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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Who Is in Fiscal Command?

June 29, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenge of governance in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico: is it a federal judge, a duly elected Governor and legislature, or a board imposed by Congress and the Administration?

Who Is In Fiscal Charge? With the new fiscal year beginning Sunday, the Puerto Rico Legislature is set to approve a budget less than that which was presented to the PROMESA Board. The initial version, approved by the House of Representatives of $8.782 billion provided for an increase of $33.2 million over the amount approved by the PROMESA Board. The Legislative Assembly is, today, expected to approve an FY2019 budget of $8.7 billion. Senator Migdalia Padilla Alvelo of Maraquitas, a small town founded in 1803, who has served in the Senate for nearly two decades, and is the current Finance Commission Chair, yesterday announced that, as part of the legislative discussion, they have managed to identify several items which will adjust the budget without touching the allocations included by the House of Representatives to meet the reductions imposed by the PROMESA Board to the umbrella of the Department of Public Security and tax agencies, such as the Office of Government Ethics and the Office of the Comptroller. Those modifications cleared the path to revert some $50 million for the operation of the Government Central Accounting System (Prifas). Concurrently, the budget was modified to adjust reserves down from $75 to $35 million, with the Senator explaining: “was reduced from $ 75 million to $ 35 million: We reduced the $8,749 billion which the Board had set for expenses to $8.709 billion: “we are below what the PROMESA Board originally set.” House Finance Committee Chair Antonio Soto also confirmed there would be approval of the budget today, explaining that the negotiations with the Senate team had been aimed at reducing the budget to the level proposed by the Board without touching the expense items that had been added, noting: “We understand that we are going to be able to maintain it…in the same level that they established, but including the expense items that are necessary.”

Meanwhile, in a press release, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz reported that a Conference Committee had been formed to address the amendments introduced on his side, adding: “We had planned to approve the budget today. In the House, the discussion of the measure has been delayed a little, but the House President Carlos Méndez Núñez yesterday told me that that body will approve it today.”

With the action, the PROMESA Oversight Board cancelled its scheduled public meeting set for today—where it had intended to act on the Puerto Rico budget, to await today’s actions by the legislature, and then act tomorrow to approve the U.S. territory’s budget, as well as those of several authorities, with the Board noting the delay would provide more time to “complete required technical and macroeconomic changes to the Commonwealth Fiscal Plan with updated information.” The board still expects to approve a budget by the end of the fiscal year—with the PROMESA Board apparently primed to preempt Puerto Rico’s authority and impose its own fiscal dictates, including a repeal of Law 80 and the establishment of at-will employment, per its preemption demand to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló last month—a demand the Puerto Rico Senate declined to act upon.

The Board preemption yesterday came in the wake of, earlier this week, of its issuance of notices of violation with regard to government-proposed budgets for the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority and University of Puerto Rico—with, in each instance, the unelected Board notifying the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority that the Board required “substantial revisions and additional information” before it could approve the budgets. Some believe the PROMESA Board’s actions could signal a likely rejection of Puerto Rico’s budget tomorrow. PROMESA Board Director Natalie Jaresko said that if Puerto Rico’s elected leaders did not repeal Law 80, the Board would eliminate several accommodations it made to the Governor, including the retention of Christmas bonuses for government employees and a multiyear $345 million economic development and reform implementation initiatives fund.

It appears that, irrespective of the final actions taken by the Legislature, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares recognizes the authority under the PROMESA statute granted to the Board. Thus, with the clear expectation that Law 80 (the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal) will be repealed,  the Governor appears to seeking to ensure he will play a key role in the process of restructuring the debt in federal court, and that he will be a player in constructing the quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment which is anticipated to be settled by next week.

Another key issue pending relates to Chamber 1662, on Puerto Rico public pensions, which the Gov. yesterday endorsed—likely to arm himself to oppose the Oversight Board’s proposed average 10% cut in Puerto Rico pension benefits—cuts the Board wishes to trigger in the new fiscal year.

In response to a press question yesterday with regard to whether the Governor would go to court if, as expected, the PROMESA Board preempts Puerto Rico’s law and eliminates the Christmas bonus and current provisions for sick leave and vacations of public employees, the Governor was clear he would, noting:Yes, I’ve always said it. The unfortunate thing is that we will be spending $20 to $25 million a month in litigation processes that we are not sure of how we are going to finish. Second,  the process of restructuring the debt is not started and, instead of having a visibility to finish this in a year and a half, two years, we are talking about years. Possibly eight years, a decade in which this can be resolved, because the Oversight Board is the only entity authorized to submit a plan of debt adjustment. We have been working with them, with certain differences on that adjustment plan. But this is very clear, if you have an agreement, the only difference is pensions where we can sit or go to court for a single component…The content of this adjustment plan will depend not only on the restructuring of the debt, but also on whether the island will continue to be protected against appropriations of its government funds.”

Hurricane Recovery. On the critical issue of recovery from Hurricane Maria, where Puerto Rico received thrown paper towels compared to Houston, estimates are that recovery costs could be as high as $94 billion—Puerto Rico has, to date, received about $6 billion. Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló appears optimistic, noting the island is in its recovery phase: “I think we’re on the way. Certainly FEMA’s disbursement has been slow, but now a new phase is entering that is important for people to know, which is includes HUD housing and CDBG funds—funds from which Puerto Rico has already begun drawing down: he added: “We hope that by the beginning of January or the end of December we can already have access to the bank of the $18.5 billion.”  

What Are the Fiscal Conditions & Promises of Recovery?

March 30, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the potential impact of urban school leadership; then we try to assess the equity of federal responses to hurricanes, before trying to understand and assess the status of the ongoing quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy PROMESA deliberations in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Schooled in Municipal Finance? As we wrote, years ago, in our studies on Central Falls, Detroit, San Bernardino, and Chicago; schools matter: they determine whether families with kids will want to live in a central city—raising the issue, who ought to be setting the policies for such schools. In its report, five years ago, the Center for American Progress report cited several school districts like Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore—but not Detroit, were examples of municipalities where mayoral governance of public schools has had some measure of success in improving the achievement gap for students, or, as the Center noted: “Governance constitutes a structural barrier to academic and management improvement in too many large urban districts, where turf battles and political squabbles involving school leaders and an array of stakeholders have for too long taken energy and focus away from the core mission of education.” In the case of Detroit, of course, the issue was further addled by the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history and the state takeover of the Motor City’s schools.

Thus, interestingly, the report stated “mayoral accountability aims to address the governing challenges in urban districts by making a single office responsible for the performance of the city’s public schools. Citywide priorities such as reducing the achievement gap receive more focused attention.” In fact, many cities and counties have independent school boards—and there was certainly little shining evidence that the state takeover in Detroit was a paradigm; rather it appeared to lead to the creation of a quasi apartheid system under which charter schools competed with public schools to the detriment of the latter.

In its report, the Center finds: “[T]he only problem is this belief about mayoral control of schools has not worked well for Detroit. It has done just the opposite since the 1999 state takeover of the schools under former Gov. John Engler, which allowed for the mayor of Detroit to make some appointments to the school board. Since the state took over governance of the schools, when it was in a surplus, the district has been on a downward spiral with each year returning ballooning deficits under rotating state-appointed emergency managers. The district lost thousands of students to suburban schools as corruption and graft also became a hallmark of a system that took away resources that were meant to educate the city’s kids. Such history is what informs the resistance to outside involvement with the new Detroit Public Schools Community District that is now under an elected board with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. His leadership is being received as a breath of fresh air as he implements needed reforms. That is what is now fueling skepticism and reservation about Mayor Mike Duggan’s bus loop initiative to help stem the tide of some 30,000 Detroit students he says attend schools in the suburbs.” Because of the critical importance to Detroit of income taxes, Mayor Duggan has always had a high priority of sending a message to families about the quality of the Motor City’s schools.  Superintendent Vitti noted that previous policies had “favored charter schools over traditional public schools.” Superintendent Vitti said he believes this issue is less about mayoral control than the Mayor Duggan’s leadership efforts to entice families with children back to the city, adding that he is not really concerned about mayoral control of the schools, noting: “I have no evidence or belief that the mayor is interested in running schools…I honestly believe the Mayor’s intent is to recruit students back to the city.”

Double Standards? The Capitol Hill newspaper, Politico, this week published an in-depth analysis of the seeming discriminatory responses to the federal responses to the savage hurricanes which struck Houston and Puerto Rico., reporting that while no two hurricanes are exactly alike, here, nine days after the respective hurricanes struck, “FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Hurricane Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Hurricane Maria victims,” adding that the difference in response personnel mirrored the discriminatory responses, reporting there were 30,000 responders in Houston versus 10,000 in Puerto Rico, adding: “No two hurricanes are alike, and Harvey and Maria were vastly different storms that struck areas with vastly different financial, geographic and political situations. But a comparison of government statistics relating to the two recovery efforts strongly supports the views of disaster-recovery experts that FEMA and the Trump administration exerted a faster, and initially greater, effort in Texas, even though the damage in Puerto Rico exceeded that in Houston: Within six days of Hurricane Harvey, U.S. Northern Command had deployed 73 helicopters over Houston, which are critical for saving victims and delivering emergency supplies. It took at least three weeks after Maria before it had more than 70 helicopters flying above Puerto Rico; nine days after the respective hurricanes, FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Maria victims. The periodical reported that it took just 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas, but 43 days for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.  Politico, in an ominous portion of its reporting, notes: “[P]residential leadership plays a larger role. But as the administration moves to rebuild Texas and Puerto Rico, the contrast in the Trump administration’s responses to Harvey and Maria is taking on new dimensions. The federal government has already begun funding projects to help make permanent repairs to Texas infrastructure. But, in Puerto Rico, that funding has yet to start, as local officials continue to negotiate the details of an experimental funding system that the island agreed to adopt after a long, contentious discussion with Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. The report also notes: “Seventy-eight days after the two hurricanes, FEMA had received 18 percent more applications from victims of Maria than from victims of Harvey, but had approved 13 percent more applicants from Harvey than from Maria. At the time, 39 percent of applicants from Harvey had been approved compared with just 28 percent of applicants from Maria.”

Finally, the report notes that, as of last week,  six months after Hurricane Harvey, Texas was already receiving federal dollars from FEMA for more than a dozen permanent projects to repair schools, roads, and other public infrastructure which were damaged by the storm, while in Puerto Rico, FEMA has, so far, “not funded a single dollar for similar permanent work projects.”

Elected versus Unelected Governance. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló yesterday reported he was rejecting the PROMESA Oversight Board’s “illegal” demands for labor law reforms and a 10% cut in pension outlays, stating: “The Board pretends to dictate the public policy of the government, and that, aside from being illegal, is unacceptable.” Gov. Rosselló was responding to demand letters from the Board for changes to the fiscal plans he had submitted, along with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority earlier this month. Gov. Rosselló noted that §205 of the PROMESA statute allows the Board to make public policy recommendations, but not to set policy, adding that the PROMESA Board’s proposed mandates would make it “practically impossible” to increase Puerto Rico’s minimum wage, as he contemplated the Board’s demand of a $1.58 billion cut in government expenditures, nearly 10% more than he had proposed, and adding he would be “tenaz” (tenacious) in opposing the proposed 10% cut in public pension outlays demanded by the PROMESA Board—with the political friction reflecting governing apprehension about the potential impact on employment at a time when Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is more than 300% higher than on the mainland—and, because of perceptions that such decisions ought to be reflective of the will of the island’s voters and taxpayers, rather than an outside board.

Who’s on First? The governance challenge in Puerto Rico involves federalism: yesterday, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah), criticized the Puerto Rico Oversight Board and the Governor over their failure to engage with bondholders in restructuring the Commonwealth’s debt, writing to PROMESA Board Chairman José Carrión: “The Committee has been unsatisfied with the implementation of PROMESA and the lack of respect for Congressional requirements of the fiscal plan…And now, due to intentional misinterpretations of the statute, the promise we made to Puerto Rico may take decades to fulfill,” adding he had become “frustrated” with the Board’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue and reach consensual restructuring agreements with creditors: he noted that both the Rosselló administration and the PROMESA Board must show “much greater degrees of transparency, accountability, goodwill and cooperation,”  amid seemingly growing apprehensions on his part that Puerto Rico government costs will increase, even as its population is projected to decline, and that he was becoming increasingly concerned with the “extreme amount” being spent on Title III bankruptcy litigation. He said that Board should make sure it is the sole legal representative of Puerto Rico in these cases—and asked that the PROMESA Board define what constitutes “essential public services” in Puerto Rico: “I ask that you adhere to the mandates of PROMESA and work closely with creditors and the Puerto Rican government as you finalize and certify the fiscal plans…“My committee will be monitoring your actions closely; and as we near the two-year anniversary of the passage of PROMESA, an oversight hearing on the status of achieving PROMESA’s goals will likely be merited.”

For its part, the PROMESA Oversight Board has rejected fiscal plans presented by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the island’s two public authorities and has demanded the territory reduce public pensions by 10% , writing, this week, three letters outlining its demands for changes in fiscal plans submitted this month by the central government, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority. Under the PROMESA statute, the federal court overseeing the quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is mandated to accept the fiscal plans, including their allotments for debt—plans which the PROMESA Board has demanded, as revised, be submitted by 5 p.m. next Thursday. The Board is directed there should be no benefit reductions for those making less than $1,000 per month from a combination of their Social Security benefits and retirement plans and that employees should be shifted from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan by July 1st of next year; it directed that police, teachers, and judges under age 40 should be enrolled in Social Security and their pension contributions be lowered by the amount of their Social Security contribution, directing this for the PREPA, PRASA, Teachers, Employees, and Judiciary retirement systems. In its letter concerning the central government, the PROMESA Board directed Gov. Rosselló to make many changes: some require more information; some are “structural” changes focused on reforming laws to make the economy more vibrant; at least one adds revenues without requiring a greater burden; and many of them require greater tax burdens, or assume lower tax revenues or higher expenditures—noting that any final plan, to be approved, should aim at achieving a total $5.66 billion in agency efficiency savings through FY2023, but that Puerto Rico’s oil taxes should be kept constant rather than adjusted each year.

The Board directed that a single Office of the CFO should be created to oversee the Department of the Treasury, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Administration and Transformation of Human Resources, General Services Administration, and Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority—adding that Puerto Rico will be mandated to convert to legally at-will employment by the end of this year, reduce mandatory vacation and sick leave to a total of 14 days immediately, and add a work requirement for the Nutritional Assistance Program by no later than Jan. 1st, 2021—and that any increase in the minimum wage to $8.25 must be linked to conditions—and, for Puerto Ricans 25 or younger, such an increase would only be permitted if and when Puerto Rico eliminated the current mandatory Christmas bonus for employers.

Stop & Start Federal Governance, and Abandoning Puerto Rico

eBlog

February 9, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the outcome of last night’s deliberations to avoid another federal government shutdown and the nexus between New Jersey’s public pension system and Puerto Rico’s growing foreclosure crisis, and we consider the growing frustration of the Executive Director of the PROMESA Oversight Board with regard to the absence of any real commitment by the Congress.

Dysfunctional Governing & Creating Record Federal Debt. In the wake of still another shutdown of the federal government last night, he U.S. House of Representatives, earlier this morning, voted to approve Senate-passed legislation (71-28), including a sweeping budget deal to increase the national debt, increase federal deficits, and fund the federal government through March 23rd, voting 240-186 to forward the bill to President Trump for his signature. The new, temporary patch for the federal budget will come at a signal cost: it will boost federal spending for both defense and non defense programs by $325 billion over the next two years; it will suspend the debt ceiling for one year; it will give the White House, House, and Senate until March 23rd to write an omnibus spending bill for the remainder of the federal fiscal year and break the pattern of gridlock that has led to five temporary funding patches since last September. As passed, the legislation includes a number of other priorities for both parties, including nearly $90 billion for disaster relief, $6 billion to address the opioid crisis, a four-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and more than $7 billion for community health centers. As passed, the agreement includes a massive defense spending increase, and a smaller domestic discretionary increase. The legislation to reopen the federal government—temporarily—is estimated to add as much as $2 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. As passed, the legislation includes $15 billion in tax extenders, restoring nearly three dozen federal tax expenditures which expired at the end of last year, subsidizing owners of racehorses, NASCAR tracks, filmmakers, and railroads—that is, a Congress with the greatest debt and deficits of any in U.S. history already running a $1 trillion-plus annual deficit voted to subsidize businesses and individuals for activities they took in 2017.

Fiscal Imbalances. Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko stated the Board is making progress towards its goal of restoring the U.S. territory’s fiscal balance and renegotiating its public debt; the just adopted spending agreement this morning by Congress could help: it would allow full Medicaid access to Puerto Rico, laying a foundation to revive the territory’s health system for two years, and lay the foundations for rebuilding its power grid: the provisions, announced by the U.S. Senate leadership, could represent about $ 15 billion in direct allocations, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); the package which went to the White House this morning Florida), include $ 4.8 billion in Medicaid funds for the island, as an allocation that would represent full access to the program, based on the emergency caused by Hurricane Maria. The bill includes $2 billion for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to rebuild its infrastructure, a critical provision for the island, where, 141 days after Hurricane Maria, 28% of the territory’s citizens remain without power.

In an interview with El Nuevo Día, Director Jaresko stated there had been “measurable” fiscal progress, albeit “small, but important,” as she answered each of the questions regarding performance reported this week by this newspaper, assuring that there are “measurable progresses” that, although “small, are important.” She added, however, that the process of transformation driven by the oversight Board has not moved at the pace she would like; moreover, she said, the role of the Congressionally created entity is not understood either in Puerto Rico or by the Congress or White House; nevertheless, she added, the Board expects to resume the correct course that Puerto Rico needs: “Those who expected the Board to come to govern are disappointed. Those who expected the Board to be in favor of the creditors are not happy; and those who expected the Board to be against the creditors: the reality between what  the enabling law dictates, the powers of the Board and the relationship with the government is, by far, more complex than expectations.” She added: “I wish there was more support from Congress for Puerto Rico: More clarity is needed. The second round of the supplementary aid package to address the disaster is still pending; CHIP and Medicaid funds are still pending. We need more confidence and clarity,” noting fiscal quandary for the Board to be forced to make fiscal decisions without knowing clearly what federal resources Puerto Rico can realistically anticipate.

Her comments came as, this week, the Board advised Ricardo Rosselló that Puerto Rico’s fiscal plans do not comply with PROMESA, giving the government seven days to correct them. Among the requested or demanded changes: an update on the information with regard to the federal funds that Puerto Rico would receive for its recovery. She also made clear she was “disappointed,” because, in the newly enacted federal tax reform, the law does not include provisions to exempt U.S. multinational businesses operating in Puerto Rico from the new taxes on U.S.; nor did the law grant a transition period to counterbalance the impact of that decision on the local economy. She noted the PROMESA Board expects concrete actions by Congress, noting that, last month, the Board had invoked §103 of the PROMESA Law, requesting the transfer of federal employees to address the situation in Puerto Rico, with the request made to the departments of Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, Health, Housing, the U.S. Treasury, the General Services Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Her comments came as the Board’s 18-month anniversary of service nears next month—marking their halfway point. Next month, the members of the Board will have served 18 months in office, that is, half of their term since they accepted the task of restoring the fiscal balance and access of Puerto Rico to the capital markets—a period during which the only voluntary agreement with bondholders of Puerto Rico municipal debt (in the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority [PREPA]) was rejected, while the liquidation of the Government Development Bank (GDB) was approved. During her tenure, PREPA has exhausted its funding: it could cease operating as early as this month; bondholders this week have returned to Court for the Title III cases, determined to litigate their debts. Thus, to Director Jaresko, the progress of the Board must be measured in light of its dual federal partially funded mandate: fiscal balance and access to the capital market: a charge which she noted, to achieve, would require time and a series of reforms which the Board has just put on the table, in no small part by, this week, sending the Governor the first notices of violations to the PROMESA Law in the fiscal plans—and giving Puerto Rico until Monday, President Lincoln’s birthday, to respond.

Asked whether seven days were enough for the government to make all the changes that the Board has requested, Director Jaresko responded that “Most of the information being requested must be supporting information for the estimates in the plan. I understand the information is available, because, if they are talking about the savings they will achieve, the details of that policy have to be there,” adding that it is the Board’s intent to certify the fiscal plans on February 23rd. She added that the creation of the office of the government’s Chief Financial Officer will allow staff to engage in financial disclosure tasks without being at the mercy of a change of government. Finally, she noted that with the new fiscal plan, Gov. Rosselló had demonstrated a greater commitment towards the structural reforms needed—with those comments coming just as Gov. Rosselló reported that the negotiations to review the fiscal plans are still in place and that he will comply with the submission date imposed by the PROMESA Board.

Nevertheless, while the Director appears upbeat, that confidence is not felt in New Jersey, where members of the state investment council have made clear they would not be comfortable if the pension fund profited from the hardships of Puerto Ricans, warning that in the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is bracing for a mortgage crisis, with many residents now way behind on their payments. Thus, policymakers for New Jersey’s public-employee pension system are trying to make sure investments that were launched here years ago do not aggravate that fiscal and fiscal crisis: members of the New Jersey State Investment Council were recently notified that two private equity funds which the pension system owns have significant stakes in corporations which are pursuing foreclosures on Puerto Rico: the private equity funds are part of the $77.5 billion pension system’s substantial alternative-investment portfolio—and, private equity was a top performer for the system during the 2017 calendar year, according to the latest returns reviewed during the investment council’s public meeting this week: in all, the pension system enjoyed returns totaling nearly 15 percent last year, which more than doubled the 7 percent assumed rate of return. Currently, the federal government has placed a moratorium on most foreclosure proceedings in the wake of the hurricane; however, the moratorium is due to expire next month, creating uncertainty about what that might mean; however, the council members made it clear during a public meeting that they are not comfortable seeing the pension fund profit from the hardships being faced in Puerto Rico, with Chair Tom Byrne noting: “I don’t think any of us are looking to make three extra basis points on this fund by throwing people out of their homes in Puerto Rico.” said Tom Byrne, the panel’s chairman. The issue involves pension system’s ties to the companies pursuing foreclosures in Puerto Rico, ties related to a diversification strategy that the investment council launched more than a decade ago as it sought to protect against major losses that can occur during a market crash. The diversification strategy relies in part on alternative investments, such as hedge funds, venture capital, and private equity—investments which, however, wrest control from state pension decisions compared to some of the more conventional investments that are managed in-house by the Division of Investment, an agency within the New Jersey Department of Treasury. For example, three years ago, the Council was pressed to eliminate a stake in another private-equity firm, JLL Partners, in the wake of information the firm had ties to a Texas-based payday lending firm that was fined after being accused of heavy-handed lending practices—especially as the practice of payday lending is prohibited in New Jersey. Now, with an estimated 90,000 borrowers in Puerto Rico behind on their mortgages as a result of Hurricane Maria, memories of the Hurricane Sandy impact on New Jersey has resurrected memories of the many state citizens who were forced to pay rent for temporary housing and also cover the mortgages on their damaged homes. Jim Baker, from the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, told the council this week that some of the foreclosures were not just conventional mortgages, but also reverse mortgages that have been set up with senior citizens who are required to make property tax and homeowners insurance payments in order to receive payouts, as he urged the panel to get involved in the issue, saying the federal moratorium on foreclosures is “fast approaching” and it’s still not clear what is going to happen once it passes. Mr. Baker said he would like to see the moratorium extended for another year, which is something four U.S. senators, including New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, have asked the federal government to do.

Is the Federal Government Using a Double Standard in Responding to Puerto Rico, adding to its Fiscal and Physical Distress?

eBlog

January 19, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing federal and fiscal challenges to fiscal recovery for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Denial of Assistance. As if there has not been enough evidence of a double standard with regard to the provision of federal aid to the hurricane devastation to Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Treasury have written to the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority Executive Director Gerardo Portela that, because the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s  central cash balance, as publicly reported, has consistently exceeded $1.5 billion in the months following the hurricanes, and “considering the implications of the $6.875 billion of total cash deposits across the Commonwealth, the federal government will institute, as a matter of policy, a cash balance policy that will determine the timing of Community Disaster Loans (CDLs) to the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority.” Translated into English, that means Puerto Rico may have too much cash to be eligible for a federal loan—notwithstanding the discriminatory treatment compared to Houston or Florida, much less that still, nearly four months after the devastating storm—a storm to respond to which President Trump offered paper towels—some four months after the storm, many residents are still without electricity. Nevertheless, according to FEMA, the island is at risk of not receiving federal community disaster loans, because its cash balances may be too high.

For its part, the government of Puerto Rico has opted to pay up its arrears accounts with both the Electric Power Authority and the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority—as well as focus its efforts on legislation to address FEMA’s concerns—in a critical effort to free up federal assistance—assistance already approved by Congress. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency Wednesday admitted that if FEMA opts not to grant the disaster loan to the U.S. territory, very hard decisions will confront the citizens of Puerto Rico and their leaders—or, as Sen. Anibal Jose Torres put it: the challenge will be to “ensure basic services to the population, the payment of pensions, and the payroll of public employees,” concerns which appear not to be apprehensions of the Trump Administration, even as Gerardo Portela Franco, the Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency & Financial Advisory Authority, noted: “We will continue negotiating with the Treasury until we achieve that CDL,” adding: “We have faithfully complied with all the requirements,” referring to the negotiations his agency has had with the U.S. Treasury since last October. The contretemps emerged after El Nuevo Día Wednesday  revealed that FEMA and the U.S. Treasury had halted the disbursement of funds to Puerto Rico under the CDL program until adopting “a cash balance policy” which will determine when and how much funding FEMA will provide to Puerto Rico to address its operational expenses in trying to recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria, theoretically in “consultation” with the Fiscal Oversight Board created by Congress, even as the two stateside federal agencies made clear Puerto Rico will have to “cover its cash needs and those of the PREPA and the AAA.

Unsurprisingly, Héctor Figueroa, the President of the SEIU noted that it was “inconceivable that FEMA and the Treasury retain the aid funds approved three months ago for Puerto Rico following the scourge of Hurricane Maria…Puerto Rican working families continue to be considered second class citizens by the administration of (Donald) Trump and by Congress.”

The situation is further complicated, despite some four months of negotiations, by the fact that FEMA and the U.S. Treasury have yet to specify the specific conditions to be mandated—now, nearly four months after Congress approved a package of aid for Puerto Rico, as well as for the states of Florida, Texas, California, and the U.S. Virgin Islands: in that aid package which Congress approved, however, it appears there was a stipulation that, before the federal government could be obliged to provide aid, Puerto Rico, as collateral, had to pledge the unencumbered revenues from the Sale and Use Tax (IVU) or those paid by foreign corporations under Law 154—albeit it remains unclear whether the specific terms with regard to collateral are still being negotiated. What is clear, however, is a double standard, as the epistle from FEMA does not seem to reflect the human or fiscal urgency of the situation, especially in the wake of the fiscal warnings at the end of last September that “As a result of hurricanes Irma and María, the government, PREPA and AAA projected at the end of September 2017 that it would deplete its operational funds on or near October 31, 2017.” In their letter, however, FEMA and the Treasury opined that, as of December 29, 2017, the central government’s cash balance was approximately $1,700 million—an amount which, according to Portela Franco, does not detract from the fact that Puerto Rico is in a state of “insolvency.”

The head of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, the public corporation and governmental instrumentality in Puerto Rico which has assumed the majority of the fiscal agency and financial advisory responsibilities previously held by the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican entity in charge of collaboration, communication, and cooperation between the Government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Oversight Board, noted that the figure cited in the letter includes the reserves required by La Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera (JSF) to finance the process of renegotiation of the debt in court, as well as the payment of pensions and public payroll, two priority items for Governor Rosselló Nevares.

Indeed, a review of Puerto Rico’s most recent liquidity report seems to validate Mr. Portela Franco’s views, noting, for instance, in his January 5th report, that the Department of Hacienda projections include the collections which are regularly sent to Cofina—reports still awaiting the attention of U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain—a figure in the range of  $316 million. In addition, the report reveals that, so far this fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s central government has withheld $ 437 million from the Automobile Accident Administration (ACAA) and the Highway and Transportation Authority (ACT), among others—even as government suppliers are owed about $ 331 million and government agencies hold $ 276 million in debt to each other, including water and electricity bills. Thus, as Portela Franco and Andrés Méndez, in charge of liquidity matters in the Aafaf, noted: the government seems to undress a saint to dress others such as the AEE and the AAA: “As we have to inject liquidity to the AAA and the AEE, that balance of the Treasury’s TSA account will fall precipitously,” adding that, without the FEMA loan, it would be necessary to continue adopting what he termed “difficult decisions,” such as stretching payments to suppliers.

Unsurprisingly, Governor Rosselló Nevares, described the epistle from Washington, D.C. as one in which the “government of Puerto Rico and the Treasury have reached an agreement. The agreement is that when the collections go down in Puerto Rico, the loans begin to arrive. What does this mean? That at the moment, we still have resources that are going to be running out,but that they will want to transfer those loans once it happens to that.” The Governor also rejected that the Oversight Board has an additional responsibility in the process of granting the CDL, because PROMESA had already established that the federal entity will have authority to interfere in any loan that Puerto Rico receives. (The epistle from FEMA and the U.S. Treasury notes that the cash policy for the loan from Puerto Rico will be adopted “in consultation with the government and the JSF.”

As of the end of last month, Puerto Rico had $1.7 billion of available cash, notwithstanding earlier predictions by local officials that the government would run out of money in late October because of the economic toll of responding to the hurricanes: by the end of November, it still had funds in other accounts, albeit some of it was earmarked for specific uses and could not be used to keep Puerto Rico’s government operating.

In FEMA’s epistle to Gerardo Portela, the Executive Director of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, FEMA noted: “Under this cash balance policy, funds will be provided through the CDL program when the commonwealth’s central cash balance decreases to a certain level.” Executive Director Portela, earlier this week, noted that, because of the delay in federal loans, Puerto Rico’s central government will begin procedures to allow it to lend money to the island’s public electricity and water utilities, even as he urged the federal government to distribute the loans, stating: “AAFAF has complied with all the demands of federal agencies; however, despite our continuous efforts, to date, the Treasury Department and FEMA have not provided the final terms and conditions under which they will disburse the funds granted by the Congress.” With damage from Hurricane Maria estimated to total as much as $100 billion, Governor Ricardo Rossello earlier this month warned that Puerto Rico’s electric utility may be unable to continue recovery work in February due to lack of funds—even though, more than 100 days after the storm slamming into an island which had already filed a record-setting quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in May devastated Puerto Rico’s economy and destroyed its electrical grid: still today, about 45 percent of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority customers are still without power.

The Epistle:

Mr. Gerardo J. Portela Franco

Executive Director and Chairman of the Board

Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority

Government of Puerto Rico

Robe1io Sanchez Vilella Government Center

De Diego Avenue, Stop 22

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 00907

Dear Mr. Portela Franco:

This letter summarizes the Federal Government’s policy for providing Community Disaster Loan (CDL) Program assistance to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, its instrumentalities, and municipalities as a result of Hurricanes Irma (DR-4336-PR) and Maria (DR-4339-PR). The purpose of the CDL Program is to provide loans to eligible recipients that have suffered a substantial loss of tax and other revenues as a result of a major disaster and that demonstrate a need for Federal financial assistance to perform essential governmental functions. The Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Requirements Act of 2017, signed into law by the President on October 26, 2017, included $4.9 billion for CD Ls to assist the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and local governments in Florida and Texas in maintaining essential services as a result of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Implementing the CDL Program in the Commonwealth must be undertaken in a manner that is compatible with the ongoing financial restructuring of the Commonwealth’s financial obligations, including pursuant to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). For example, pursuant to PROMESA the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) must approve any new debt incun-ed by the Conunonwealth or by any of its instrumentalities that the FOMB has designated as covered territorial instrumentalities under PRO MESA, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREP A) and the Pue1io Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA). Title III of PRO MESA also established a bankruptcy-like restructuring process for Puerto Rico and its covered territorial instrumentalities. As you are aware, the Commonwealth and PREPA have filed for Title III restructuring; PRASA has not.

As a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Commonwealth, PREP A, and PRASA projected in late

September 2017 that they would exhaust their operating funds on or about October 31, 2017. However, as of December 29, 2017, the Commonwealth’s central cash balance was approximately $1.7 billion. It is our understanding that the higher-than-expected central cash balance three months after the hurricanes resulted from greater-than-expected receipts, strategic management of payables, and the structure of relief funds from FEMA and other federal agencies, among other factors, although a review of the underlying detail is still underway. In addition to its central cash balance, on December 18, 2017, the Commonwealth released a report indicating that $6.875 billion in unrestricted and restricted cash was on deposit in over 800 accounts across all Commonwealth governmental entities. Despite these Commonwealth cash balances, the Commonwealth now indicates that PREPA and PRASA have an imminent need for liquidity in January 2018, and, as a result, each entity has applied for a CDL to cover operating expenditures.

Because the Commonwealth’s central cash balance, 1\S publicly reported, has consistently exceeded $1.5 billion in the months following the hurricanes, and considering the implications of the reported $6.875 billion of total cash across the Commonwealth, the Federal Government will institute, as a matter of policy, a Cash Balance Policy that will determine the timing of CD Ls to the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities, including PREP A and PRASA. Under this Cash Balance Policy, funds will be provided through the CDL Program when the Commonwealth’s central cash balance decreases to a certain level. This Cash Balance Policy level will be dete1mined by the Federal Government in consultation with the Commonwealth and the FOMB.

The current posture of the Federal Government is to disburse CDL program financing directly to the Commonwealth, which could then sub-lend to its various entities (including PREP A and PRASA), although this approach may be revised over time. Subsidiary borrowers will be expected to comply with remmitting, repayment, and collateral requirements that apply to the primary borrower. Unless the Cash Balance Policy level is reached, however, the Commonwealth will need to support its own liquidity needs and those of PREPA and PRASA.

Notwithstanding the above policy, local governments (as such term is defined in 42 U.S.C. §5122(8)) in Puerto Rico, including the 78 municipalities, will be eligible to apply directly for CD Ls independent of the Commonwealth under the traditional terms and conditions of Section 417 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §5184 (irrespective of the cash balance of the Commonwealth). Under these terms, a local government demonstrating a substantial loss of revenues may receive a streamlined CDL up to 25 percent of its annual budget, subject to a $5 million cap. FEMA will make arrangements to meet directly with the local governments and their management associations the week of January 15, 2018, in Puerto Rico to facilitate applications to the CDL Program onthe most timely basis possible consistent with program terms and requirements. If it is determined that a local government should require assistance beyond the $5 million cap, the Federal Government will consider providing additional financing under different terms and conditions, as appropriate.

FEMA and the Department of Treasury look forward to continuing to work with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities and local governments to ensure funding is available for operating expenses to perform governmental functions while respecting the PROMESA Title III proceedings, the statutory authorities granted to the FOMB under PROMESA, and the overall fiscal condition of the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities and local governments.

Respectfully,

Alex Amparo

Assistant Administrator Recovery Directorate

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Gary Grippo

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Finance

U.S. Department of Treasury

 

cc: Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Financial Oversight and Management Board, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management

U.S. Office of Management and Budget

Governing under Takeovers

December 19, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges of a city emerging from a quasi-state takeover—and report on continuing, discouraging blocks to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery.  The Hartford City Council last week forwarded Mayor Luke Bronin’s request for Tier III state monitoring under the new Municipal Accountability Review Board, the state Board established by §367 of Public Act 17-2  as a State Board  for the purpose of providing technical, financial and other assistance and related accountability for municipalities experiencing various levels of fiscal distress. That board, which met for the first time on December 8th, now could be the key for Hartford to avoid filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the Board, chaired by State Treasurer Denise Nappier and Budget Director Benjamin Barnes, is to oversee the city’s budgeting, contracts, and municipal bond transactions. The Council also passed a bond resolution to permit the city to refund all of its outstanding debt obligations. In addition, the Council approved new labor contracts with the City of Hartford Professional Employees Association and the Hartford Police Union that management projects will save Hartford more than $18 million over five years. According to Mayor Bronin, the police labor contract could save the city nearly $2 million this fiscal year; moreover, it calls for long-term structural changes, or, in the Mayor’s words, the agreement “represents another big step toward our goal of fiscal stability,” adding that the employee contracts and state aid were essential to keeping the 123,000-population city out of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—even as Mayor Bronin is also seeking concessions from bondholders. (Insurers Assured Guaranty and Build America Mutual wrap approximately 80% of the city’s outstanding municipal bonds.)

In its new report, “Hartford Weaknesses Not Common,” Fitch Ratings noted that Hartford appears to be fiscally unique in that other Connecticut cities are unlikely to face similar problems, after the company assessed the fiscal outlook of several cities, including Bridgeport, New Haven, and Waterbury—finding that while these municipalities have comparable demographics and fiscal challenges, none is as fiscally in trouble, noting the city’s “rapid run-up” of outstanding debt and unfunded pension liabilities as issues that set it apart from nearby municipalities. Indeed, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has threatened the state’s capitol city may file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection—a threat which likely assisted in the city’s receipt of an additional $48 million in aid from Connecticut’s FY2018 budget, as well as two recently settled contracts with two labor unions. In addition, Fitch pointed to Hartford’s fiscal reliance on one-time revenue sources, such as the sale of parking garages and other assets, as well as the city’s inability to obtain “significant” union givebacks as factors that augured fiscal challenges compared to other cities in the state which Fitch noted have “substantial flexibility and sound reserves.” Moreover, despite Mayor Luke Bronin’s pressure for labor concessions, only two of the city’s unions have agreed to new contracts—contracts which include pay freezes and other givebacks, albeit two other unions have agreed to pacts offering significant concessions. These changes have enabled Hartford to draw back from the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but still left the city confronting a $65 million deficit this year, and dramatically in debt and facing public pension payment increases—potentially driving Hartford’s annual debt contribution to over $60 million annually—even as it imposes the highest tax rate of any municipality in the state, especially because of its unenviable inability to levy property taxes on more than half the acreage in the city—a city dominated by state office buildings and other tax-exempt properties. These fiscal precipices and challenges have forced the city to prepare to apply for state oversight and begin a restructuring of Hartford’s $600 million in outstanding debt—a stark contrast with the state’s other municipalities, which, as Fitch noted, have achieved greater success in gaining labor concessions, even as they less reliant on state assistance, according to Fitch: “Unlike Hartford, most Connecticut cities have substantial budget flexibility and sound reserves.” In some contrast, Standard & Poor Global Ratings appeared to be in a more generous giving, seasonal spirit: the agency lifted its long-term rating on Hartford’s general obligation bonds to CCC from CC, and removed the ratings from credit watch with negative implications, reflecting its perspective that Hartford’s bond debt is “vulnerable to nonpayment because a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption remains possible without a positive development and potentially favorable business, financial, or economic conditions,” according to S&P analyst Victor Medeiros, who, nevertheless, noted that S&P could either raise or lower its rating on Hartford over the next year, depending on the city’s ability to refinance its outstanding debt, and realize any contract assistance support from the state. Thus, it has been unsurprising that Mayor Bronin has been insisting that bondholder concessions are essential to the city’s recovery.

Fitch made another key observation: many Connecticut local governments lack the same practical revenue constraints as Hartford due to stronger demographics, less reliance on state aid, and lower property tax rates. (Hartford’s mill rate is by far the state’s highest at 74.29.), noting: “In a state with an abundance of high-wealth cities and towns, Hartford continues to be challenged by poverty and blight,” contrasting the city with New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, and New Britain‒all of which Fitch noted had successfully negotiated union concession on healthcare and pension-related costs, so that, as Fitch Director Kevin Dolan noted: “Their ability to raise revenues is not as constrained as Hartford’s and their overall expenditure flexibility is stronger.” said Fitch director Kevin Dolan. (Fitch rates New Haven and New Britain with A-minuses, and A and AA-minus respectively to Bridgeport and Waterbury.) State Senator L. Scott Frantz (R-Greenwich) noted: “I hate to say it, but it’s gotten so desperate in so many cases with the municipalities that they really need to be able to have the power go in there and open up contracts–not maybe not even renegotiate them–and just set the terms for the next three to five years, or longer, to make sure that each one of these cities is back on a sustainable track: The costs are smothering them, and their revenue situation has gotten worse, because people don’t necessary want to live in those cities as they start to deteriorate even further.”

Fiscal & Physical Storm Recovery. Just as on the mainland, municipalities in Puerto Rico assumed the first responder responsibilities in Puerto Rico in reaction to Hurricane Maria; however, the storm revealed the many challenges and obstacles faced—and ongoing—for Mayors (Alcaldes) to meet the needs of their people—including laws or decrees which limit their powers or scope of authority, state economic responsibilities which reduce their economic resources, and legislation which fails to recognize inadequate municipal fiscal resources and capacity. Thus, in the wake of the fiscal and physical devastation, Puerto Rico Senator Thomas Rivera Schatz, the fourteenth and sixteenth President of the Senate of Puerto Rico, is leading efforts to grant some mayors a greater degree of independence to operate and manage the finances of municipalities. He is proposing, effectively, to elevate municipal autonomy to a constitutional rank—a level which he believes should have been granted to City Councils by law, noting that with such a change, municipios “would not have to wait, as they had to wait, for federal and state agencies to handle issues that no one better than they would have handled. They would have the faculty, the responsibility, and the resources to do so…In emergencies, something that cannot be lost is time. Then and before the circumstances that the communications from the capital to the municipalities were practically zero, that shows you that, at a local level, they must have the faculty, the tools, and the resources.”

The Senate President’s proposal arose during exchanges between the Senate and Mayors, conversations which have resulted previously in a series of legislative measures, in what the Senate leader acknowledged to be a complex process, but a track which the Senator stated would, after consultation, be the result of consensus with Mayors of both political parties—providing via the Law of Autonomous Municipalities, “Puerto Rico’s municipalities a scope of action free of interference on the part of the State, even as it reformed a structure of government, to be efficient in collections.” (To date, 12 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities have achieved the highest level of hierarchy granted by the Autonomous Municipalities Law.)

In a sense, not so different from the state/local strains in the 50 states, one of the greatest complaints by Puerto Rico’s Mayors has been over the economic burdens—or unfunded mandates—Puerto Rico has imposed on the municipios, as well as the decrees which establish contracts with foreign companies and grant them tax benefits, exemptions, and incentives—all state actions taken without municipal consultation—thereby, enabling businesses to avoid the payment of patents and municipal taxes, and undermining municipal collections—or, as the Senate President put it: “The reality of the case is that, for 12 to 16 years, governments have been legislating to nourish the State with economic resources.”  Currently, Puerto Rico’s municipalities contribute $116 million for the redemption of state debt, another $ 160 million for Puerto Rico’s Retirement System, and an additional $ 169 million to subsidize the Government Health Plan. Again, as the Senator noted: “If there are municipal governments that have a structure capable of raising their finances, of providing their services…the State does not have to intervene with them, taxing their resources.” Sen. Schatz noted that his proposal does not include eliminating municipalities; he confirmed that the governing challenge is to realize a “model” of interaction between the municipalities and the state—and that “the citizen has in his municipal environment everything he needs to be able to live happily and have quality of life. The end of the road is that. If it’s called county, province, or whatever you want to call it; the name does not do the thing, it’s the concept.” He asserted he was not proposing to “reward” municipalities, but rather to focus on establishing collaboration agreements through which there could be shared administrative tasks—in a way to not only achieve efficiencies, but also provide greater authority and ability for Puerto Rico’s municipalities to access funds free of intermediaries, noting: “The mayors did an exceptional job (during the emergency), and, practically without resources, had to come to the rescue of their citizens, open access, help sick people, cause the distribution of supplies with logic and speed…the passage of hurricanes rules out the idea of ​​eliminating municipalities.”

Thus, he affirmed that those municipalities which have achieved the maximum hierarchy of autonomy would have total independence, while the other municipalities would remain subject to the actions of the Puerto Rican government until they manage to establish fiscal sustainability—all as part of what he was outlining as a path to greater municipal autonomy, arguing that each of these changes implied the island’s municipalities need to make fiscal and governing adjustments: they have to watch over their finances and make sure they have the resources to meet their payroll, even as he acknowledged that repairing the finances in battered municipalities economically will take time, and said that, for this, the project will include some scales and grace periods to attain that fiscal solvency, noting: “The legislation we can approve, but, to get to the point where we would like to be, it will take years.”

For the president of the Association of Mayors, Rolando Ortiz, who has served as the Mayor of Cayey for a decade, after previously serving as Member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives from 1993 to 1997, and being reelected in 2012 with 73.29% of the votes–the largest margin of victory for any mayor in that election, the assistance provided by the municipalities to the central government to face the crisis that the country is going through is the best way to see the urgency of empowering the municipalities via this legislation—or, as he put it: “If it were not for the municipalities, I assure you that the crisis would be monumental. We have been patrolling rural roads to ensure there are no trees on the road that impede the mobility of the family.” Mayor Ortiz agreed that the proposal includes hierarchy levels, so that municipal executives comply with minimum responsibilities and mandates which allow them to reach the maximum level: “It can be a strategy to prioritize the process from the perspective of land management, but it cannot take as an only category the element of the organization of the territory, but also the efficiency in public performance, economic capacity, efficiency in the service,” adding he has not heard “any Mayor in opposition to that proposal.” His colleague, Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz, was more reserved when addressing the issue. Although he had no objections to the establishment of the project or to what has been proposed, he indicated that there were other mechanisms to prevent state governments from harming the municipalities that reached the maximum level of hierarchy—as well as other issues which must be addressed, such as the limitation on the collection of patents and the contribution on property. 

Senate President Rivera Schatz indicated the Senate is working on several amendments to the Autonomous Municipalities Law, and that some have already been established or approved, as a preamble to what will be the final project, noting: “We are going to discuss it with all the municipal governments to achieve a consensus project of what the procedure and the route will be.”

In response to a query whether the PROMESA Board could interfere, he noted that every government operation has a fiscal impact, so that he was seeking to create a positive: “It proposes efficiency, capacity to generate more collections, so who could oppose that?” Maybe, the Board. To me, honestly, I do not care in the least what anyone on the Board thinks.” Asked what would happen if the PROMESA Board proposed for the elimination of municipalities, he noted that the Board can say what they want and express what they want, but they will not eliminate municipal governments, they will not achieve it, because in Puerto Rico that would be untenable.

Unreform? Even as Puerto Rico’s state and local leaders are grappling with fiscal governance issues and recovering from the massive hurricane with far less fiscal and physical assistance than the federal government provided to Houston and Florida, there are growing apprehensions about disparities in the final tax “reform” legislation scheduled for a vote as early as today in the U.S. House of Representatives—concerns that the legislation might impose a new tax on Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, with non-voting Rep. Jennifer González Colón (Puerto Rico) expressing apprehension that bill will impose a 12.5% tax on intangible property imported from foreign countries—and that, under the legislation, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories would be treated as foreign countries. El Vocero, last Friday, on its news website reported that Rep. González Colón (R-P.R.) said the planned tax bill treated Puerto Rico like a colony: the taxed intangible assets would include items such trademarks and patents generated abroad, tweeting that “The tax reform benefits domestic, not foreign companies…While we are a colony, there will be more legislation like this passed…Unfair taxes show a lack of commitment and consistency from leadership in Congress; showing true hypocrisy.” The Federal Affairs Administration of Puerto Rico last Friday released a statement calling for the tax bill to be changed and for additional aid to recover from Hurricane Maria, noting the conference report could “destroy 75,000 jobs and wipe out a third of [Puerto Rico’s] tax base.” Howard Cure, director of municipal bond research at Evercore, noted that for Puerto Rico, still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria, and with a 10.6% unemployment rate: “Obviously, any tax law change that makes Puerto Rico less competitive for certain industries to expand or remain on the island is a negative for bondholders who really need the economy to stabilize and grow in order to help in their debt recovery.” Similarly, Cumberland Advisors portfolio manager and analyst Shawn Burgess said: “My understanding is that this would impact foreign corporations operating on the island and not necessarily U.S. companies. However, it is a travesty for Congress to treat Puerto Rico as essentially a foreign entity at a time when they need all the assistance they can get. Those are U.S. citizens and deserve to be treated as equals…Leave it to Congress to shoot themselves in the foot: They had voiced their support for helping the commonwealth financially, and they hit them with tax reform terms that could be a detriment to their long-term economic health.” Similarly, Ted Hampton of Moody’s noted: “In view of Puerto Rico’s economic fragility, which was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria, new federal taxes on businesses there would only serve as additional barriers potentially blocking path to recovery. In creating the [PROMESA] oversight board, the federal government declared its intention to restore economic growth in Puerto Rico. New taxes on the island would be at odds with that mission.”

  • 936. More than a decade ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) reached an agreement with former President Bill Clinton to allow the phasing out of section 936, the tax provision with permitted U.S. corporations to pay reduced corporate income taxes on income derived from Puerto Rico—a provision allowed to expire in 2006—after which the U.S. territory’s economy has contracted in all but one year—a tax extinguishment at which m any economists describe as the trigger for the subsequent fiscal and economic decline of Puerto Rico. Thus, as part of the new PROMESA statute, §409, in establishing an eight Congressional-member Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico, laid the foundation for the report released one year ago, in which the section addressing the federal tax treatment of Puerto Rico, noted: “The task force believes that Puerto Rico is too often relegated to an afterthought in Congressional deliberations over federal business tax reform legislation. The Task Force recommends that Congress make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform legislation….The Task Force recommends that Congress continue to be mindful of the fact that Puerto Rico and the other territories are U.S. jurisdictions, home to U.S. citizens or nationals, and that jobs in Puerto Rico and the other territories are American jobs.” Third, the task force said it was open to Congress providing companies that invest in Puerto Rico “more competitive tax treatment.” Thus it was last week that Governor Ricardo Rosselló tweeted that people should read the Congressional leadership’s “OWN guidelines on the task force report. Three main points, did not follow a single one.” The tweet recognizes there are no provisions in the legislation awaiting the President’s signature this week to soften the impact of the new modified territorial tax system—a system which will treat Puerto Rico as a foreign country, rather than an integral part of the United States, a change which Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) this week predicted would act as a “a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s economic recovery…Thousands more businesses will have to leave the island, forcing thousands Puerto Ricans to lose their jobs and leave the island.” Indeed, adding fiscal insult to injury, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R-Tx.) admitted that the “opportunity zone” provision in the House version of tax reform authored by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of the House of Representatives, to make Puerto Rico eligible for designation as a new “opportunity zone” that would receive favorable tax treatment, was stripped out because it would have violated the Senate’s Byrd Rule, the parliamentary rule barring consideration of non-germane provisions from qualifying for passage by a simple majority vote instead of a 60-vote super-majority. Adding still further fiscal insult to injury, the latest installment of emergency funding for recovery from hurricanes which hammered Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and Houston had been expected this month; however, those fiscal measures have been deferred to next year in the rush to complete the tax/deficit legislation and reach an agreement to avoid a federal government shutdown this week. (The Opportunity Zone proposal was included in the Senate version of tax reform, adopted from a bipartisan proposal by Senators Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) which would defer federal capital gains taxes on investments in qualifying low-income communities—under which all of Puerto Rico could, theoretically, have qualified as one of a limited number of jurisdictions. As the ever insightful Tracy Gordon of the Tax Policy Center had noted: part of the motivation for the opportunity zone designation had been to stem the migration of residents, which has accelerated since Hurricane Maria areas getting the designation throughout the United States. To qualify, the area must have “mutually reinforcing state, local, or private economic development initiatives to attract investment and foster startup activity,” and must “have demonstrated success in geographically targeted development programs such as promise zones, the new markets tax credit, empowerment zones, and renewal communities; and have recently experienced significant layoffs due to business closures or relocations.” Thus, Ms. Gordon notes: “There’s a concern you are basically taking away an incentive to be in Puerto Rico which is this foreign corporation status.” The tax conference report simply ignores the recommendation last year by the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico to “make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform,” not acting on the recommendation for a permanent extension of a rum cover-over payment to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands the revenues of which have been used by the territories to pay for local government operations; last year’s Congressional report had warned that “Failure to extend the provision will cause harm to Puerto Rico’s (and the U.S. Virgin Islands’) fiscal condition at a time when it is already in peril.’’ Similarly, the conference report includes no provisions addressing the task force’s recommendation that the federal child tax credit include the first and second children of families living in Puerto Rico, not just the third as specified under current law.

Governance Amidst Fiscal and Stormy Challenges & Uneven Federalism

December 1, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and its remarkable turnaround from verging on becoming the first municipality in Virginia to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before veering south to assess what President Trump has described as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico suffering from “from broken infrastructure and massive debt.” 

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Revolutionary Municipality. Petersburg, Virginia’s City Council, one of the oldest of the nation’s cities, as part of its fiscal recovery, last week had voted 5-2 to request the Virginia Legislature to change the city’s charter in order to transfer the most critical duties of the Treasurer’s Office to a newly-created role of city collector—a position under the Council’s control, as part of its wish list for the newly elected state legislature. Petersburg, an independent city of just over 32,000, is significant for its role in African-American history: it is the site of one of the oldest free black settlements in the state–and the nation.  The unprecedented City Council effort seeks to strip power from an elected office—an office some believe curried some fault for contributing to Petersburg’s near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Ironically, the effort came the same month that voters elected a former Member of the City Council to the office of Treasurer. Councilman Treska Wilson-Smith, who opposed the move, stated: “The citizens just voted in a Treasurer. For us to get rid of that position is a slap in the face to the citizens who put them in there.” Unsurprisingly, State Senator Rosalyn Dance, who for a dozen years has represented the city as part of her district in the Virginia House of Delegates, and who will consider the city’s legislative agenda, said she was concerned. Noting that the newly-elected treasurer has yet to serve a day in office, she added that much of the turmoil had to do with the current Treasurer, so, she said: “I hope [the] Council will take a second look at what they want to do.” Former Councilman and Treasurer-elect Kenneth Pritchett, who declined to comment, ran on a platform of improving the office’s operations by standardizing internal controls and implementing new policies: he urged Petersburg residents to contact lawmakers in a Facebook message posted after the Council took action, calling the decision “a prime example of total disrespect for the citizens’ vote.”

Nevertheless, Council Members who supported the legislative agenda language said it was time for a change, or, as Councilman Darrin Hill noted: “I respect the opinion of the citizens, but still, we believe if we keep on doing the same thing that we have done, then we will keep on getting the same results.” Other Councilmembers felt even better about their votes after the Council received good financial news earlier this week when newly audited reports showed a boost in Petersburg’s reserve funds, increased revenue, and a drop in expenditures—a marked fiscal reversal. In addition, the city’s external auditor provided a clean opinion—a step up from last year’s “modified” opinion—an opinion which had hinted the city had failed to comply with proper accounting principles—and a municipal fiscal year which commenced $19 million in the hole—and $12 million over budget—in response to which the Council raised taxes, cut more than $3 million in funding from the city’s chronically underperforming schools, eliminated a popular youth summer program, and closed cultural sites. Former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s organization—which had been hired to help the city recoup from the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, had supported transferring some of the duties of the Treasurer to a city collector position as a means to enhance the city’s ability to improve its tax collections.

Subsequently, late last September, another shoe fell with a 115-page report which examined eight specific aspects of city governance—and found allegations of theft involving current Treasurer Kevin Brown—claims Mr. Brown repeatedly denied, but appeared to contribute to his decision not to run for reelection—an elected which Mr. Pritchett won by a wide margin, winning just over 70 percent.  Nevertheless, Mayor Samuel Parham told his colleagues: “We are treading too thin now to risk someone who is just getting to know the job. We can’t operate as a city of hoping…Now that we are paying our bills and showing growth, there is no need to go back in time and have a situation that we had.” However, some Councilmembers believe they should await more facts with regard to Mr. Brown’s actions, especially with regard to uncollected municipal tax revenues, or, as Councilmember Wilson-Smith put it: “There are some questions which we still have unanswered when it comes to why the taxes were not collected: It appears to me that a lot of the taxes are not being collected, because they are un-collectable,” or, as she noted: Many listed for unpaid taxes were deceased.

David Foley with Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates, Petersburg’s external auditor, had presented figures before Petersburg residents and the City Council, noting the clean opinion is a substantial improvement from last year, when auditors issued a modified opinion which suggested Petersburg had failed to maintain accounting principles—testifying that the improvement mainly came from the city being able to provide evidence of the status of some of its major financial accounts, such as public utilities. He did recommend that Petersburg strengthen some of its internal controls over the next fiscal year—noting, especially, the reconciliation of the city’s public utility system, which some officials have suggested should be sold to private companies. Indeed, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides told City Council members that a plan to correct some of the deficiencies will start in January, with monthly updates on corrective actions that she would like to continue to take. The see-saw, key fiscal change of nearly $2 million more than had been projected arose from a combination of increased real estate tax collections, and a $2.5 million reduction in expenditures, mainly came from health and welfare, and non-departmental categories: in total, there was a $7.5 million increase in the city’s chief operating fund. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Foley, in response to Councilmember Charlie Cuthbert, noted: “It was a significant year. There is still a long way to go,” indirectly referencing the city’s commencement of FY2017 $19 million in the hole and $12 million over budget—and with dire threats of legal action over unpaid bills—triggering a tidal wave of legal bills of nearly $1 million—of which about $830,000 went to Mr. Bobb’s group—while the city spent nearly $200,000 on a forensic audit.  Council members received the presentation on the annual financial report with a scant two days prior to the state imposed deadline to submit the report—after, last year, the city was about seven months late in submitting its annual financial report.

Insufficient Shelter from the Fiscal Storm. In the brutal wake of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed about 57,000 homes in Puerto Rico last September and left another 254,000 severely impacted, 50 percent of the U.S. territory’s remaining 3.5 million inhabitants are still without electricity—a lack that has adversely impacted the ability to reconstruct the toll wrought by Maria, not to mention the economy, or loss of those, more than 150,000, who could afford to leave for New York and Florida. Puerto Rico still confronts a lack of drinking water. Governor Ricardo Rosselló had assured that 95% of the island would have electricity by today, but, like too many other promises, that is not to be. An irony is that the recent visit of former President Bill Clinton, who did not come down to toss paper towels, but rather to bring fiscal and physical assistance, may be, at long last, an omen of recovery. It was just 19 days ago that Gov. Roselló appeared before Congress to request some $94 billion to rebuild the U.S. territory—a request unmet, and a request raising questions about the Puerto Rican government’s ability to manage such a vast project, especially in the wake of the $300 million no-bid contract awarded to a small Montana utility company, Whitefish, to restore the territory’s power—an effort House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) described as raising a “credibility gap.” Indeed, in the wake of that decision, Chairman Bishop and others in the Congress have called for the unelected PROMESA Financial Oversight and Management Board, known on the island as “la junta,” to extend its powers to overseeing the rebuilding effort as well—a call which, unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans, including pro-statehood Governor Rosselló, see as a further threat to their democratic rights. 

Nevertheless, despite the quasi-takeover threat from Congress, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to appoint an emergency manager, similar to those appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in Detroit, or by the former Governor of Rhode Island for Central Falls under their respective authority under state authorizations of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Puerto Rico, because it is not a state, does not have such authority; consequently, Judge Swain has determined the Board does not have the authority to appoint public officials—a holding which Gov. Rosselló responded to by noting that the decision upheld his office’s position about the board’s power, writing: “It is clear that the [board] does not have the power to take full control of the Government or its instrumentalities…[T]he administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.