Balancing the Odds for Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Future

eBlog, 03/15/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the tea leaves from the outcome of yesterday’s snowy session on Puerto Rico in New York City’s Alexander Hamilton Building, where the PROMESA Board considered Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s most recent efforts to reassert ownership and control of Puerto Rico’s fiscal future.

Is There Promise or UnPromise in PROMESA? The Puerto Rico Oversight Board, meeting yesterday in the Alexander Hamilton Building in New York, unanimously certified the latest turnaround plan by Governor Ricardo Rosselló to alleviate the U.S. territory’s fiscal insolvency, albeit with some critical amendments, including the implementation of a 10% progressive reduction in public pension benefits by FY2020, albeit, as was the case in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment, adjusted so that no retiree would fall below the federal poverty level: the decade-long plan thus permits the payment of 26.2% of debt due, while imposing austerity measures including partial government employee furloughs and elimination of their Christmas bonus, unless the government meets targets for liquidity and budgeting. The plan would cut pension spending by 10%, in what the Board determined would ensure sufficient fiscal resources to fund 26% of debt due in the next nine years as a “first salvo.” Emphasizing the critical need to address a $50-billion debt load among Puerto Rico’s three main public retirement systems and a depletion of available funds by 2022, the PROMESA Board added it would also formulate efforts to fund existing pension obligations on a pay-as-you-go basis, liquidating assets and using revenues of the government’s General Fund to that end.  Board Executive Director Ramón Ruiz Comas said the Oversight Board wanted to implement additional “safeguards to ensure sufficient liquidity and budgetary savings,” designed to generate $35 to $40 million in monthly savings, including the elimination of Christmas bonus payments to public employees, and a furlough program to begin July 1st—the furlough would eliminate four work days per month for most personnel working in the executive branch, and two work days per month for teachers and other front-line personnel—the furlough would exempt law enforcement personnel. In addition, the Board conditioned the Christmas bonus elimination and work reduction program on the budget proposal for FY2018 which the government is scheduled to submit by April 30: if the government’s liquidity plan and right-sizing measures are able to generate an additional $200 million in cash reserves by June 30th, the furlough program would be deferred to September 1st or eliminated outright; likewise, the removal of Christmas bonuses could be reduced or eliminated if the Oversight Board finds that the government’s plan is producing enough cash-flow. Subsequent to that part of the session, Gerardo Portela, Director of the commonwealth’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority made a presentation on behalf of Puerto Rico’s muncipios of the fiscal plan—a plan which had undergone various changes over last weekend in a contentious set of negotiations between local officials and the PROMESA Board. Puerto Rico Governor Gov. Rosselló Nevares is slated to give a live televised address to provide his public response to the board’s recommendations. 

The Dean of municipal insolvency debt, Jim Spiotto, noted the import of having creditors involved in these efforts, as their support could be vital to spurring reinvestment in Puerto Rico’s economy. Mr. Spiotto’s comments came in the context of a possible agreement by some creditors to reinvest in some part of Puerto Rico, enhancing the possibility that the PROMESA Board may be willing to consider Puerto Rico’s willingness to increase its payback of debt, according to Mr. Spiotto, something which could occur under PROMESA’ Title VI.

At the session, the Oversight Board was asked about the status of debt negotiations with Puerto Rico’s bondholders and about the possibility, already requested by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, of pushing back a stay on litigation beyond its current end on May 1st—to which Oversight Board member Arthur González responded that negotiations had yet to proceed to an outline with regard to what fiscal resources would be available for debt service: he did say that the fiscal plan would provide such an outline, and that he thought there was real hope to reaching agreements with creditors, adding that the PROMESA Board had yet to determine whether the current stay on litigation should be extended.

Balance or Imbalance. Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Bond Buyer that the proposed plan’s near term fiscal austerity may be too severe, warning that the “drag on Puerto Rico’s economy–and ultimately on its ability to collect tax revenues–may still be underestimated.” As in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’s recognition that preserving the Detroit Institute of Arts was vital to the Motor City’s long-term recovery, so too, Mr. Setser recognizes that any final agreement which would handicap Puerto Rico’s economic growth prospects could backfire.  

 

 

What Do Today’s Fiscal Storms Augur for Puerto Rico and New Jersey’s Fiscal Futures?

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eBlog, 03/13/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the frigid challenges awaiting Puerto Rico in New York City’s Alexander Hamilton Building today, where even as a fierce winter storm promises heavy snow, the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico will likely confront its own harsh challenge by the PROMESA Board to its efforts to reassert ownership and control of Puerto Rico’s fiscal future. Then we turn south to New Jersey, where there are fiscal and weather storm warnings, with the former focused on a legacy of public pension debt that Governor Chris Christie will bequeath to his successors.

Is There Promise or UnPromise in PROMESA? In the wake of changes made by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to update its economic growth projections to address a concern expressed by the PROMESA Oversight Board, it remains unclear whether that will be certified by today—when the Board will convene in New York City in the Alexander Hamilton building to act on measures intended to guide the fiscal future of the U.S. territory over the next decade. The update was made in an effort to close a new gap between Puerto Rico’s projected revenue and expenditure projections, since the new economic projections altered all the Government’s revenue estimates. Gov. Rosselló, in an interview with El Nuevo Día, explained his administration had ordered four new measures to correct the insufficiency, which had been estimated at $262 million: the first measure would be an increase in the tax on tobacco products, an increase projected to add around $161 million in public funds, nearly doubling the current rate. The Governor proposed eliminating Christmas bonuses from the highest salaries in the government and public corporations, albeit without providing details with regard to the distinction between an executive salary and a non-executive salary, stating the changes would generate savings of between $10 million and $20 million. He also said the revised, updated plan would reflect an additional $78 million by means of the reconfiguration of the property tax through an appraisal process, as well as modifications to achieve $35 million in savings by means of changing the amount of sick and vacation days which public servants accrue, noting: “We were able to evaluate some of the economic development projections, and, even though our economists don’t agree with the Oversight Board’s s economists, we’ve used the Board’s economic projections within our model for the sake of getting the fiscal plan certified…(Due to the changes) we’ve prepared, some initiatives to have additional savings of up to $262 million. We had already assuaged some of the Board’s concerns within the same proposal we had made, and those were clarified.”

The Governor indicated that the decision taken yesterday does not imply that he will support other proposals made by the Board, noting that he especially opposed the suggestions to reduce the working hours of public employees by almost 20% and cutting professional services in the government by 50%, in order to reduce costs immediately in an effort to ensure the government does not run out of cash by the first two quarters of the next fiscal year, admitting that current projections suggest they are short by around $190 million, and warning: “This (the Board’s proposals) has a toxic effect on workers and on the economy.”

In response to the PROMESA Board’s apprehensions about the double counting of revenues in its submitted plan, the Governor noted: “We’ve established that our public policy is to renegotiate the debt. The idea is to keep everything in one place so we can work with it. The debt service will be affected depending on economic development projections, but we haven’t touched that part of the fiscal plan. We’re focusing on preparing the collection areas, because we’re aware that (government revenues) have been overestimated in the past. We’ve answered questions about healthcare, revenue, government size, and we’ve worked on the pension category within our administration’s public policy about protecting the most vulnerable as much as possible.”

As for today’s session in New York, noting that he believes the government has succeeded in answering the Board’s questions and concerns, and, using the Board’s economic growth numbers, the Governor believes the updated plan will address the revenue gap without major cuts, noting: “That’s no small thing. We’ve been able to dilute it and make the impact progressive, in the sense that those who have more have to contribute more, and keep the most vulnerable from losing access. We’ve established a plan of cost reduction. Now, the plan guarantees structural changes in the government so it operates better, as well as changes to the healthcare model and the educational model. It defends the most vulnerable, it doesn’t reduce the payroll by 30% or 20%, and it doesn’t reduce working hours like they’ve asked, and we reduced tax measures.” Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló noted that the Board’s proposed service delivery cuts of as much as 50% affect health care and education—defining those two vital government services as ones in which such deep proposed cuts could trigger a drop in the economy by 8% or 9%, noting: “I’m very aware that the ones that are in the middle of all this are the people of Puerto Rico.” Indeed, the plan considers cuts to retiree pensions, lapses in the basic coverage of the Mi Salud healthcare program, a freeze in tax incentives, agency mergers, privatizations, and reductions in transfers to the University of Puerto Rico and to municipalities. On the revenue side, the Governor’s proposal seeks to increase the collection of the Puerto Rico Sales and Use Tax, the property tax, and corporate taxes. In addition, it boosts the cost of insurance, penalties, and licenses granted by the Government.

With or without the endorsement of Governor Rosselló’s administration, when the PROMESA Board meets today in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, the agenda includes certifying a plan that some argue goes far beyond not only considering the Governor’s proposed fiscal recommendations, but to some marks a transition under which the PROMESA Board members will “will become both the Legislative and Executive powers in Puerto Rico.” That is to note that this and ensuing fiscal budgets, or at least until the government of Puerto Rico is able to balance four consecutive budgets and achieve medium- and long-term access to financial markets—will first be overseen and subject to approval by the Oversight Board, as well every piece of legislation which has a fiscal impact.

Balancing. The undelicate federalism balance of power will be subject to review next week, when the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Insular Affairs has a scheduled PROMESA oversight hearing.

The Stakes & States of Yieldy—or Kicking the Pension Can Down the Road.  Alan Schankel, Janney Capital Markets’ fine analyst has now warned that the Garden State’s lack of a significant plan to address New Jersey’s deteriorating fiscal conditions will lead to more credit rating downgrades and wider credit spreads, writing that New Jersey is unique among what he deemed the nation’s “yieldy states,” because the bulk of its tax-supported debt is not full faith and credit, lacks a credit pledge, and some 90% of the debt payments are subject to annual appropriation. If that were not enough, Mr. Schankel wrote that the state is burdened by another fiscal whammy: it sports among the lowest pension funding levels of any state combined with a high debt load and other OPEB liabilities. Mr. Schankel warned the fiscal road ahead could aggravate the dire fiscal outlook, noting that the recent sales tax reduction from 7% to 6.625%, combined with phasing out the estate tax under last year’s $16 billion Transportation Trust Fund renewal, will reduce the state’s annual revenue by $1.4 billion by 2021—long after Gov. Christie has left office, noting that the state’s unfunded pension liabilities worsened when in the wake of FY2014—16 revenue shortfalls, New Jersey reduced pension funding to a level below the scheduled-ramp up Gov. Chris Christie had agreed to his as part of New Jersey’s 2011 pension reform legislation, emphasizing that public pension underfunding has been “aggravated by current leadership,” albeit noting that such underfunding is neither new, nor partisan: “This long history of kicking the can down the road seems poised to continue, and although New Jersey appropriation backed debt offers some of the highest yields among all states, we advise caution…Given the persistent lack of political willingness to aggressively address the state’s financial morass, we believe the future holds more likelihood of rating downgrades than upgrades.”

What Is the Role of A State When a Municipality Nears Insolvency?

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eBlog, 9/21/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the difficult challenge for a state when one of its municipalities is on the brink of insolvency—and where its authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is uncertain—and the kinds of hard questions about its future. As we are noting, part of fiscal federalism involves signal differences in laws and authorities—on a state-by-state basis, with regard to options for municipalities on the brim of insolvency. Because only 18 states specifically provide authority to municipalities, that leaves a signal void in the remaining states and leaves those states in more awkward positions when a municipality within its borders likely will not be able, on its own, to avoid insolvency. Mayhap appropriately, we then delve further south to Jefferson County, Alabama, where the state’s actions were the critical lever to pushing the county into municipal bankruptcy—and where the County’s appeal efforts have been stymied for years.  

What Is a State to Do? The Richmond Free Press this morning ran an editorial about the foundering and near insolvency of the City of Petersburg, the small, independent city in Virginia, where the median income for a household in the city is under $29,000, and where the City Council this month adopted most of a package of tax increases and budget cuts, but rejected a proposal to close one of the city’s four fire stations—and where, it seems clear, the Commonwealth of Virginia is most unlikely to offer any fiscal relief. At heart, we noted, the Council was really holding a hearing about whether the small municipality has a future. Thus, this a.m., the editorial noted: “We remember the chilling headline in a New York newspaper when the Big Apple was facing bankruptcy…It was 1975, and President Gerald Ford declared he would veto any legislation calling for a federal bailout of New York City. The headline in the New York Daily News — ‘FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.’” Then the editorial noted that when Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was asked by a reporter earlier this month if there were plans to propose legislation to help financially stricken Petersburg, “the governor’s reply was a tad bit better than President Ford’s to New York City, but it may have had the same result: ‘I’m sure we’re not going to see legislation proposed to deal with this situation…We have no authority to give any money. But we do have the authority to send our team in to help get the books together, get the finances together…Our team has been here, they’ve been staying here, and we want to give all the assistance we can.’” However, as the editorial notes: “Clearly, the city needs technical experts in a lot of fields, including the state’s audit team. But it needs a lot more than that.”

The editorial adds that the state audit team learned, and disclosed in a public meeting, that Petersburg’s fiscal abyss was deeper hole than originally thought: it had about $14 million in unpaid bills as of June 30th: the auditors determined the municipality had been spending far more than it was bringing in nearly every year since 2012; the state team determined the city was planning to sink even deeper into red ink in its FY’2017 budget: that approved budget calls for the city to spend $12.5 million more than it expects to receive in revenue. The state team provided recommendations, such as pursue short-term financing to help meet immediate needs, but, as the editorial notes, “But so far, that has not worked, because the city is in such bad fiscal condition.” The editorial notes that state lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), said a bailout for Petersburg was highly unlikely, in part, because it would set a bad precedent.

Caught between a Rock & a Hard Place: Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file a petition for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and only one entity, has ever attempted to file—an economic development authority, but its case was dismissed in 2001. The Virginia Constitution bars a city or town from incurring debt exceeding 10 percent of the assessed value of properties within its boundaries (see Virginia Constitution, article VII, §10); ergo, the editorial asks: “So what’s Petersburg to do?” Noting that the small municipality has slashed spending, including a $3.4 million cut to the city’s public schools budget, cut pay for its employees, frozen hiring, and raised taxes on everything from cigarettes, meals and lodging taxes to personal property taxes to bring the current budget into balance—but left untouched most of the $14 million in debt from previous years.”

It seems like a hot potato for Virginia lawmakers who appear to be apprehensive that the small municipality’s fiscal crisis could create a precedent for other cities, towns, or counties to seek bailouts from the state, or, as Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), Chairman of a newly formed task force studying the impact of fiscally stressed localities on the state and how to deal with such situations, put it: “I just hope we are not heading down this road where we are digging the state into a hole.” The Delegate’s question came in the wake of this week’s report to the legislature by Virginia’s Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown on the city’s struggle to regain its financial footing, before members of the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee—even as Delegate Landes said that as far as he understood, Petersburg has not asked the state for financial help during its crisis. The audit findings presented by Sec. Brown had identified a projected $12 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year and found that by last June 30th, Petersburg had incurred $18.8 million in bills, of which $14.7 million were mostly unpaid obligations to “external entities” such as contractors, vendors, and a state agency. Secretary Brown alerted the committee to a looming October 1st payment deadline for $1.4 million owed to the Virginia Resources Authority, a premier funding source for local government infrastructure financing through bond and loan programs, reporting this was “a principal-and-interest payment,” adding that he would have to “take certain steps to intercept aid” from the state to Petersburg to make sure those payments are made, adding: “The state has never had to do that with our localities, so I think that this is a precedent that nobody really wants. That is why it is important for us to not even have to go there,” he testified, assuring the Committee members his department has provided “only technical assistance” to the city.

Unsurprisingly, some of the state lawmakers disbelieve the state’s aid has stopped there. Delegate Landes followed up: “You mentioned that we are not providing any direct financial assistance, but indirectly we are: Your time, your staff’s time and all these state agencies that are helping them move forward, it cost the Commonwealth money. Other localities have gotten into difficulties, and I don’t recall that we provided this kind of involvement…We are trying to help Petersburg on the school end, providing additional resources for their school system, and if they can’t pay their bills, how are they going to pay their superintendent?” Committee Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), said that although he agreed with Secretary Brown’s decision to intervene, he was concerned about Petersburg’s outstanding obligations to the Virginia Resources Authority: “We got to figure out what change we need to make from a state’s perspective; we need to protect ourselves…VRA debt can be an issue that can affect our bottom line. We cannot allow that to occur. It’s very distressing when you see what has occurred, and hopefully (the city) will continue to try to — in a very straightforward way — to deal with the issues.” To which, Secretary Brown responded that “[W]e wrestle with it, too,” but ultimately the state is tied to the city in terms of some of the debt obligations: “We can run, but we can’t hide from that. From my standpoint, it is better to be involved and help them over that hump…I have no intention to stay there long-term, but the consequences for the Commonwealth by not being involved, at this stage in the game with this critical Oct. 1 time frame on debt, is probably much worse than being involved.”

What is a County to do? The federal appeals court overseeing Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy appeal has, once again, delayed the case, with the previously scheduled December 12th arguments deferred by the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals to an uncertain future date—still another in a long, and increasingly costly, series of delays—of which there have been six so far this year. Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens noted: “It is very unusual to have this many delays, and I have expressed my frustration to counsel…Our team is ready and eager to have our day in court. We stand at their mercy.” Commission President Stephens has not addressed questions with regard to what these judicial delays are costing the county. Jefferson County exited Chapter 9 bankruptcy in December 2013, after selling $1.8 billion in sewer warrants to write down $1.4 billion of the sewer system’s debt. The plan of adjustment gives bondholders the right to go back to the bankruptcy court if the county fails to enact sewer system rate increases that service the debt. After the plan was implemented, a group of local ratepayers filed an appeal before U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn in the Northern District of Alabama. County attorneys argued that the appeal should be struck down, saying that it became moot when the plan of adjustment was implemented with the sale of new debt. In October 2014, Judge Blackburn rejected the county’s mootness contention, and ruled that she could consider the constitutionality of the plan—a decision Jefferson County appealed, and on which it now seems waiting for Godot.