Upsetting State & Local Fiscal Balances

April 27, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we seek to understand the fiscal imbalances in Connecticut and its capitol city of Hartford, before venturing west to assess the uneasy fiscal dilemmas in Illinois.

Biting the Fiscal Hand that Feeds the City? In a letter to Connecticut Treasurer Denise Nappier, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) this week warned that the state’s fiscal bailout out the City of Hartford will exhaust the state’s ability to issue debt, — at least temporarily, noting that the legislature’s non nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projects “the state would exceed the statutory bond cap by $522 million” effective next July 1st, because of the Hartford fiscal agreement. That arrangement, implemented earlier this spring by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration and by Treasurer Nappier’s office, commits the State of Connecticut to finance Hartford’s $534 million in outstanding municipal bond debt, in addition to an undetermined about of interest. While state Legislators had ordered fiscal assistance for Hartford last October as part of a final consensus on adopting the budget, now a number are claiming the agreement went beyond what legislators had authorized. At stake is Connecticut’s expectation of retiring this debt over 20 to 30 years—something which could now depend upon how Hartford city leaders renegotiate their obligations with the city’s municipal bondholders—and, especially, at what interest rates—in one of the nation’s oldest states, and one which has long had in statute a debt limit—one which applies not only to bond debt already issued by the state, but also bonded debt it has committed to undertake in the future. Leader Klarides noted that he had been informed by the state’s Office of Fiscal Analysis that the full amount of Hartford which the state is expected to assume, $534 million, would be counted against the state’s bond cap: he has, indeed, requested clarification from the Treasurer with regard to when Hartford’s debt was included in calculations of the state’s debt burden. Unless legislators abandon the cap, the only alternatives to exceeding the limit this summer would be to delay or cancel planned municipal bonding for various projects, such as municipal school construction or capital programs at public colleges and universities; increase taxes or adopt other revenue raising measures, or vote to modify the Connecticut debt limit statute and grant an exemption for the emergency aid for the City of Hartford.

With Republicans currently holding nearly half the seats in the House (71 of 151) and exactly half the seats in the Senate, any traction for the city will confront, ergo, steep political divides—especially in an election year where Republicans have already indicated they plan to campaign on their efforts to stabilize state finances; thus, any effort to curtail other projects is likely to draw objections from both sides of the aisle. Treasurer Nappier’s office did not comment immediately after Leader Klarides issued her letter. Wednesday, Gov. Dannell Malloy’s office, noted that legislators should have known the assistance would count against the state’s debt limit, with a spokesperson for his office noting: “The contract assistance agreement is perfectly in keeping with the legislation passed last year by the bipartisan coalition,” adding that that was language the Legislature had both drafted and passed with support from Leader Klarides—language which stated that contract assistance agreements would constitute a full faith and credit obligation of the state: “This was not ambiguous then, and it is not now. The only question that continues to arise regarding the contract assistance agreement is did Representative Klarides have any idea what she was voting for?”

While there is consensus on both sides of the aisle that the two-year state budget enacted last October appropriated about $80 million in assistance for Hartford over the biennium, legislators had also agreed that Hartford would seek to refinance its debt over the long-term—debt the state would guarantee, committing to make annual debt assistance payments close to $40 million for 20 to 30 years, until the city’s entire $534 million general obligation debt is retired; however, last week, House and Senate Republicans recommended budget adjustments which would reduce traditional state grants to Hartford each year, beginning in the new fiscal year, by an amount equal to the debt assistance—effectively undercutting the fiscal commitment—or, as  effectively neutralizing the deal. Or, as Rep. Klarides put it, legislators were very clear in what they ordered, and that the Governor and Treasurer negotiated last-minute changes with the city and its bondholders that overstepped their authority, noting: “We only agreed to a two-year lifeline: This was a deal that was done in the dark of night.” Leader Klarides declined to speculate what the Legislature will do, but warned that if lawmakers are forced to begin canceling planned borrowing: “Let’s de-authorize Hartford projects.” In response, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford), unsurprisingly, said exempting the aid for his home community from the statutory debt limit might be the best solution, especially, as he noted, because legislators on both sides of the aisle still want to make adjustments to the state budget for the next fiscal year before the session’s scheduled close on May 9th, noting that the single-largest amount of state borrowing is used to support municipal school construction, and canceling more than $500 million in planned borrowing by July 1 likely would impact many communities across Connecticut. Thus, he added: “If we all agree we want safe schools for our kids, we should come together and talk.”

The difficult negotiations in the Legislature come as Wall Street is warning Connecticut that its municipalities could be in fiscal peril. Last week, Moody’s moodily released an analysis that the recently enacted federal tax law changes may wreak fiscal havoc to the state’s local governments—especially the cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes. There is fiscal apprehension that the federal changes could lead to stagnant assessed property values—changes which would augur bad news for municipal property tax receipts in a state which relies more on property taxes than any other—or., as the exception UConn Law Professor Richard Pomp noted: “Because fewer people are going to be able to deduct the property tax, there is the concern that this will lower the demand for housing: That will lower a municipality’s property tax base at the next reassessment.” The federal tax changes which have led to record federal deficits and debt for the one level of government which does not try to balance its budget means, as Kevin Maloney of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities put it: “There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that the recently passed sweeping federal tax reform will adversely impact a majority of property taxpayers and towns and city governments across Connecticut: Limiting the ability of Connecticut towns and cities to write off property tax paid annually will only place more pressure on the property tax in Connecticut, making Connecticut local economies and tax environment more uncompetitive and depressing the value of homeownership.”

In 2014, more than 41% of returns in Connecticut included a state and local tax deduction (the last year available): the average amount for this deduction was $19,000. Thus, as he put it: “Property taxes represent an absolutely vital source of revenue for cities in Connecticut: According to the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, property taxes account for 60% of local revenues—twice the national average.” That unbalanced reliance is further complicating fiscal stability in the state, because Connecticut is the state with the nation’s greatest income inequality—creating widely disparate impacts on Connecticut municipalities’ fiscal capacity to provide equitable levels of services.  Those fiscal disparities can cause, as Moody’s reported, “significant headwinds,” especially for cities like Bridgeport, where a shrinking tax base and plummeting assessed property values have generated a vicious fiscal cycle of ever-higher tax increases on remaining residents: higher and higher tax burdens, even as services are reduced. Two years; ago, a Bridgeport family making $75,000 a year faced a tax rate of nearly 16%: as higher income families have fled the municipality, the new federal tax bill could contribute to drive still more away.

On a Golden Parachute in Highland Park? In an Illinois County, Highland Park, where more than a century ago in 1867, ten men purchased Highland Park for the gaudy sum of $39,198.70 to become the original stockholders of the Highland Park Building Company—after which, following construction of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad, a depot was established at Highland Park and a plat, extending south to Central Avenue, was laid out in 1856, leading to the establishment of the municipality on March 11, 1869, with a population of 500; today, the Chicago suburb has a different distinction: it is a county with some of the state’s highest property taxes, and one where more than one-third of employees at one park district are making more than six figures: out of 51 employees listed in compensation documents provided by the Park District of Highland Park, 18 earn more than $100,000 in total compensation. (In Illinois, park districts receive the bulk of their funding from local property taxes: the Park District of Highland Park is no exception, with more than 57% of its funding coming from local tax dollars.)

Part of the cost appears to stem from lavish severance payouts. Thus, one proposal in the Illinois General Assembly, Senate Bill 3604, would limit government workers’ ability to collect extravagant severance packages, or “golden parachutes.” The bill, the Government Severance Pay Act, would mandate specific provisions in government employment contracts to limit the capacity for excessive severance pay, imposing a fixed ceiling on severance payouts, capping any severance pay at the equivalent of 20 weeks of compensation, and re-establishing public-worker severance pay as a privilege, rather than an entitlement, mandating that government worker contracts include a provision barring severance packages for employees terminated due to misconduct. Illinois Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago) would require greater transparency in severance pay negotiations for public university officials, as well as cap their payouts at one year’s compensation. Indeed, it seems leaving municipal employment has been munificent in the state: the Better Government Association illustrated as much in a report released last October, cataloguing a number of big severance payouts. University officials comprised seven of the nine Illinois officials listed in the report. The College of DuPage Board of Trustees issued one of the largest severance packages for a government employee in Illinois history, according to the Chicago Tribune, reporting that during his tenure, President Robert Breuder hid more than $95 million in public expenditures, $243,300 of which was used to purchase liquor—an item listed as “instructional supplies” on ledger lines. Generously, trustees purchased Mr. Breuder’s early retirement for nearly $763,000 in severance pay.

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