December 15, 2017
Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges of a city emerging from a quasi-state takeover—and report on continuing, discouraging blocks to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.
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The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery. Detroit’s Cerveny – Grandmont neighborhood, where median household income has declined by 5 percent since 2000 and average household incomes are under $38,000—and median home sale prices are just over $51,000, this week was one of 10 areas in the Motor City yesterday was cited in a report, “Reset, Rethink, Rebuild: A Shared Vision of Performing Schools in Quality Buildings for Every Child in Detroit” a study about neighborhoods, educational opportunity, and the conditions of public school buildings, as one of ten neighborhoods wherein it is nearly impossible to find a quality school. Indeed, the report determined that the problem is deeper than just those 10 neighborhoods: Only 20 percent of the children enrolled in a public school in the city, whether charter or traditional public, are attending a quality school: a discouraging, failing grade with implications for both assessed property values and Detroit’s budget. Chris Uhl, the Executive Director of the eastern region for IFF, which published the study, noted: “The fact that four out of five kids in this city” are not attending a quality school “is pretty horrifying to me…that…should catalyze action.” The report notes that nearly half of the space in school buildings in the city is underutilized. A key recommendation of the report was that greater coordination is needed between leaders of the Detroit Public School System and the authorizers of charter schools—presumably including the current U.S. Secretary of Education. (Currently, only Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University are authorized to open new charters in the city, but there are a number of other authorizers with schools in the city.) IFF’s recommendations are similar last week’s report by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.
In its report, the IFF identified quality schools using Michigan’s less than clear, but outdated quality schools color-coded accountability system–a system due to be replaced next year: a part of that old system provided for the assignment of five colors, based on how well students achieved academic goals. Of the city’s 178 general education public schools, just 2.4% received the equivalent of an A. The report makes clear that the steep road back from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy requires a greater focus on the next generation’s future: schools good enough to attract families back into the city—attracted by a good school to enroll their children. Today, too few of them exist—or, as the report notes: Detroit needs nearly 70,000 more seats available in quality schools to ensure that every child has access to such a school. Tonya Allen, President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, which funded the research, noted: “We’re not meeting the demand, which leaves us vulnerable to leakages: for students to leave the city to go to school in the suburbs.”
A Taxing Recovery? Just as Puerto Ricans were treated unequally by the federal response to hurricane devastation compared to Houston and Florida, so too there is apprehension that the tax “reform” legislation nearing completion in Congress—especially as there is growing apprehension that Congress could move towards adopting a territorial tax system for businesses—that is a new tax system which would treat Puerto Rico as a foreign country with respect to the numerous foreign subsidiaries of U.S. corporations which operate there. Puerto Rico Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce Manuel Laboy Rivera is apprehensive that subsidiaries of U.S. corporations which receive favorable treatment under current federal law could find the emerging federal tax reform would impose a new 20 percent federal excise tax on all pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and other products shipped to the mainland—that is a new, discriminatory tax—which would be in addition to the Jones Act provisions which render Puerto Rico unable to compete fairly vis-à-vis other Caribbean competitor nations—even as Puerto Rico is subject to the federal minimum wage and other federal regulations involving workplace safety and environmental protection. Indeed, last December, a bipartisan congressional task force had recommended changes in the tax treatment of the U.S. territory with the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth writing: “Puerto Rico is too often relegated to an afterthought in Congressional deliberations over federal business tax reform legislation. The task force recommends that Congress make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform.” Among the recommendations: a modification of the federal child tax credit to include the first and second children of families living in Puerto Rico, not just the third as specified under current law; the report also recommended making permanent the so-called rum cover-over payments to the governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The task force, however, was divided with regard to whether to fully expand the eligibility of Puerto Rican families for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The report recommended that a domestic business production credit known as Section 199 that has covered Puerto Rico since 2006 should be maintained as long as Section 199 continues. Now, however, that credit has been targeted for elimination in the pending tax reform negotiations as they enter their final hours. Under the discriminatory treatment, for federal tax purposes, Puerto Rico is considered outside the U.S. tax code, even though for virtually all other issues the island is treated as a domestic part of the U.S. For the purposes of federal tax reform, however, Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said during the Finance Committee’s deliberations that Puerto Rico’s tax issues would be handled in separate legislation. So, it seems that for Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, where 20% to 40% of all businesses are at risk of being shuttered in the wake of the hurricane and its ensuing devastation for the economy because of challenges ranging from the lack of electricity to loss of inventory, physical damage to their facilities, business interruption, and lack of capital; the message from Congress is to wait for next year.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tx.) has informed reporters that he and other lawmakers are considering several options for Puerto Rico—especially in the wake of meeting with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Representative in Congress, to discuss her request to consider making Puerto Rico an economic opportunity zone or empowerment zone—provisions adopted by Congress to abet economic recovery in hard-hit cities and counties. Thus, a change would be to treat Puerto Rico similarly—as if it were, gasp, a part of the United States for federal tax purposes and eligible for the same treatment. Likewise, tax reform could have been a vehicle for Congress to eliminate or reduce the discriminatory 20% excise tax on goods from Puerto Rico—a tax which undercuts Puerto Rico’s ability to compete with Cuba, and other countries in the region.
Even as the tax reform-deficit/debt increase legislation has swiftly moved towards the President’s desk, in New York, U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain, presiding over Puerto Rico’s quasi-chapter 9 case, heard from attorneys for the Employees Retirement System and the Puerto Rico Oversight Board—with the critical issue what claims of Puerto Rico’s bondholders are valid. PROMESA Oversight Board attorney Steven Weise said the 2008 Financing Statements governing Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds did not provide bondholders any collateral, arguing that the bondholders’ written arguments quoted from legal rulings about “security agreements,” but that what is allowed in these agreements are not allowed in Financing Statements—adding that the system’s legal name changed in the last several years, but that bondholders had failed to properly follow-up on this development—a failure which meant, at least as he argued, that the system should not be legally obligated to pay interest on the municipal bonds—even as Bruce Bennett, representing bondholders, told Judge Swain the bondholders had a lien on employer contributions, based on multiple commitments, arguing that the 2008 Financing Statements gave the bondholders the lien. He said errors in the document were not of such gravity to merit undercutting to undercut the bondholders’ claims—and adding that the Spanish name of the system had not changed, and that the change in the English name was just a translation change—a change without legal significance. Moreover, he noted, that along with the Financing Statements, a parallel “security agreement” had been created in 2008 and this perfected the lien; further, he argued, the 2015 and 2016 Financing Statements also assured the bondholders’ lien on the employer contributions.
Where Are the Lights? U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the commanding General and Chief Engineer for the Corps reports that Puerto Rico’s electrical grid is unlikely to be fully restored until the end of May, a far more pessimistic timeline that suggested by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who Wednesday stated he expects Puerto Rico’s electric grid to reach 75 percent of customers by the end of January—and 95 percent by the end of February—and 100 percent by the end of May. Adding to the dissonance, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority last month pledged service would reach 95 percent of customers by the end of this month—even though, as of Wednesday, just 61 percent of electricity had been restored.