A Human Rights Perspective on Puerto Rico’s Fiscal and Physical Future

October 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the consideration by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to perspectives on statehood—and whether the federal government is violating human rights in the U.S. territory created by the Jones-Shafroth Act.

Unequal Treatment? The United States, today, at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), meeting at the University of Colorado in Boulder, will defend itself from the denunciations of statesmen sectors who charge that the lack of voting rights for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, represents a violation of human and civil rights. In a way, that seems ironic, as the co-author of the Jones-Shafroth Act, as Governor of Colorado, before serving in the U.S. Senate, kicked the issue off, performing—in a three-piece suit—the opening kickoff in a game at Folsom Field in Boulder in a game between the U. of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines, prior to being elected to the U.S. Senate, where he co-authored the Jones-Shafroth Act—the issue under heated debate today, where the U.S. mission to the OAS, will seek to defend against a charge filed by statespersons who are seeking censure against the U.S. for denying Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico equal rights to vote and be represented in Congress—and in the electoral college. Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartúa is representing Puerto Rico. The U.S. alternate representative to the Organization of American States, Kevin Sullivan, has been requesting—in writing—since last June, the dismissal of the complaints—complaints some of which date back to 2006—which were not even admitted for consideration until last Spring, noting that the current status violates the U.S. Declaration of Human Rights. The Trump Administration response is that, under the current territorial status, Puerto Rico “has a distinctive status, in fact exceptional,” with a “broad base of self-government.” The Administration also asserts that Puerto Rico has a limited participation in federal processes, through the Presidential primaries and the election of a non-voting Representative in Congress. Attorney Orlando Vidal, who has represented former Governor Rosselló González in this process, today’s will help educate about the lack of political rights under the current territorial status, or, as he put it: “Sometimes, it is necessary that someone from the outside, as the Commission is here, and with an independent and objective point of view, clarify situations that for many, for so long plunged into this issue, it is perhaps difficult to perceive clearly,” adding, there is an easily available “friendly solution:” to direct the admission of Puerto Rico as a state. Today’s Commission session will be chaired by Margarette May Macaulay of Trinidad and Tobago.

More than a decade ago, under the George W. Bush administration, Kein Marshall, the Administration’s Director of the Justice Department’s Legal Office, appearing before the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, had recommended calling a referendum: “territory yes or no,” followed by, if the current status was rejected, a consultation to determine whether a governing path forward would be statehood or independence—with Mr. Marshall defending, in his testimony, the report of the Working Group of the White House which, among other things, affirmed in 2005 that the power of the Congress is so broad that, if it wanted, it has the authority to cede the island to another country.

From an international governance perspective, in the international forum, it was two years ago that, in an explanatory vote, in October of 2016, the Obama administration supported a U.N. resolution in favor of self-determination and independence; shortly before, however, on June 30, 2016, President Obama had signed the PROMESA, a statute roughly modeled after chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, except that, in imposing both a financial control board and a judicial process, the outcome, as we have seen, has been a ‘who’s on first, what’s on second’ process—with prohibitive fiscal costs, even as it creates the appearance of a denial of democracy for the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. It was 15 years ago that the IACHR determined, in analyzing a complaint filed by a civic group, that nations “cannot invoke their domestic, constitutional, or other laws to justify the lack of compliance with their international obligations.”

El Otro Lado. The other side, as it were, of the Jones‒Shafroth Act, was the Jones Act—an act sponsored by the co-author at the behest of the U.S. shipping industry which has vastly compromised the ability to provide assistance towards Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria—assistance desperately needed for this territory where an estimated 8,000 small businesses still remain shuttered—representing about 10% of the total according to the island’s Urban Retailers Association—and continues to undercut hopes for fiscal and economic recovery. The Jones Act, strongly lobbied for by the domestic shipping industry, mandates that  transportation of goods between two U.S. ports must be carried out by a vessel which was built in the U.S. and operated primarily by U.S. citizens—meaning the cost of materials to help the island recover cost far more than for other, nearby Caribbean nations—and meaning that millions of Americans, including Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria last year, are paying hugely inflated prices for gasoline and other consumer products which are vital to recovery—and to equity. The act mandates that carrying goods shipped in U.S. waters between U.S. ports to be U.S.-built, U.S.-registered, U.S.-owned, and manned by crews, at least 75% of whom are U.S. citizens. Mark J. Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan this week noted: “Because of this absurd, antiquated protectionism, it’s now twice as expensive to ship critical goods – fuel, food and building supplies, among other things – from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico, as it is to ship from any other foreign port in the world. Just the major damage done to Puerto Rico from the Jones Act is enough reason to tell us that now is the time – past due time – to repeal the anti-consumer Jones Act.”

As Arian Campo Flores and Andrew Scurria of Dow Jones last week pointed out, in Puerto Rica’s fiscal year which ended last June, the island’s economy had contracted by 7.6%. An estimated 8,000 small businesses remain shuttered; Teva Pharmacuticals has announced it will close a manufacturing plant in the municipio of Manati—and, manufacturing employment has decreased by 35%. More fiscally depressing: the Puerto Rico government is now projecting that its population will decline by 12% over the next five years—as an increasing number of young, educated, and trained citizens move to the mainland, leaving behind an older, poorer population.

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Motor City Comeback

September 14, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report Congressional agreement to avert a shutdown, and we report on the remarkable cash purchases of homes in the Motor City, marking mayhap the most dramatic mark yet of Detroit’s Phoenix-like recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy.  

Keeping the Federal Government Open. The House and Senate yesterday reached agreement to avert a federal government shutdown by passing a large package of appropriations bills, as well as a continuing resolution which will, if signed by the President, fund the rest of the federal government through Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th. The package would keep the government funded past Oct. 1, the deadline for Congress to act. House Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) reported that the respective House and Senate bodies had completed work on the Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services and Education annual spending bills—bills which in this case represent the bulk of federal discretionary spending: combined, they total $786 billion, nearly two-thirds of all discretionary appropriations. The anticipation is that by including the continuing resolution (CR) in the package, it will make it less likely the President will make good on threats to shut down the federal government over border wall funding, albeit, last week, the President stated: “If it happens, it happens. If it’s about border security, I’m willing to do anything.”  

Motor City Comeback. There is stunning fiscal reversal of fortune in Detroit, where, after, decades ago, families fled the city, and suburban families wanted no part of moving in from the suburbs—contributing to what triggered the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, suddenly buyers appear to be home shopping—and shopping to purchase homes in Detroit with cash. It seems that affordable housing process, higher income buyers, and growing investor interest—with the investors smelling signal profits from flipping—have made cash deals more common. For the city, a relatively unique one in that it relies on income taxes more than most cities, the impact on assessed property taxes will be icing on the fiscal cake. In the first half of this calendar year, nearly 90% of all single-family and condo purchases were made with cash—more than triple the national average. One cause is that the median price in the first part of this year was only $32,428—which, albeit 20% higher than in the first half of this year: and it seems to be a heck of a bargain: ATTOM Data reports the national median price is $234,000.

So many purchasers are buying for investment purposes: renovating and flipping distressed homes, some as—some as large as 4,200 square feet and with architectural significance—in Detroit’s downtown area and historic neighborhoods. But in older neighborhoods near the regional Federal Reserve offices and the Detroit Institute of Art, home buyers looking to buy those renovated homes—often affluent young professionals or empty-nesters—may also face challenges in getting a mortgage, because those properties are difficult to appraise. Lenders have a challenge in determining the value of a newly renovated home in a neighborhood otherwise filled with distressed properties, because there are few comparable sales to benchmark against. That also makes payments in cash a likely option.

In effect, for the Motor City, this could be a phoenix moment of its fiscal and physical recovery: Quicken Loans is working with Home Depot and the Detroit Land Bank Authority to return Detroit’s vast stock of vacant, abandoned, and foreclosed property to productive use. Under the city’s “Rehabbed and Ready” program, the Authority selects properties in its inventory for Home Depot to rehab; Quicken preapproves interested buyers for mortgage financing; and the homes are purchased—all part of an effort to stabilize the market and create comparable sales to help future buyers.

Quicken Loans Community Fund Vice President of strategic investments, Laura Grannemann, noted: “Tax foreclosure is a force that has generated blight, increased speculation, and driven property values down…But by creating strategically placed sales, it has a ripple effect across the community and allows other individuals to refinance their home and get some equity out or to sell that home and buy a new one.”

Fiscal, Physical, & Human Challenges of Municipal Governance

August 6, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the awful physical, fiscal, and human challenges of municipal governance.  

An Enduring State of Emergency. Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan was in West Michigan yesterday morning: he was touring a water system construction site in Parchment, a municipality in Kalamazoo County of less than 2,000. The construction here includes a new pressure reduction system, which will allow Parchment to transition to the City of Kalamazoo water system. The city’s water supply is being flushed out, and the city of Kalamazoo will provide water to Parchment and Cooper Township residents. The transition, raising eerie memories of a previous transfer by the Governor in Flint, comes in the wake of finding that water in Parchment was contaminated with man-made chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). City residents were warned to stop using the water due to the contamination on July 26th, after water tests showed the PFAS level in Parchment was 20 times higher than the EPA recommended amount of 70 parts per trillion. A local state of emergency has been set for Parchment, and neighboring Cooper Township, after, just last week, Gov. Snyder declared a state of emergency for Kalamazoo County.

Fear for children—fear that the impact of Flint’s lead-tainted water could last decades—and distrust in the state and local governance to make decisions affecting children whose development could be hurt, is, unsurprisingly causing generations of residents to lose trust in government. It is, of course, at the same time tainting the assessed property values of homes in cities in Michigan so adversely affected for decades to come by state-imposed emergency managers. What parents would wish to move to a municipality knowing the drinking water would have long-term devastating consequences for their child?

What are the fiscal challenges for municipal elected leaders—especially in a state where the long-term physical and fiscal damages were wrought by state-imposed emergency managers? What do the long-term health effects for children exposed to the lead-tainted water mean for a municipality with regard to legal vulnerability and to financing a long-term recovery? At a conference at the end of last week, Detroit News reporter Leonard Fleming noted: “They don’t trust government officials: It could take a generation or two for residents to trust the city and state again and its water.”

At the conference, Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, who was on the Governor’s Flint task force, said some health officials have tried to minimize the effects of the water on residents; nevertheless, he warned there are babies who drank lead-tainted formula for six to nine months who could experience serious disabilities later in life: “It was a civil rights crisis, a human rights crisis, an environmental racism, and there is no excuse for what was done.” Moreover, there appears little end in sight: Cynthia Lindsey, an attorney representing Flint residents in a class-action lawsuit, said it could take three to four years for the legal process to play out. That is, Flint is held hostage by decisions imposed upon it by a state-imposed emergency manager, and now the question of who will finance—and how long will it take to replace all the city’s pipes, provide it access to safe and affordable drinking water, and long-term health care appear to be decisions to be made in a courtroom.

The fateful decision that led to the lead water contamination was not a municipal decision, but rather one made by the state in 2011 via a state imposed emergency manager, Darnell Earley. That was a decision which led to the finding that hundreds of children have since been diagnosed with lead poisoning; a dozen Flint residents have died of Legionella from drinking river water. Today, some 15 state public employees have been indicted by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for their roles in the water crisis—indictments on charges ranging from obstructing an investigation to involuntary manslaughter.

Now Attorney General Schuette is running to replace the term-limited Governor Rick Snyder. Some in the state claim the candidate is using the Flint charges to “make himself look like a hero.” In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, ex-state Senator Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing) has released a plan to speed the replacement of lead pipes, while former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed received the endorsement of “Little Miss Flint,” the student whose letter brought former President Barack Obama to the community.

Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, who lost his first race for that position in 2009 to a car dealer named Don Williamson, but, when former Mayor Williamson resigned to avoid a recall for lying about the city’s budget deficit, was elected in a special election to replace him: he was elected after promising “to transform Flint into a sustainable 21st-century city with new jobs, safe neighborhoods, great schools and opportunity for all.” Candidate Walling reports that his own trust in government is lower than it was prior to the city’s drinking water contamination; now he claims he wants to take the hard lessons he has learned to the place he sees as the major source of Flint’s problems: the state capitol in Lansing.

Representation could matter: over the last four decades, assessed property values fell more than 40 percent—and with them property tax receipts. That led to, after the city’s police union’s refusal to accept pay cuts, laying off a third of the police force—meaning that for a period of time, the city, with about 100,000 residents, was sometimes able to put only six officers on the street at one time. Unsurprisingly, murders nearly doubled between 2009 and 2010—a year when Flint had the nation’s highest murder rate—and the year when Gov. Ric Snyder announced he was appointing an emergency manager, Ed Kurz, to preempt local control and authority in an effort to eliminate the city’s $10 million general fund deficit. Just prior to that preemption of local authority, the Flint City Council had endorsed a plan to detach the city from the Detroit water system, due to what the Council believed to be unaffordable rates, and join the new Karegnondi Water Authority, which planned to build a pipeline from Lake Huron. Mr. Kurtz authorized an engineering study to prepare the city’s water treatment plant to process Flint River water instead. A sequential state-appointed Emergency Manager, Darnell Earley, implemented the changeover—a fateful decision with precipitous health and human safety and fiscal consequences. Mr. Earley has been charged with false pretenses, conspiracy, willful neglect of duty, misconduct in office, and involuntary manslaughter—charges which will be aired next Monday at a hearing, where he is likely to maintain That the City Council had decided to draw from the Flint River until the new pipeline was completed, and that he was, therefore, only executing their orders. (Mr. Kurz, who has not been charged, has previously testified before Congress that his responsibility was “strictly finance,” thus, he bore no responsibility to ensure “safe drinking water.”

Today, Mr. Walling, currently working as a public policy consultant for Michigan State University, notes he believes there ought to be changes in the relationship between Flint and the State of Michigan, noting: “The distress of Michigan’s cities, starting with Detroit and Flint, is a direct result of policies made in Lansing,” adding: “The only good news is that policy changes at the state level can help restore Michigan’s once-great cities.”

According to a Michigan State University 2015 study: “Beyond State Takeovers: Reconsidering the Role of State Government in Local Financial Distress, with Important Lessons for Michigan and its Embattled Cities,” by Joshua Sapotichne, Erika Rosebrook, Eric A. Scorsone, Danielle Kaminski, Mary Doidge, and Traci Taylor; the State of Michigan has the second-most stringent local taxation limits in the nation—limits which impose what they term “tremendous pressure on local lawmakers’ ability to generate critical revenue.” The fiscal pressure on the state’s local governments has been intensified by decisions to divert revenue sharing, the former program intended to address fiscal disparities, to instead enable state tax cuts. The decision disproportionately impacted the state’s most fiscally challenged municipalities: Flint’s loss was $54 million; Detroit lost $200 million, contributing to its 2013 chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Indeed, the state decision indirectly contributed to state imposition of nine emergency managers.

Thus, unsurprisingly, former Mayor Walling has a list of the new policies he wants to enact as a state representative: Allow cities to charge commuters the same income tax rate as residents (instead of just half); broaden the sales and use tax to services; provide state pension retirement assistance. This would have especial import for Flint, where the city’s taxpayers are currently financing the pensions of employees who worked for the city when it had 200,000 residents—pension payments now consuming, he says, a quarter of the city’s budget.

Trust & Intergovernmental Tensions. By candidate Walling’s own admission, throughout most of Flint’s drinking water crisis, he believed assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that Flint’s water met safe drinking standards. When residents confronted him with discolored, foul-smelling water, he said: “I thought that water had come out of their tap because of a failure in the system at their house or near the house,” adding that it was not until three years ago when, in the wake of listening to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha describe her discovery that Flint children were showing elevated levels of lead in their blood, did he finally realize the city’s entire water system was tainted, asserting that it was at that moment in time that he ordered the city to issue a lead advisory, advising mothers not to mix hot tap water with formula, and for all residents to filter their water and flush it for five minutes. (In her recent memoir, What the Eyes Don’t See, Dr. Hanna-Attisha devotes an entire chapter to her meeting with Mr. Walling, criticizing him for opting out of joining her news conference on lead levels, because he was more concerned about traveling to Washington to meet Pope Francis.)

Candidate Walling’s campaign flyers assert: “My priorities are roads, schools, jobs.” they declare. As he challenges incumbent Mayor Karen Weaver, he says most voters he interacts with want to talk about the shabby state of Michigan’s roads or the excessive auto insurance rates paid by residents of Flint and Detroit. But, it appears, he is willing to support repeal of Michigan’s Emergency Manager law—a concept which journalist Anna Clark notes, in The Poisoned City, her new history of the water crisis: “The idea of emergency management is that an outside official who is not constrained by local politics or the prospect of a reelection bid will be able to better make the difficult decisions necessary to get a struggling city or school district back on solid ground.” But in Flint, emergency managers made decisions based on saving money, not the health and safety of the citizens with whose well-being they had been entrusted. Candidate Walling, in retrospect, notes: “I wish that I had never been part of any of it: “This has all happened to a community that I deeply love, and it is motivating me to make sure policy changes are made to make sure this never happens again.”

Puerto’s Rico’s Demographic Challenges

July 24, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider what promises (no pun!) to be a brighter fiscal future for Puerto Rico,but a governmentally challenged fiscal and governing future.

Road to Recovery? According to Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor and Human Resources, the annual unemployment rate is lower than at any time than in more than 77 years, as Puerto Rico’s total employment level reached 995,767, and its unemployment rate dropped below 10% to the lowest monthly rate since at least 1975, dropping just over 15% in the last year. The BLS, however, reported that non-farm employment declined 3.5% from a year earlier, though it was up 1.9% from the post-Hurricane Maria low in October 2017: according to this survey of non-farm employers, private sector employment declined 3.4% in June from a year earlier. Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor and Human Resources said that Puerto Rico’s labor participation rate had increased to 41.1% from 39.3% a year ago last June.

The Fiscal Challenge of Demography. Dr. Angel Muñoz, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce is warning that the question of who will care for Puerto Rico’s aging population is a growing crisis; he appears especially apprehensive that the U.S. territory’s elderly population is particularly at risk amid the new Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through Nov. 30th—especially after an earlier study we cited by Harvard researchers estimated that 4,600 Puerto Ricans died in the months after Hurricane Maria hit last September: many were seniors who faced delays in getting medical care. That apprehension has grown as projections show that one-third of Puerto Rico’s population will be 60 or older by 2020, even as the number of young people are increasingly emigrating to the mainland in search of employment, often leaving behind aging parents. Dr. Muñoz noted: “We have more [older adults] being left alone to almost fend for themselves, or being cared for by other seniors, instead of a younger family member.” Adding to the fiscal and physical challenges is that in Puerto Rico, Medicaid does not pay for long-term nursing home care.

Challenging PROMESA. In yet another governance and legal challenge, Puerto Rico’s Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency will seek, today, to convince U.S. Judge Judith Dein that the fiscal budget signed by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares should be the controlling fiscal guide, marking the Governor’s first formal complaint against the PROMESA Board. The suit makes for an exceptionally full docket: it gets in line with more than 75 lawsuits filed against Puerto Rico or the Board. Last week, Judge Dein denied a request from the Association of University Professors and Teachers of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez to intervene in the litigation between the government and the Oversight Board, after the Board sought the dismissal of the case, claiming it was acting in accordance with the powers conferred by Congress. The legal challenge has an element of Rod Serling, the former host of The Twilight Zone, because of the constitutional and principles of self-government questions raised—especially compared to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where filing for chapter 9 is only permitted in states where such authority has been enacted by the respective Legislature and Governor. In contrast, the PROMESA law appears to rely on different institutional and Constitutional frameworks, and veers sharply from the principles of self-government upon which our nation was founded by the states. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico constitutionalist Carlos I. Gorrín Peralta and the ex-Judge of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy court, Judge Gerardo Carlo Altieri believe it unlikely that the statute will be declared unconstitutional. The former. A professor at the School of Law of the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico (UIPR), is of the view that it is unlikely that Judge Swain would declare unconstitutional the statute which, among other things, created the special position that she occupies by appointment to preside over the Title III cases of Puerto Rico. Mr. Peralta notes: “Puerto Rico does not even have sovereignty to accuse a person of drugs that the feds have already accused and, then, the second message was the declaration of unconstitutionality of the restructuring law,” he noted referencing Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle and Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust. He adds: “The Congress has exercised the colonial mollero,” which, in Spanish, can generally be translated to mean to show one’s biceps. Adding that the current dispute between the Oversight Board and the Commonwealth is, as he called it, the result of “conceptual ambiguity,” which can be illustrated by Law 600, wherein he described the statutory language as “the nature of a pact” adopted in the statute which gave rise to the Constitution of Puerto Rico, although in practice, there was no agreement between the United States and the United States.

In PROMESA, ergo, Senor Gorrín Peralta said the vehicle which is understood to be the vehicle with which to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt, in reality, he believes, is a statute designed to: protect the economic interests of the United States, and contain the effect that Puerto Rico’s debt would have on the state and local municipal bond market.

From the perspective of Judge Carlo Altieri, the allegations of Gov. Rosselló Nevares and the island’s legislative leaders regarding a possible usurpation of powers are of great import. The same, he added, applies to the case of Aurelius Capital Management, which alleges that the PROMESA Board is null because its members were not appointed with the consent of the Senate as dictated by the U.S. Constitution.

Nevertheless, according to a former president of the Bankruptcy Court in Puerto Rico, the backdrop to settle the dispute between Gov. Rosselló Nevares, the Legislature, and the PROMESA Board is not a purely civil case or a claim for constitutional rights, but rather the procedures of U.S. bankruptcy law which are oriented to pragmatism and the rapid resolution of disputes, mainly monetary, or, as he put it: “In the Bankruptcy Court, what are sought are fast, practical, technical,and efficient processes. Of course, PROMESA is a special law; it is not chapter 9 or chapter 11: it is a very special law and definitively, constitutional attacks are not the norm in cases of traditional bankruptcies either of municipalities or Chapter 11 cases. These constitutional arguments are very important, but they have the effect of delaying cases and resolving cases, creating confusion and excessive costs.”  He further noted that Judge Swain’s recent ruling in the Aurelius casts serious doubts with regard to the chances for Gov. Rosselló Nevares and the Legislature to prevail. He adds that it is highly probable that this litigation will continue via appeals, so the process of adjusting Puerto Rico’s debts will be delayed: “The candles are deflated. I would not be surprised if the court decided against the Legislature and the government.” Nevertheless, he made it clear that in the future, especially when the confirmation process of the plan of adjustment nears, the scope of the Oversight Board’s fiscal plan could change. 

He noted that Judge Swain could rule against the government by determining that Gov. Rosselló Nevares’ requests are aimed at seeking an opinion and that, in reality, there is no controversy surrounding the authority of the Oversight Board to certify the fiscal plan and the budget; rather, he said,The reasons are eminently political,” adding that as the Oversight Board’s actions begin to increasingly, adversely affect citizens’ pockets, there will be ever-increasing rejection of what is perceived as colonial imperialism. He added that if the court ruled in favor of the Rosselló Nevares administration and curtailed the powers of the PROMESA Board, the body created by Congress would continue to have “gigantic” powers to impose its mandates upon the people and government of Puerto Rico.

Contrasting Responses to Fiscal and Physical Storms

July 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the superb update on the fiscal impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the U.S. Virgin Islands by Jason Bram and Lauren Thomas of the New York Federal Reserve.

Much more dependent on tourism than Puerto Rico, the authors noted that there has been far less attention to the fiscal ravages of the two storms despite the fact that St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, and a number of smaller islands suffered comparable devastation. No doubt, they point out, this is in part due to their much smaller population: the U.S. Virgin Islands is home to about 105,000 Americans—1/30th Puerto Rico’s population. It is home to Claude O. Markoe Elementary School in Christiansted, where, long, long ago, this author taught school as part of training for the Peace Corps to teach in Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, in Grand Gedah County, Liberia.

The Fed authors reminded us that the Virgin Islands had already been fiscally weakened prior to the hurricanes in the wake of a shutdown of a major refinery on St. Croix in 2012—a shutdown which dramatically increased the dependence on tourism: employment dropped by about 15 percent between 2011 and 2014; it has changed little since. Then, last September 20th, Hurricane Maria smote St. Croix where, as they described it, the “magnitude of the damage and disruption for the territory as a whole was unprecedented in recent history.” Adding to the physical and fiscal misery, the Virgin Islands could not count on any assistance from Puerto Rico—and, as we have noted based upon the devastating lack of help from the federal government, the U.S. Virgin Islands were mostly left to fend for themselves.

The economic, physical, and fiscal damage, according to the latest available data, meant that total employment in the U.S. Virgin Islands dropped by an estimated 12% between August 2017—right before Hurricanes Irma and Maria—and November of that year; but by May of this year, the authors found that only a fraction of those job losses, about 600, had been reversed. Indeed, it appears that the fiscal and economic effects of Irma and Maria were “substantially more severe in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where employment fell by about 6 percent right after Maria.”

Such a disparate outcome would, they wrote, seem unexpected, especially when considering not only the widespread power outages and pathetic FEMA responses which affected so much of Puerto Rico for so very long—and began to drain the U.S. territory of those most fiscally and physically able to leave for the mainland, especially when compared to the Virgin Islands, where “literally everyone lives within a few miles of the coastline,” unlike Puerto Rico where the steep mountains vastly complicated the task of restoring power to hospitals and police and emergency response centers, leading the Fed authors to pose the question: “With this greater disruption of everyday life occurring in Puerto Rico, why would the economic effect appear considerably more severe in the Virgin Islands?”

The authors note that a critical distinction relates to the Virgin Islands’ high dependence on tourism—a reliance which can be especially pernicious in the wake of a major natural disaster. Thus, they wrote, because tourism tends to be particularly sensitive to the aftermath of natural disasters, “the Virgin Islands’ dependence on this industry largely explains the relatively severe economic hit,” contrasting that with Puerto Rico’s much more diversified economy, illustrating the difference by noting that Puerto Rico’s hotel/accommodation industry, which represents just over 2% of private-sector jobs in Puerto Rico, accounts for about 13% of jobs in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thus, one fiscal outcome of the storm was the hotel/tourist industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced an especially steep slump after the storm: as of last December, employment in that industry had fallen by 1,300 jobs, or 35%; employment in the broader leisure and hospitality sector—which also includes restaurants and bars but largely caters to visitors—fell by just under 30%. Nearby in Puerto Rico, in comparison, tourism and hospitality job losses accounted for only about 25% of the total job loss. 

The Fed writers also examined the contrasting capacities of the two U.S. territories to accommodate tourists, writing that the damage wrought to hotels in the Virgin Islands after the two hurricanes significantly impacted the capacity for fiscal recovery: by the middle of last May, nearly 90% of Puerto Rico’s 149 hotels had reopened. In contrast, only 60% of the Virgin Islands’ had—adding that, in the Virgin Islands, relief workers were being housed in many of the available rooms, reducing the capacity for tourists or business travelers—and noting: “Remarkably, there has been virtually no new hotel construction in the Virgin Islands for more than two decades.” With the latter, they note, adding to the fiscal challenges to the U.S. Virgin Islands, because of the related sharp decline in restaurant business—finding that local economies had contracted far more sharply in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where the surge of rescue workers, including from FEMA and army personnel, utility crews, and construction workers, helped offset the loss of tourists.

Now, they note, the key challenge for the U.S. Virgin Islands’ economy is to restart its vital tourism, noting that the critical steps “appear to be twofold: restoring its capacity to accommodate overnight guests, and encouraging visitors to come,” but, critically, also noting that, in the long-term, the Virgin Islands confront a dilemma: “Is it best to focus resources and policy on a key industry like tourism, which brings in money from outside, or should policy place more of an emphasis on diversifying into other industries, which may be less vulnerable to the periodic hurricane?”

The Tides of Immgration: Are there Fiscal Consequences?

June 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the tides of emigration as they fiscally challenge the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Today, more than one million Puerto Ricans live in New York City, just under one-third of Puerto Ricans who reside in Puerto Rico, with the likelihood of emigrating from Puerto Rico to Gotham increasing for single Puerto Ricans between the ages of 25 and 29 who have never married, do not own property, and whose income is limited, albeit not to the point of being below the federal poverty level. The majority are men, and the destinations of preference seem to be cities in Florida, New York, or Texas. In theory, about a fifth of those who left will return, judging by the rate of return reported on the immigration side to Puerto Rico. According to the most recent census data, in 2016, some 89,000 left Puerto Rico, a number which appears to indicate a rising trend, albeit, there is some evidence that the pattern might be changing—with that pattern affected by not only destination, but also by the level of academic achievement of those leaving Puerto Rico.

While we await, in December, 2017 emigration data, early indications based upon passenger counts at airports, appear to represent very high migration trends, finding, for instance, that last year, more than 281,000 Puerto Ricans left Puerto Rico than arrived there—an indication of the demographic impact of Hurricane Maria. Demographer Judith Rodríguez wrote in the 2016 Migrant Profile (published last week) that “The recent wave of migration in the last decade exceeds the Great Exodus of 1950-60, which has great impact on the social and economic level.” More recent data, however, indicates this demographic tide may finally be ebbing: during this year’s first month, January, 58,202 more arrived on the island than left, with the patter continuing the next month when there was a net positive inflow of 10, 698—a number which ebbed by March to 1,510—a change estimated to be temporary.

After New York, Florida appears to be the emigration state of choice: currently, around 30% of Puerto Rican emigrants choose a city in Florida, mainly in the central zone. At the same time, Texas is rising as a demographic state of choice. It appears more likely than not that New York City will continue to be a focal point of Puerto Rican emigration, due to cultural and family ties with Puerto Ricans since the migrations of the early twentieth century in the wake of the enactment of the Jones-Shafroth Act. According to the most recently updated Census figures, New York City is in the top three exodus destinations for emigrating Puerto Ricans.

But this is not all one-way traffic: many Puerto Ricans appear to be going home, with the largest such numbers coming from the states of Florida and New York; however, the number returning from the states of Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Washington make up more than half the total.

While it is more difficult to assess who is leaving and who is staying, Census data indicates that 48% of Puerto Ricans living in the D.C. metropolitan area have at least a bachelor’s degree, and, overall, 78% of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland have at least some level of university education, nearly three times the percentage of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Miami. Income wise, Washington, D.C. is the location, which appears to have drawn Puerto Ricans with both the greatest levels of scholastic achievement and the most income: the median household income for Puerto Ricans in the nation’s capital is $87,713. Next, after Washington DC, mainland cities with the highest median income for the Puerto Ricans are Miami ($50,945), Chicago ($47,232) and New Haven ($43,165). The disparity in annual income perhaps demonstrates the lure of emigrating from Puerto Rico, where the median income of a household is around $ 19,977, according to the Census data.

However, for Puerto Ricans leaving for the mainland, nirvana is not guaranteed: in the cities of Springfield and Boston, as well as in Hartford, there are high poverty levels are high for Puerto Ricans: in Springfield, more than one-third of the more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans live below the federal poverty level—a level comparable to the 31% below that level in the Boston metro region, and 26.5% in the Springfield metropolitan area have incomes that place them below the poverty level.  In addition, age is a discriminating factor: in Springfield, almost 50% of Puerto Ricans under the age of 18 live below the poverty line—a figure that compares unfavorably to the 46% of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico who fall below the federal poverty line of $12,060 for an individual.

The Prospects and Draws for Emigration. Demographic data with regard to those leaving Puerto Rico finds that the bulk of emigrants worked in 2016 as administrative office staff (6,822), followed by operators of production lines (5,445), vendors (4,870), and food preparers (3,264). According to the date, some 382 desperately needed doctors left—while some 1,376 nursing professionals left the island. Stateside, 82% of the 2.2 million Puerto Ricans who are working on the mainland are employed in the private sector; 4% have their own business. 14% of the jobs occupied by Puerto Ricans are in the government. In Puerto Rico, that figure rises to 22%, according to data from the Census Bureau. On the other hand, most of those who immigrated or returned to Puerto Rico were vendors (1,383) or educators (1,101).

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) The Puerto Rico Senate has killed a an agreement between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the PROMESA Oversight Board, potentially escalating the governance conflict with regard to Puerto Rico’s operating budget and the restructuring of the central government’s $51 billion of debt. Last Friday, Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz threatened a lawsuit against the Board if it continues to attempt to preempt Puerto Rico’s government in order to impose budget cuts or the repeal of worker protection measures. In a compromise with the Governor, the Board had agreed to maintain Puerto Rico’s mandatory Christmas bonus, vacation and sick day policies in exchange for Gov. Rosselló’s agreement to introduce at-will employment for all employers by repealing a 1976 law, Law 80. The House, at the end of last month, had approved the measure, before the Senate amended it to introduce at-will employment only for employees entering the workforce. Indeed, as we had previously noted, last Thursday, the Senate President had declared the Law 80 repeal to be dead, after speaking with other members of the majority New Progressive Party caucus in the Senate. Moreover, according to a video posted on the El Nuevo Día website, the Senate leader said he had consulted lawyers and was ready to fight in court, if the PROMESA Board seeks to preempt the island’s elected leaders. The power struggle came as the Puerto Rico House has added funding to a budget bill—spending which Puerto Rico House President Carlos Méndez and Treasury Committee President Antonio Soto said they expected the PROMESA Board would reject—relying on the Congressional PROMESA Act granting the Board the right to create and approve its own version of Puerto Rico’s budget—as is, for instance, the current budget. Puerto Rico’s new fiscal budget year begins this Sunday—a date by which, on normal years, like most states, but unlike the federal government, its fiscal year operating budget would normally have been adopted—but, where, last Thursday, PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, in New York City, stated that if the government opted not to repeal Law 80, the currently certified fiscal plan would operate—a plan which would mandate at-will employment to be introduced by January 1, 2019—a plan which, unsurprisingly, Senate President Rivera Schatz is set to challenge, especially after, on May 9th, Sergio Marxuach, the New Economy Policy Director, testified before the Puerto Rico Senate Committee on Federal, Political, and Economic Relations that repealing Law 80 would be a bad idea, noting that a 2016 International Monetary Fund study showed that in times of economic weakness, eliminating job protections would have had a negative economic impact in the short and medium term, noting: “By triggering a wave of layoffs, reforming employment protections further weakens aggregate demand and delays economic recovery.” Similarly, a 2017 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that in Portugal from 2006 to 2014 “reforms increasing the flexibility of the labor market negatively affect firms’ productivity both in the short- and long-run. A possible explanation is that higher job turnover reduces firms’ incentives to invest in job-specific training and reduce the scope for workers’ specialization.”

In response, Governor Rosselló released a statement: “Puerto Rico has just seen how politics is done and not how a future government should be made in challenging and difficult times, with this regrettable decision by the President of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz.”

Now Senate Finance Committee President Migdalia Padilla is scheduled to meet with the Governor’s fiscal team to discuss the changes which have been included in the joint resolutions that make up the budget for the next fiscal year; he will also  meet with Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency (Aafaf) Executive Director Raul Maldonado and the Secretary of Finance, Gerardo Portelo—with the Chairman noting: “They are going to have meetings with me so that we can all harmonize what we have observed, what the Board says, and what the Executive establishes.” Chairman Padilla added that he trusts that today will be constituted the conference committee to discuss the House amendments, especially after, at the end of last week, House approval of an FY2019 budget $33.2 million higher than the one presented by PROMESA Board—followed, the next day, by Senate approval, albeit with amendments intended to force a conference committee to settle the differences.

In addition to the perception of preemption, one of the legislature’s greatest reservations with regard to the PROMESA Board’s version of the budget their perception that that version underestimates the revenue estimate is $7,000 million, according to the President of the Finance Commission of the Chamber, Antonio Soto, who noted that the government will close the year with revenues of more than $9,172 million, but the fiscal entity estimates $8,400 million for the next fiscal year, despite the fact that it proposes a growth in the economy of 6.3%.

Senate President Padilla explained that one of the changes that will be introduced to the House version is aimed at addressing the $164,000 reduction for the Independent Special Prosecutor’s Panel Office (OPFEI), advising that he would be subtracting that $164,000 from the additional $2 million that the Chamber allocated in the budget to the Alliance for Alternative Education program. In its version, the Chamber dealt with the cuts contemplated in the PROMESA Board’s proposal for the oversight agencies, such as the Office of Government Ethics, the Office of the Comptroller and the Office of the Citizen Procurator, but left out the Special Prosecutor, noting: “I am not increasing the spending budget; I am simply moving part of an allocation of $2 million,” adding that it is inconsistent with the amendments submitted by the Chamber aimed at ensuring the functioning of the agencies under the Department of Public Safety, such as the Bureau of Emergency Management and Disaster Management, the Emergency Medical Bureau, the Bureau of the Corps of Firemen, and the Bureau of Forensic Sciences—all agencies with regard to which there is heightened concern in the wake of Puerto Rico’s devastating hurricanes and inequitable FEMA responses.  Indeed, Miguel Romero the vice president of the Senate Finance Committee, agreed on the need to assign the necessary funds to the Department of Public Security to ensure its operation: “There is a deficiency of over $40 million that we have to address.” In addition, Senator Padilla indicated the Senate would take a close look at the Board’s proposed $7 million cut to Court Administration, noting: “There is a need for appointment of judges and to maintain diversion programs with the correctional population.” Moreover, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz also indicated that the controversy centers on inconsistencies between the budget and the fiscal plan, both presented by the PROMESA Board, explaining, in the wake of discussions, that it had been “established that there is a gap between the approved budget and the fiscal plan: basically, regarding the collections we will have available to cover the budget.” With the session scheduled to end on Saturday, that date falls three days after the limit established by the PROMESA Board to approve the budget, with the Board anticipating that, if Puerto Rico does not comply with the agreement reached with the Governor to repeal the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal (Law 80-1976), it will revert the fiscal plan to the approved one.

“Who’s on First? Who’s in Charge–elected or imposed leaders?

June 22, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the physical, fiscal, and mixed governance challenges which must be overcome in Puerto Rico.

Will There Be Luz? Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law a bill to partially privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, potentially affecting the authority’s $8.9 billion in outstanding debt. The new law is intended to provide for the sale of the public utility’s power generation units and make a concession of its transmission and distribution system, according to a statement by the Governor—a concession which could involve a lease arrangement, as was done for Puerto Rico’s main airport. Under the proposed privatization, revenues realized could be utilized to address PREPA’s debt. purchasers would not assume PREPA’s debt; instead the public utility would use proceeds from any sale of a power plant to pay off a portion of the debt, or, as the Governor put it on Wednesday, the money raised could be used, at least in part, to contribute to PREPA’s underfunded public pension system. The new legislation comes in the wake of, last April, the PROMESA Oversight Board’s certification of a fiscal plan which assumed PREPA privatization—but which did not impose assumptions with regard to how the proceeds would be used. Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia, an attorney-at-law and the former 15th President of the Puerto Rico Senate—as well as a former Fulbright scholar, noted: “The bill that Governor Rosselló signed today essentially authorizes the Governor to proceed with a ‘market sound[ing]’ and identify any and all potential private sector interest in the development of a new energy system in Puerto Rico,” adding: “Notable is that the bill does not authorize any sale before the Puerto Rico Legislature prepares, within 180 days, a statement of public policy specifically mandating what the new system will look like in 30 years.” Gov. Rosselló noted that Puerto Rico’s Public-Private Partnerships Authority would oversee the potential leasing of the transmission and distribution grid—a process expected to occur over the next year and a half. From a governance perspective, the Governor, PROMESA Oversight Board, and advisory teams plan to form a working group to steer the process.

Quein Es Encargado II? Meanwhile, the seemingly unending governance question with regard to who is in charge appears to be escalating. In putting an end, yesterday, to Puerto Rico’s debate on Law 80-1976, the Law on Unjustified Dismissal, the Puerto Rico Senate not only opened the door to annul the agreement reached by the Executive and the Oversight Board around the budget, but also appeared to intensify the power struggle between Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz; Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, and the PROMESA Oversight Board. Upon learning the Puerto Rico Senate did not support the repeal of the statute—as demanded by the PROMESA Board, the Governor accused Senate President Schatz of acting to the detriment of Puerto Rico, for political reasons, even as PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, who, like the Senate President, was in Washington, D.C. yesterday, warned that keeping the labor statute in force would imply reversing the certified tax plan, which includes cuts in vacation leave, days of sickness, and the Christmas bonus, stating: “There is a certified plan. If not (repeal it), we revert to the fiscal plan,” in the wake of his participation at forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.

Chair Carrión warned that reversion to the certified fiscal plan would mean at least $300 million in additional budget cuts over the next five years. He noted that the proposed structural reforms seek to “generate economic growth: We have limited powers (to make decisions that boost economic growth), but one of them is the labor area.”

The Board is scheduled to meet a week from today to discuss the upcoming fiscal year budget—scheduled to take effect at the end of next week.

In criticizing the actions of Senate President Rivera Schatz, Gov. Rosselló Nevares said that the upper House leader had opted to “hinder” his administration, and held him responsible for the millions of dollars in cuts that may wreak fiscal harm to the island’s municipios, as well as other governmental entities, noting, in a written statement: “Puerto Rico has just seen how politics is made and not how a future government should be made in times of challenges and difficulties, with this regrettable decision by the President of the Senate. We will follow the path of change and transformation that we have forged; however, this was the time to unite and together to get out of the shameful past we inherited. He chose to hinder, chose to follow the tricks of the past that have put us in this situation: the risk of the loss of billions of dollars for Puerto Rico as a result of restructuring the debt falls on this action. Likewise, the loss of millions of dollars in appropriations for the municipal governments that we had achieved also falls on the President of the Senate. Sen. Rivera Schatz added that he anticipated he would appear before a judicial forum to challenge the powers of the unelected PROMESA Oversight Board to alter Puerto Rico’s budget, noting: “The Senate ends the matter of Law 80. It is not going to repeal Law 80. If it were up to us to go to court to litigate against the Board, I advance that I already talked with lawyers to do so.” (The repeal of Law 80 was a specific condition presented by the Board in exchange for disbursing additional financial aid to municipios, the University of Puerto Rico, and guaranteeing holiday leave and sick days for private sector employees.)

At the same time, during the meeting of the majority caucus of the New Progressive Party, a proposal by Sen. Miguel Romero to ascribe to the Law against discrimination in employment (Law 100-1959) by adding some amendments to Law 80 was defeated  15 -5, with the prevailing majority choosing to defer consideration of the issue during the current session—which ends Monday. Sen. Romero proposed creating a system of fixed payments for dismissals that violate only the Anti-Discrimination Law 100, but insisted on repealing Law 80, which deals with another area of ​​labor law by providing remedies for severance without just cause.

Not unlike in the U.S. Congress, the Puerto Rico House and Senate do not always see ojo to ojo (eye to eye). The House intends to address Puerto Rico’s relationship with the Oversight Board differently, with House President Carlos “Johnny” Méndez stating, yesterday, that he has to study what is the probability of prevailing in a lawsuit with the Oversight Board defense of budget items, adding that he considers the controversy over Law 80 to be over. In response to a question whether the House would join a lawsuit initiated by the Senate to combat the cuts applied by the Board, Senate President Méndez replied: “We have to sit down to see what the arguments are and make a decision: the Promise law has supremacy over everything. It does not even allow us to sue the Oversight Board. We have to see what the arguments are, the legal basis for making a decision. It is not going to be a futile exercise. If we have more than a 50% chance of prevailing, of course we will be there.” He added that, if he opts for litigation, he would challenge the authority and ability of the unelected Oversight Board to establish public policy.

What about Manana? Even as the question of governance proceeded, two PROMESA Board members yesterday concurred with a panel of other experts that an overhaul Puerto Rico’s local labor laws is a key for the territory’s future growth. At a session in Washington, D.C. at the Heritage Foundation, PROMESA Chair Jose Carrion joined Anne Krueger, economics Professor at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, and fellow Board Member Andrew Biggs—with their discussion coming on some of the same issues. With Puerto Rico’s elected leaders considering instituting the same at-will employment statutes used in many states, as well as adding more restrictive rules for receiving food stamps and instituting an earned income tax credit to encourage work, the panelists described Puerto Rico’s labor laws as more restrictive than any state—a factor, perhaps, that could help explain the exodus from Puerto Rico of so many better economic opportunities on the mainland. The panelists noted the challenge will be to convince the people of Puerto Rico that a more competitive labor market will produce more jobs, with PROMESA Board member Andrew Biggs, noting that economists predict there would be an additional one percentage point of annual economic growth if the reforms were adopted. PROMESA Board Chair Jose Carrión noted he, as an employer in Puerto Rico, is only too well aware of how “onerous” the labor laws are, adding: “[I]t does not make Puerto Rico competitive with places to where we are losing our population such as Florida.” Employers in Puerto Rico, for instance, are required to give workers 24 hours off after they work 8 hours, said Professor Anne Krueger of Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, noting that the labor force participation rate is only 38% on Puerto Rico compared to 63% on the mainland, she said. In the end, the PROMESA Board appeared to reach an agreement with the Governor on proposed labor law changes. Now, warns Chair Carrión, if the legislature does not agree, the PROMESA Board will govern in place of Puerto Rico’s elected leaders.