Looming Municipal Insolvencies?

October 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the looming municipal fiscal threat to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Cascading Insolvency. One of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Scotland, a small Connecticut city founded in 1700, but not incorporated until 1857, still maintains the town meeting as its form of government with a board of selectmen. It is a town with a declining population of fewer than 1,700, where the most recent median income for a household in the town was $56,848, and the median income for a family was $60,147. It is a town today on the edge of insolvency—in a state itself of the verge of insolvency. The town not only has a small population, but also a tiny business community: there is one farm left in the town, a general store, and several home businesses. Contributing to its fiscal challenges: the state owns almost 2,000 acres—a vast space from which the town may not extract property taxes. In the last six years, according to First Selectman Daniel Syme, only one new home has been built, but the property tax base has actually eroded because of a recent revaluation—meaning that today the municipality has one of the 10 highest mill rates in the state. To add to its fiscal challenges, Gov. Malloy’s executive-order budget has eliminated Connecticut’s payment in lieu of taxes program—even as education consumes 81 percent of Scotland’s $5.9 million taxpayer-approved  budget: under Gov. Malloy’s executive order, Scotland’s Education Cost Sharing grant will be cut by 70 percent—from $1.42 million to $426,900. Scotland has $463,000 in its reserve accounts, or about 9 percent of its annual operating budget—meaning that if the Gov. and legislature are unable to resolve the state budget crisis, the town will have to dip into its reserves—or even consider dissolution or chapter 9 bankruptcy. Should the municipality opt for dissolution, however, there is an unclear governmental future. While in some parts of the country, municipalities can disappear and become unincorporated parts of their counties, that is not an option in Connecticut, nor in any New England state, except Maine, where more than 400 settlements, defined as unorganized territories, have no municipal government—ergo, governmental services are provided by the state and the county. Thus it appears that the fiscal fate of this small municipality is very much dependent on resolution of the state budget stalemate—but where part of the state solution is reducing state aid to municipalities.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has offered a legal opinion which questioned the legality of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to administer municipal aid in the absence of a state budget,  he offered the Governor and the legislature one alternative—draft a new state budget. Similarly, Senate Republican leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven), who requested the opinion and has argued the Governor’s plan would overstep his authority, also conceded there may be no plan the Governor could craft—absent a new budget—which would pass legal muster, writing: “We acknowledge the formidable task the Governor faces, in the exercise of his constitutional obligation to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, to maintain the effective operations of state government in the absence of a legislatively enacted budget.” The fiscal challenge: analysts opine state finances, unless adjusted, would run $1.6 billion deficit this fiscal year, with a key reason attributed to surging public retirement benefits and other debt costs, coupled with declining state income tax receipts:  Connecticut is now about 14 weeks into its new fiscal year without an enacted budget—and the fiscal dysfunction has been aggravated by a dispute between Sen. Fasano and Gov. Malloy over the Governor’s plans to handle a program adopted two years ago designed to share sales and use tax receipts with cities and towns: a portion of those funds would go only to communities with high property tax rates to offset revenues they would lose under a related plan to cap taxes on motor vehicles.

Aggravating Fiscal & Human Disparities. The White House has let a 10-day Jones Act shipping waiver expire for Puerto Rico, meaning a significant increase in the cost of providing emergency supplies to the hurricane-ravaged island from U.S. ports, in the wake of a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security confirming yesterday that the Jones Act waiver, which expired on Sunday, will not be extended—so that only U.S‒built and‒operated vessels are make cargo shipments between U.S. ports. The repercussions will be fiscal and physical: gasoline and other critical supplies to save American lives will be far more expensive on an island which could be without power for months. The administration had agreed to temporarily lift the Jones Act shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico on September 28th; today, officials have warned that the biggest challenge for relief efforts is getting supplies distributed around Puerto Rico.

Even as President Trump has acted to put more lives and Puerto Rico’s recovery at greater risk, lawmakers in Congress are still pressing to roll back the Jones Act, with efforts led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently introducing legislation to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act; indeed, at Sen. McCain’s request, the bill has been placed on the Senate calendar under a fast-track procedure that allows it to bypass the normal committee process; it has not, however, been scheduled for any floor time. Sen. McCain stated: “Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law: Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

The efforts by Sen. McCain and Chairman Lee came as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, citing an “unprecedented catastrophe,” urged Congress to provide a significant new influx of money in the near term as Puerto Rico is confronted by what he described as “a massive liquidity crisis:” facing an imminent Medicaid funding crisis, putting nearly one million people at risk of losing their health-care coverage: “[a]bsent extraordinary measures to address the halt in economic activity in Puerto Rico, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, and the unmet basic needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico will become even greater…Financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls: As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.” Even before Hurricane Maria caused major damage to Puerto Rico’s struggling health-care system, the U.S. territory’s Medicaid program barely had enough funds left to last through the next year; now, however, nearly 900,000 U.S. citizens face the loss of access to Medicaid—more than half of total Puerto Rican enrollment, according to federal estimates: experts predict that unless Congress acts, the federal funding will be exhausted in a matter of months, and, if that happens, Puerto Rico will be responsible for covering all its costs going forward, or, as Edwin Park, Vice President for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes: “Unless there’s an assurance of stable and sufficient funding…[the health system] is headed toward a collapse.” Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents participate in Medicaid; however, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, not a state, Puerto Rico receives only 57 percent of a state’s Medicaid benefits. Under the Affordable Care Act, Puerto Rico received a significant infusion, of about $6.5 billion, to last through FY2019, and, last May, Congress appropriated an additional $300 million. However, those funds were already running low prior to Hurricane Maria, a storm which not only physically and fiscally devastated Puerto Rico and its economy, but also, with the ensuing loss of jobs, meant a critical increase in Medicaid eligibility.

The White House submitted a $29 billion request for disaster assistance; however, none of it was earmarked for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have proposed giving Puerto Rico an additional $1 billion over the next two years as part of a must-pass bill to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), with one GOP aide stating the $1 billion is specifically meant to address the Medicaid cliff. Adding more uncertainty: the Senate has not given any indication if it will take up legislation to address Puerto Rico’s Medicaid cliff: The Senate Finance Committee passed its CHIP bill this past week, without any funding for Puerto Rico attached. 

In a three-page letter sent to Congressional leaders, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is requesting more than $4 billion from various agencies and loan program to “meet the immediate emergency needs of Puerto Rico,” writing that while “We are grateful for the federal emergency assistance that has been provided so far; however, [should aid not be available in a timely manner], “This could lead to an acceleration of the high pace of out-migration of Puerto Rico residents to the U.S. mainland impacting a large number of states as diverse as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and beyond.”

On Puerto Rico’s debt front, with the PROMESA Board at least temporarily relocated to New York City, President Trump has roiled the island’s debt crisis with his suggestion that Puerto Rico’s $73 billion in municipal bond debt load may get erased—or, as he put it: “You can say goodbye to that,” in an interview on Fox News, an interview which appeared to cause a nose dive in the value of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, notwithstanding his lack of any authority to unilaterally forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. Indeed, within 24 hours, OMB Budget Director Mick Mulvaney discounted the President’s comments: he said the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring. Indeed, the Trump administration last week sent Congress a request for $29 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico, including $16 billion for the government’s flood-insurance program and nearly $13 billion for hurricane relief efforts, according to a White House official. No matter what, however, that debt front looms worse: Gov. Rosselló has warned Puerto Rico could lose up to two months of tax collections as its economic activity is on hold and residents wait for power and basic necessities. Bringing some rational perspective to the issue, House Natural Resource Committee Chair, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said the current debt restructuring would proceed under the PROMESA Oversight Board: “Part of the reason to have a board was to have a logical approach [to the debt restructuring]. We need to have this process played out…There’s not going to be one quick panacea to a situation that has developed over a long time…I don’t think it’s time to jump around…when we already have a structure to work with.” Chairman Bishop noted that Hurricane Maria’s devastation would require the board to revise its 10-year fiscal plan, with the goal to achieve a balanced budget pushed back from the current target of FY2019; at the same time, however, Chairman Bishop repeated that the Board must retain its independence from Congress. He also said Congress would consider extending something like the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act to the U.S. Virgin Islands—an action which would open the door to a debt restructuring for the more than $2 billion in public sector Virgin Islands municipal debt.

The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, noted that it would be Congress, rather than the President, which would pass any municipal bankruptcy legislation, patiently reminding us: “You can’t just use an edict to wipe out debt: If Congress were to wipe out debt, there would be constitutional challenges…Past efforts to repudiate debt debts have had very serious consequences in terms of future access to capital markets and cost of borrowing.” In contrast, if the federal government were to provide something like the Marshall Plan to Puerto Rico, Mr. Spiotto added: the economy could strengthen, and Puerto Rico would be in a position to pay off some its debts.

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