on debt-related suits against the Commonwealth on Feb. 15th, but allowed the PROMESA Oversight Board the option of moving it to May 1, which it did at the end of January.) Gov. Rosselló, in his plan, has argued that it was reasonable to ask for an extension, because his predecessor failed to use his time in office after PROMESA’s enactment to seek a negotiated debt restructuring: he said the extension would allow his administration time to release FY2015 and 2016 financial information, noting he would prefer reaching a negotiated agreement with creditors, rather than having a court impose restructuring terms. (Title VI of PROMESA allows the Oversight Board to reach negotiated solutions with municipal bondholders while the stay is in effect.) Indeed, in his plan he submitted at the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló said the Board probably will start PROMESA Title III’s court-supervised bankruptcy process before the stay elapses. Unsurprisingly, groups representing holders of both general obligation and Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA) senior bonds have said they are opposed to extending the litigation stay: José F. Rodríguez, an individual investor, as well as several investment firms, such as Decagon Holdings, GoldenTree Asset Management, and Whitebox Advisors—who are the main bondholders of the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA)—will appeal U.S. District Court Judge Francisco A. Besosa’s ruling in favor of several general obligation bondholders, spearheaded by the Lex Claims and Jacana Holdings funds.  Mr. Rodríguez’s intentions—and those of several investments funds—to appeal the ruling at the First Circuit Court of Appeals was disclosed on Monday, making this the sole lawsuit against the U.S. territory which is currently active, after the approval of PROMESA last year, and in the midst of the automatic stay on litigations decreed by the federal statute. The plaintiffs are holding nearly $2 billion in COFINA senior notes.

According to the court’s notice, Mr. Rodríguez and the funds led by Decagon will go to the federal court to request revocation of Judge Besosa’s ruling: the Judge had agreed to hear Lex’s case, notwithstanding the request made by the main COFINA bondholders, Puerto Rico, and the PROMESA Oversight Board to apply the automatic stay on litigation. Last month, Judge Besosa—who had previously ordered Puerto Rico not to lose any time in commencing negotiations with its creditors—concluded that Lex’s lawsuit should be examined on its merits, with this judicial effort coming, even as the territory’s general obligation bond holders have asked Judge Besosa to declare the Emergency Moratorium Act unconstitutional, arguing that the enactment of the statute prompted Puerto Rico to default on its general obligation bonds other debt obligations. GO bondholders have also asked Judge Besosa to ban the government from paying COFINA bondholders—who are essentially the only ones who continue receiving payments for the amount they are owed, and to declare COFINA a null structure, since it served to divert the funds which it believes belong to the central Government. In his verdict, Judge Besosa denied the Government’s petition to halt the case and authorized the PROMESA Oversight Board to intervene in the lawsuit; however, he rejected the request made by COFINA’s primary bondholders to be part of the lawsuit to determine if the stay on litigations is applicable or not. In the wake of his decision, the Oversight Board filed a motion to appeal the decision—a request to which Puerto Rico has yet to intervene—notwithstanding apprehensions that the Lex Claims litigation could result in certain of the territory’s assets being frozen, something which would be likely were Judge Besosa to determine that the Moratorium Act is unconstitutional. According to the case file at the Court of Appeals, the Oversight Board has until March 24th to act.  

COFINA Under Attack. Likewise, the appeal made by the group of COFINA’s primary bondholders in the Lex Claims case arrives at a time when the GO bondholders have launched a media campaign asking for the elimination of the public corporation that issues debt payable with the Puerto Rico Sales and Use Tax (IVU, by its Spanish acronym). Last week, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez backed COFINA and pointed out that the entity was lawfully created with the endorsement of both main political parties. However, in the fiscal plan prepared by Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s administration and certified by the OB on Monday, the IVU funds that are sent every year to COFINA appear as part of the revenues the Government would use to pay for public services. In that sense, Rosselló Nevares’s plan is an echo of what former Governor Alejandro García Padilla did, which was to combine all revenues that, according to the bond contracts, should have been reserved for the repayment of the debt. According to Gov. Rosselló Nevares’s plan, one of the revenues would be what is allocated to the General Fund—10.5% of the IVU—, but the plan also adds an allocation identified as “Additional IVU”. In this allocation, which is referred to COFINA, the IVU allotments to foster the film industry and for the Municipality Financing Corporation add up to $850 million this fiscal year. The amount increases to $906 million in FY 2019, and continues to increase until it reaches $9.936 billion in 10 years.

 

The Promise of PROMESA

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eBlog, 6/30/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we applaud Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership in securing swift passage of the House-passed PROMESA legislation yesterday in the full Senate, clearing the way for the President to sign the bill into law and for the appointment of a financial control board.

Puerto Rico: Ensuring Essential Public Services. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) advising his colleagues: “The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is in crisis, it owes billions of dollars in debt, and it could be forced to leave residents without essential services like hospitals and public safety resources without prompt congressional action…this bill [PROMESA] won’t cost the taxpayers a dime…What it will do is help Puerto Rico restructure its financial obligations and provide much-needed oversight to put into place reforms,” the Senate voted 68-30 to pass and sent the legislation for President Obama’s signature—avoiding default on a $2 billion debt payment due tomorrow. As enacted, the new law will create a process to guide what looms as the largest municipal-debt workout in U.S. history; it comes as Puerto Rico’s government has already commenced defaulting on $70 billion in debts. As enacted, the new neither authorizes nor prevents a default; rather it provides the U.S. territory with a stay against creditor litigation. In the wake of passage, President Obama called the bill “critical first step toward economic recovery and restored hope for millions of Americans who call Puerto Rico home,” adding “I look forward to signing the bill into law, and remain committed to working with Congress and the people of Puerto Rico to return to lasting economic growth and opportunity. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew noted: “In a world where people have given up on Washington to deal with technical, complicated, controversial things, it ought to be a moment of some encouragement.” The Congressional action came against a background of increasing fiscal pressure: U.S. hedge funds, which own Puerto Rico’s most senior municipal bonds, had strongly opposed the Congressional legislation, and had even sued to block a local debt moratorium measure, had argued that their bonds were “required to be paid first in times of scarcity, ahead of even what government deems ‘essential services.’” Some municipal bond investors and outside political groups spent millions of dollars on a lobbying effort to kill the debt-relief bill, which could force them to accept larger upfront losses on their investments. U.S. Treasury officials had warned the lawsuit hinted at the likelihood that investors would seek an injunction in the event of a default that would force Puerto Rico to cut essential public services to pay its constitutionally prioritized debts. In an odd pairing, labor unions also opposed the legislation.

Some bondholders say the island’s government, with the blessing of the Treasury Department, has made Puerto Rico’s difficulties worse by threatening to default on debt. They say the territory has exaggerated its financial difficulties.

Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress, applauded PROMESA’s passage and said he is “firmly convinced that it is the best legislative solution to a terrible problem” that his constituents have been forced to confront: “Once the President signs the bill into law, the next step will be to select the seven members of the oversight board,” he added: “I intend to play a role in this process, because it is critical that the board members be intelligent, hard-working, fair, and familiar with Puerto Rico. It is my hope and expectation that at least several of the board members, in addition to being highly qualified, will be of Puerto Rican birth or descent or have strong ties to Puerto Rico.” The legislation authorizes a seven-member oversight board, appointed by the President with input from Congress, with one of the board members required to either have a permanent residence or place of business in the commonwealth. The oversight board will be tasked with overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances and approving any court-supervised debt restructuring. The oversight board PROMESA would create would have the power to require balanced budgets and fiscal plans, as well as to file debt restructuring petitions on behalf of the Commonwealth and its entities in a federal district court as a last resort if voluntary negotiations do not succeed. It would also have the power to require Puerto Rico to follow recommendations it makes, even if the commonwealth’s government disagrees.

Republicans have been wary of the bill’s restructuring process for its similarity to municipal bankruptcy and the possibility it could create a precedent for fiscally troubled states, such as Illinois to come to Congress asking for similar treatment—members, that is, apparently unfamiliar with the nation’s dual sovereignty. Democrats have been concerned with, among other things, the way the oversight board would be structured and its unilateral decision-making power. They also have condemned a separate provision that would allow the governor of Puerto Rico to authorize employers to temporarily pay employees under the age of 25 a $4.25 per hour minimum wage instead of the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

The Pressure of Looming Deadlines in Municipa Finance

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eBlog, 6/22/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we explore the difficult transition challenge in Detroit of the state’s public school system after 7 years of state control back to the city; we observe the deteriorating fiscal collapse of the small municipality of Opa-locka, Florida; and we observe the increasingly frantic negotiations, threats, and litigation in Puerto Rico as its big deadline approaches the week after next.

Public Schooling on Municipal Bankruptcy. Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager and retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes plans to meet with both Michigan officials and Detroit families this week to explain and discuss the implementation of the state’s $167 million “rescue” plan for the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) which Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law yesterday—which includes $467 million in debt relief and $150 million in start-up costs for creation of a new debt-free school district—at a meeting today at which key players from Gov. Rick Snyder’s office, the state Treasury, and the Michigan Department of Education are expected. Under the new laws, the school district will be divided on July 1 into two corporations as part of this plan enacted to prevent the system from filing for municipal bankruptcy: The existing DPS district will stay intact for tax-collection purposes to retire $617 million in debt over 8½ years, including $150 million for transitional startup costs to launch a new district and to ensure it has enough cash flow to operate. The new district, which will receive the $617 million infusion of state funds to cover the lost tax revenue, will educate students. A new school board will be elected in November, and a commission of state appointees that oversees city budgets will also review the schools’ finances. The new law splits the old DPS in two, leaving the old entity to pay off debt through existing millage, while a new debt-free district will receive its full state funding allowance to focus on education. Judge Rhodes is expected to serve as an official “transition manager” for the newly created school district. Under the legislation, the transition manager would run Detroit schools until new school board members take office next January after November’s elections. Judge Rhodes wants to ensure everyone “is on the same page as it relates to knowledge” of the legislation, so that participants can begin working together on a project management plan to implementing the state assistance package and launch of a new Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The learning curve will be challenging: the state assistance plan was adopted on a partisan vote without a single vote of any Detroit legislator: the greatest challenge is likely to be with regard to charter school proliferation in the city and the growing percentage of special education students who attend the traditional public school district. Because the new state law omits a proposed commission which would have had governing authority with regard to the placement of traditional and charter schools in the city, there are expected to be significant challenges for the new DPS. Indeed, Michigan Education Superintendent Brian Whiston yesterday noted: “The conversation isn’t going away,” adding that charter school proliferation is also causing challenges for other urban school districts in Saginaw, Benton Harbor, and Pontiac—or, as Mr. Whiston described it: work creatively to get more funding (for DPS) if we have to…and also to look at how we manage the opening and closing of schools — to do it in a way that provides parents’ choices, which is important, but also in a way that we manage those choices.” (One of the newly enacted state DPS provisions directs the state to develop an “A-to-F” grading system, so Detroit parents can better decide which schools, whether traditional or charter, are the best.

Will There Be a State Bailout? Opa-locka, Florida leaders have met in an effort to address critical financial crises which threaten to plunge the small municipality into municipal bankruptcy—with Commissioners voting earlier this week to dip into resources in the city’s wastewater reserve fund to make payroll this week—even as the small municipality has stopped payments to mechanics who work to keep the municipality’s old police cars working: Opa-locka is over $1 million in debt. But even that debt seems to pale compared to the growing, day-to-day challenge of operating, a challenge so severe the city commission had felt compelled to dip into the municipality’s sewer fund reserves. Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott has already declared a state of emergency for the city—and now recognizes it might have to act to bail the city out. Even the city’s governance has been challenged, with the commission appointing former mayor John Riley to fill an open commission seat after former commissioner Terence Pinder killed himself—as he was confronting bribery charges. The new Commissioner Riley told his colleagues: “First of all, I want to really find out the status of the city and what’s been done and what’s not been done.”

Tropical Fiscal Storm. Hedge funds Jacana Holdings, Lex Claims, MPR Investors, and RRW I yesterday filed suit in federal court in New York, seeking to have the federal court bar Puerto Rico from using its April-adopted Puerto Rico Emergency Moratorium and Financial Rehabilitation Act for its general obligation bonds—and to seek the court’s intervention to mandate that Puerto Rico prioritize the payment of the it general obligation (GO) bonds.  (The plaintiffs filing currently hold bonds from Puerto Rico’s $3.5 billion 2014 GO bond sale—municipal bonds for which the bond’s indentures specify the underlying bonds are to be governed by New York law and use New York’s courts to resolve disputes.) The suit charges that “Governor Alejandro García Padilla has willfully violated the first priority guaranteed to general obligation bonds by Puerto Rico’s constitution and has flouted centuries-old federal constitutional protections for contract and property rights…,” adding that the “Moratorium Act is transparently unlawful.” Unsurprisingly—and even as the U.S. Senate could act by as early as next week to take up and consider the House-passed PROMESA legislation—the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico decried the resort to litigation as a failure to “continue good faith negotiations…” much less to “acknowledge the reality of the commonwealth’s fiscal crisis: This attempt by hedge funds to disrupt the commonwealth’s ability to keep the lights on and provide essential services for the 3.5 million Americans on the island makes clear that the Senate must act and pass PROMESA before July 1.”

In filing suit—rather than awaiting Congressional action or working for good faith resolution, the plaintiffs, in their filing, charged that the “Puerto Rico legislature lacks the legislative authority to modify New York’s law of contracts…,” adding that “In case the available revenues including surplus for any fiscal year are insufficient to meet the appropriations made for that year, interest on the public debt and amortization thereof shall first be paid,” but also adding that Puerto Rico’s Moratorium Act breaks the contract and due process clauses of the U.S. constitution. The filing occurs in the midst not only of Congressional action, but also confidential creditor debt negotiations, including with some of the litigants and other holders and insurers of Puerto Rico GO and Sales Tax Finance Corp. (COFINA) debt—negotiations which the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank yesterday reported had broken down.

Yesterday’s hedge fund suit followed in the wake of a growing pile of suits against Puerto Rico: last month hedge funds holding more than $750 million of the debt of the GDB revived a lawsuit, accusing the U.S. territory’s government of “changing the rules of the game” by amending the Moratorium Act, seeking in the revived litigation to overturn the Moratorium Act and Law 40, which Puerto Rico amended last month. Last week, municipal bond insurer National Public Finance Guarantee sued Puerto Rico in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, seeking to overturn the Moratorium Act. The resort to federal court likely emerges from both the faltering confidential talks with some of Puerto Rico’s municipal bondholders, as well as perceptions that litigation might produce a richer outcome for hedge funds than the pending PROMESA legislation likely headed to the signature of President Obama. All this comes as the proverbial clock is running down to next week’s deadline for Puerto Rico to pay $2 billion it does not have in interest and principal due on a variety of securities, which Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has made clear Puerto Rico cannot pay in full. Bloomberg reported that Puerto Rico’s benchmark general-obligation bonds traded yesterday at about 66 cents on the dollar to yield 12.8 percent.

The Governing Challenge in Averting Insolvency

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eBlog, 6/10/16
In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the bipartisan legislation overwhelming passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last night to address Puerto Rico’s looming insolvency—and a related U.S. Supreme Court decision; then we look at the almost Detroit Public Schools filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. It almost seems as if these events and actions were staged just for my fine graduate class on public policy process.

 

Oye! The House last evening passed and forwarded to the Senate legislation to address Puerto Rico’s looming insolvency on a bipartisan 297-127 vote: Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wi.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) took to the House floor to urge support for the legislation, with Speaker Ryan noting: “The Puerto Rican people are our fellow Americans. They pay our taxes. They fight in our wars…We cannot allow this to happen.” The bill now heads to the Senate, where there is little evidence Senators are eager to remake the bill wholesale, particularly as conditions on the island continue to worsen. The only amendment to fail was one offered by Democrats that would have struck a provision of the bill permitting Puerto Rican employers to pay workers under 25 years old less than the minimum wage. The legislation is critical as Puerto Rico—being neither a municipality, nor a state, falls into a Twilight Zone in terms of authority to address an insolvency. Puerto Rico has defaulted on three classes of municipal bonds, including last month when it missed most of a $422 million payment, and faces $2 billion in payments on July 1 that the island’s governor said cannot be paid. That final vote on the amendment was 196 in favor to 225 against. Puerto Rico’s government has begun defaulting on $70 billion in debts, and has warned it could run out of cash this summer.

In pressing for the vote, the Speaker warned that pressure would mount on Congress to spend money rescuing the territory if it could not arrest its economic decline, telling his colleagues: “This bill prevents a bailout. That’s the entire point…if we do not pass this bill…there will be no other choice.” Anne Krueger, a former IMF economist who led a detailed review of Puerto Rico’s economy, has warned: “Come July 1, if nothing is done, Puerto Rico will technically be bankrupt…Assets will be tied up in courts. It is very likely that essential services will have to be suspended.”

As drafted, the House-passed legislation does not commit a single federal dollar to Puerto Rico. The legislation creates a federal oversight board—whose members will be appointed by Congress and President Obama, and not the governor—to determine whether and when to initiate court-supervised debt restructuring: it charges the board with the responsibility to determine the hierarchy of municipal debt obligations and encourages it to respect the existing legal framework, which places constitutionally backed general obligation debt above pension liabilities. The board terminates after Puerto Rico regains the ability to borrow at reasonable interest rates and balances its budget for four consecutive years. Congressional leaders and the Treasury hope the bill will avert a long, expensive courtroom battle between hedge funds and the federal government—a battle that could harm investment in the U.S. territory’s economic future and undercut its ability to provide essential public services (servicing Puerto Rico’s current debt burden today absorbs approximately 30 percent of the Commonwealth’s revenues)—especially as Puerto Rico is now at the forefront of the Zika virus. While critics have falsely warned the bill could set a precedent for distressed states to seek similar relief, the dual sovereignty created by the founding fathers—or statesmen—in the U.S. Constitution clearly undercuts such claims: Congress granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 under the Jones-Shafroth Act to residents of Puerto Rico, which was seized in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The U.S. gave the territory the right to elect its own governor in 1947.

 Republicans have been concerned that the language would allow the to-be appointed oversight board to elevate pensions above the island’s full faith and credit general obligation municipal bond debt: Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) submitted an unsuccessful amendment to require compliance with the legal hierarchy, calling the statutory use of the word “respect” a “weasel word.”

Hear Ye! By coincidence, the U.S. Supreme Court chimed in almost simultaneously in a 6-2 decision (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle et al., (2016), No. 15-108, involving a simple criminal prosecution for firearms sales, but also the related governance issue of the Commonwealth’s autonomy—a case in which attorneys for Puerto Rico argued that it should be able to try two men who already had pleaded guilty in federal court. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said that would amount to double jeopardy, writing: “There is no getting away from the past…Because the ultimate source of Puerto Rico’s prosecutorial power is the federal government…the Commonwealth and the United States are not separate sovereigns.” Reasoning that even though Congress, in 1950, gave Puerto Rico the authority to establish its own government under its own constitution, that did not, in and of itself, break the chain of command that originates with Congress. As a result, the majority determined, the Commonwealth should be treated the same as other U.S. territories. While the 50 states and even Indian tribes enjoy sovereign powers that preceded the union or were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, Justice Kagan wrote, Puerto Rico in 1952 “became a new kind of political entity, still closely associated with the United States, but governed in accordance with, and exercising self-rule through, a popularly ratified constitution,” adding that Puerto Rico’s Constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg went further in her concurrence, suggesting that the high court should hear a case that tests whether states and the federal government should remain able to try defendants for the same crime.

During oral argument last January, a majority of Justices appeared to side with the Obama administration, which argued that, as a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico cannot try the gun dealers after federal courts have acted, with Asst. Solicitor General Nicole Saharsky arguing: “Congress is the one who makes the rules.” The majority appeared to agree: Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, noted: “If you go back, the ultimate source of authority is Congress.” Nevertheless, in their dissent, Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor stood by Puerto Rico — with Justice Breyer writing that if the court ruled against it, “that has enormous implications” for setting back the U.S. territory’s legal status: “Longstanding customs, actions and attitudes, both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, uniformly favor Puerto Rico’s position — that it is sovereign, and has been since 1952, for purposes of the double jeopardy clause.” Justice Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, said during oral argument that the island is an “estado libre asociado” Ironically the case was the first of two involving Puerto Rico to come before the high court this term. The Court is also re weighing the Commonwealth’s effort to restructure part of its $70 billion public debt, an issue addressed last evening by the House: a federal appeals court blocked the restructuring because of conflicts with U.S. bankruptcy laws.

Schooling for What If & Municipal Bankruptcy. With uncertainty whether the Michigan legislature would be able to pass and send legislation to him before the Detroit Public Schools exhausted all its cash—and before the legislature completed its session, Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration had commenced discussion with regard to drafting a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filing for DPS—in some apprehension of a wave of vendors’ and employees’ suits against DPS—the city’s public school system foundering in more than $515 million in outstanding operating debt: key staff worked with attorneys on a possible DPS chapter 9 bankruptcy, and Gov. Snyder had exchanged text messages with his former law school colleague and appointee as Detroit’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, who had, as we have catalogued, served as Emergency Manager in charge of both taking Detroit into municipal bankruptcy, and then piloting it through its successful emergence and approval of its plan of debt adjustment. Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri recently estimated the DPS would need $65 million for capital costs, including deferred maintenance and upgraded security equipment; $125 million for cash flow needs due to the timing of school aid payments and other startup expenses; and $10 million for academic programming. Now, in the wake of partisan action on which we reported yesterday, DPS will be able to make payroll, pay vendors, and purchase supplies this summer to prepare for school this fall. Logistically, the new school district will be created by July 1: retired U.S. Judge Steven Rhodes, DPS’s emergency manager appointed by Gov. Snyder and now serving as DPS’ transition manager, is working with state administrators to implement the new agreement.