Foundering Federalism?

07/12/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the seemingly increasing likelihood of chapter 9 bankruptcy for Connecticut’s capital city, Hartford, before veering south to consider the ongoing fiscal storms in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Moody Blues. In the latest blow from the capital markets to Connecticut’s capital city, Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings late Tuesday lowered Hartford’s general obligation ratings to junk bond status—with the action coming less than a week after we had reported the city had hired a firm to help it explore options for chapter 9 or other steps involving severe fiscal distress. Moody’s Investors Service had already downgraded Hartford’s bonds to a speculative-grade (Ba2), and it has placed the city on review for yet another downgrade.  S&P’s action appeared to reflect an increased likelihood Connecticut’s capital could default on its debt or seek to renegotiate its obligations to its bondholders, with S&P credit analyst Victor Medeiros noting: “The downgrade to BB reflects our opinion of very weak diminished liquidity, including uncertain access to external liquidity and very weak management conditions as multiple city officials have publicly indicated they are actively considering [municipal] bankruptcy.” The ratings actions occurred as the city continues to seek more state aid and concessions from the city’s unions—even as the state remains enmired in its own efforts to adopt its budget. Mayor Luke Bronin, in an interview yesterday, confirmed the possibility of bond restructuring negotiations. This is all occurring at a key time, with the Governor and legislators still negotiating the state’s budget—on which negotiations for the fiscal year which began at the beginning of this month, remain unresolved. In a statement yesterday, Mayor Bronin noted:  “I have said for months that we cannot and will not take any option off the table, because our goal is to get Hartford on the path to sustainability and strength.” He added that any long-term fiscal solution would “will require every stakeholder—from the State of Connecticut to our unions to our bondholders—to play a significant role,” adding: “Today’s downgrade should send a clear message to our legislature, to labor, and to our bondholders that this is the time to come together to support a true, far-sighted restructuring.”

A key fiscal dilemma for the city is that approximately 51 percent of the property in the city is tax-exempt. While the state provides a payment in lieu of local property taxes (PILOT) for property owned and used by the State of Connecticut (such payment is equal to a percentage of the amount of taxes that would be paid if the property were not exempt from taxation, including 100% for facilities used as a correctional facility, 100% for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal land taken into trust by federal government on or after June 8, 1999, 100% for any town in which more than 50% of all property in the town is state-owned real property, 65% for the Connecticut Valley Hospital facility, and 45% for all other property; such state payments are made only for real property.  

Unretiring Debt. U.S. Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain gave the government of Puerto Rico and the Employees Retirement Systems (ERS) bondholders until yesterday to settle their dispute over these creditors’ petition for adequate protection—warning that if a deal was not reached, she would issue her own ruling on the matter—a ruling which could mean setting aside at least $18 million every month in a separate account, albeit Judge Swain noted she was not ready at this time to say whether that would entail adequate protection. Her statement came even as Puerto Rico Governor Ricard Rossello Nevares yesterday stated that, contrary to complaints made by the Chapter of Retirees and Pensioners of the Federation of Teachers, the House Joint Resolution does not represent a “threat,” but rather comes to ensure pension payments to public workers who once served the U.S. Territory, adding, however, that the retirement system as it was known no longer exists, stating it “is over,” in the absence of resources that can ensure long-term pension payments: What we have done is that we have changed from a system where it was a fund to a pay system where what implies is that now the government under the General Fund assumes responsibility for the payment of the pension…That is, the retired do not have to fear, quite the opposite. The measure that we are going to do saves and guarantees the System. If we had not implemented this in the fiscal plan…the retirement system would run out of money in the next few months.” Describing it as a “positive measure for pensioners,” because, absent the action, it was “guaranteed to run out of money,” the Governor spoke in the wake of a demonstration, in front of La Fortaleza, where spokesmen of the Chapter of Retirees and Pensioners of the Federation of Teachers denounced the measure—a measure approved by both legislative bodies and sent to the Executive last month as a substitute retirement system for teachers.

Unsurprisingly, the Puerto Rico government and representatives of labor unions and retirees opposed the ERS bondholders’ request to lift the stay under PROMESA’s Title III. In response to Judge Swain’s query to the bondholders: “If I were to enter a sequestration in the manner you stipulated…What would that do for you?” Jones Day attorney Bruce Bennett responded; “Not enough,” as the ERS bondholders argued they needed adequate protection, because Puerto Rico has not made the requisite employer contributions to the ERS, which guarantee payments of their bonds. In contrast, opponents argued the resolution authorizing the issuance of these bonds was an obligation of Puerto Rico’s retirement system‒not the Commonwealth, and creditors were going beyond contractual rights in forcing the government to make appropriations from the general fund and remit them as employer contributions. An attorney representing the retirement system argued the ERS security interest filings were defective in reference to claims by bondholders that they have a right to receive employer contributions; however, an attorney representing the PROMESA Board countered that just because the collateral to their municipal bonds has been reduced, those bondholders are not entitled to such protection, testifying: “What is the claim worth when you have the GOs saying ‘we get all the money because we are in default.’”

Due to Puerto Rico’s perilous fiscal condition, it currently is making pension payments, for the most part, on a pay-as-you-go basis: public corporations and municipalities are making their employer contributions; however, those contributions are going into a segregated account; in addition, the fiscal plan contemplates making public corporations and municipalities similarly transform to a pay-go pension system—with the Territory supporting its position before Judge Swain by its police power authority.

The State of Puerto Rico’s Municipalities. The Puerto Rico Center for Integrity and Public Policy has reported that Puerto Rico’s municipal government finances deteriorated in FY2016 after improving in the prior two fiscal years. Arnaldo Cruz, a co-founder of the Center, said the cause of the deterioration was likely related to the election year, based on the collection of data and responses from 68 of the territory’s 78 municipios. Mr. Cruz added that the ten non-responders happened to be ones which had received D’s and F’s in past years. The updated study found that 30 municipalities nearly have the muncipios received more than 40% of their general fund revenue from the central government—mayhap presaging fiscal mayhem under the PROMESA Board’s intentions to eliminate such state aid to local governments over the next two fiscal years—i.e,: a cut of some $428 million. Such severe cuts would come even as the study found that more than half the muncipios realized a decrease their net assets last year, and half realized a decrease in their general fund balance—even as 27 municipios allocated more than 15% of their general fund income to debt repayment.

According to the March fiscal plan, Puerto Rico’s municipalities have:

  • $556 million in outstanding bond debt;
  • $1.1 billion in loans to private entities; and
  • Owe $2 billion to Puerto Rico government entities, primarily the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico.

Mr. Cruz notes a potentially greater fiscal risk is related to Government Development Bank loans, which Puerto Rico’s municipalities continued to receive last year: last month, however, the Puerto Rico Senate approved a bill to allow the municipalities to declare an emergency and declare a moratorium on the payment of their debt. The fate of the effort, however, is uncertain, because the legislation died when the legislature adjourned before House action—mayhap to be taken up next month when they reconvene.

What Are the Challenges of Governance Takeovers?

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the evolving state takeover of Atlantic City, with the appointment by the state of what Mayor Don Guardian deemed the “occupation force.” We consider the role of the state and mechanisms for a state takeover—as well as the options for the municipality. Then we look far south to a seemingly comparable federal takeover of a quasi-state, as the Puerto Rico Oversight Board created under the new PROMESA law preps for its first meeting at the end of this week in Puerto Rico—a meeting that will come during transition periods of administrations both in the federal and Puerto Rican governments—adding still greater challenges to the U.S. territory’s transition.

State Preemption of a Municipality? The twilight period during which Atlantic City has awaited its state takeover now appears to be over, or, as Mayor Don Guardian posed it, the “occupation force” of a “governor we don’t like” has been named. Last night, New Jersey tasked Jeffrey Chiesa, a longtime ally and associate of Gov. Chris Christie—indeed, an associate the Governor once named to fill in as one of the state’s U.S. Senators in the wake of the death of former U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, and who also served as New Jersey’s Attorney General, to serve as the “director’s designee” to execute the state takeover of Atlantic City, from which position he will report to New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs, under the leadership of Tim Cunningham, the Director of New Jersey’s Local Finance Board. In this new capacity, Mr. Chiesa will have far-reaching powers, including the authority to unilaterally hire, fire, eliminate departments and authorities, sell assets, terminate union contracts, and veto any action by City Council, according to the state’s Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act. In its release, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs said Mr. Chiesa would use his authority “judiciously.”

In the statement, Mr. Chiesa said: “It is my hope to work together with firm conviction and not disrupt the democratic process…I am committed to improving essential government and community services for the people of the Atlantic City…I will listen to the people and work hand in hand with local stakeholders to create solutions that will prevent waste and relieve generations of taxpayers from the burden of long-term debt. We will put Atlantic City back on a path to fiscal stability.”

With regard to governance, the Department said Atlantic City Mayor and City Council will “maintain day-to-day municipal functions.”  Mr. Chiesa’s role will be to oversee “fiscal recovery efforts,” with the release from the Department noting his immediate steps would include entering into PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreements with casinos, ensuring that debt service and county and school payments are made on time, in addition to exploring “right-sizing the City’s work force.”

What Atlantic City’s elected government leaders will do—and what they may do could now be the outcome of the third branch of the state’s government: the courts, especially in the wake of Mayor Guardian’s making clear yesterday that the city was poised to go to court to block any actions by the state that it regards as civil rights violations. Early yesterday, Mayor Guardian said the city would go to court if the state takes actions “we see as unconstitutional.”

The road ahead promises to be steep: the state takeover comes with the Governor potentially leaving to join the new Trump Administration; Atlantic City has a roughly $100 million annual budget deficit and about $500 million in total debt. The city’s ratable base has declined from $20 billion in 2010 to $6 billion today as the casino municipality faced more competition in neighboring states: five of the city’s famed boardwalk casinos have closed since 2014—with significant implications for unemployment, per capita income, and assessed property values.

State Preemption. In the wake of last week’s state Local Finance Board vote to usurp major decision-making powers from Atlantic City’s elected leaders week, Local Government Services Director Timothy Cunningham noted: “The simple fact is Atlantic City cannot afford to function the way it has in the past…I look forward to meeting with Mayor Guardian and members of the City Council and starting the process of bringing this great city back to financial stability. It is my hope to work together with firm conviction and not disrupt the democratic process.”

As we have previously noted, the Board’s vote for the takeover came in the wake of the state Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Charles Richman rejecting the city’s fiscal-recovery plan last week—a plan which the Department criticized, because it failed to balance the city’s 2017 budget, ran a five-year shortfall of $106 million, and did not accurately estimate cost and revenue projections. In addition, the Department expressed concerns over the Bader (airport) Field sale, calling the water authority’s plan to issue $126 million in low-interest, long-term bonds to pay for the land “dubious at best.”

Federal Preemption. The Puerto Rico Oversight Board has scheduled its first session in Puerto Rico for this Friday, with the meeting set outside of Fajardo, Puerto Rico. While the session will be by invitation only, it is scheduled to be streamed online at www.oversightboard.pr.gov, and to be followed by a press conference. It follows two earlier meetings convened in New York City. At this week’s session, the agenda includes a presentation by Conway MacKenzie Inc. on the government’s liquidity; a presentation by the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority; public testimony on Puerto Rico’s proposed fiscal plan; and the creation of procedures to approve transactions of the board’s “covered entities.”

The timing of the meeting comes during both U.S. mainland and Puerto Rican transition periods—where the position of the incoming Trump administration vis-à-vis Puerto Rico remains to be developed—albeit a spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury noted: “We all have a role to play in the coming months: the current and future governor, the oversight board, local legislature, Congress, and the current and future administrations in Washington…At Treasury, this is a top priority and we are committed to ensuring a smooth transition to the next administration.” The bar is high: Puerto Rico is facing some $70 billion in debt and at least $46 billion in unfunded pension liabilities: the U.S. territory’s public pension systems currently have more than 330,000 members and serve as the primary source of income for more than 150,000 retirees, according to the Treasury.

For his part, Puerto Rico Governor-elect Ricardo Rosselló faces the awkward position of being a newly elected U.S. governor—but one whose power and authority is circumscribed by the new federal law, so that he will have to work with the new seven-member oversight board, imposed by the PROMESA law to address some hybrid form of governance: that board has the power to require balanced budgets and fiscal plans from commonwealth leaders, as well as to file debt restructuring petitions on behalf of Puerto Rico and its entities in federal district court as a last resort, if voluntary negotiations with creditors fail. It comes as the PROMESA Board is reviewing the fiscal plan submitted by outgoing Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla last October. In this ‘feeling out’ process of governance—all parties have a narrow window in which to govern even during the respective U.S. and Puerto Rican governance transitions: the new federal law, PROMESA, includes an automatic stay on debt-related litigation until February 15th, a stay intended to provide time to address what a Treasury official deemed “the most urgent aspects of the problems facing the island,” even though acknowledging the federal government and new PROMESA law lack key tools to prevent another crisis when, for example, federal healthcare funding is exhausted. The U.S. territory currently receives $1.5 billion in funding under the Affordable Care Act—funds scheduled to expire next year absent additional federal action—funding in an island wracked by Zika and other serious health care challenges where expiration could impact about 900,000 Puerto Ricans, according to the Treasury.

Thus, in the transition process between now and January 20th, the Treasury is looking to the eight-member Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico to help address urgent healthcare and tax solutions on the federal level. The task force, made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, has been tasked with identifying federal laws and programs that impede Puerto Rico’s growth and recommending changes that could spur economic growth—changes which could be incorporated as part of a potential year-end omnibus bill designed to keep the government open and operating.