April 3, 2018
Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the challenges of governance in insolvency. Who is in charge of steering a municipality, county, or U.S. territory out of insolvency? How? How do we understand and assess the status of the ongoing quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy PROMESA deliberations in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Then we head north to assess the difficult fiscal balancing challenges in Connecticut.
Governance in Insolvency. Because, in our country, it was the states which created the federal government, making the U.S. unique in the world; chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is only, in this country, an option in states which have enacted state legislation to authorize municipal bankruptcy. Thus, unsurprisingly, the process is quite different in the minority of states which have authorized municipal bankruptcy. In some states, such as Rhode Island and Michigan, for instance, the Governor has a vital role in which she or he is granted authority to name an emergency manager–a quasi-dictator to assume governmental and fiscal authority, usurping that of the respective city or county’s elected officials. That is what happened in the cases of Detroit and Central Falls, Rhode Island, where, in each instance, all authority was stripped from the respective Mayors and Councils pending a U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s approval of respective plans of debt adjustment, allowing the respective jurisdictions to emerge from municipal bankruptcy. Thus, in the case of those two municipalities, the state law preempted the governing authority of the respective Mayors and Councils.
That was not the case, however, in Jefferson County, Alabama–a municipal bankruptcy precipitated by the state’s refusal to allow the County to raise its own taxes. Nor was it the case in the instances of Stockton or San Bernardino, California: two chapter 9 cases where the State of California played virtually no role.
Thus, the question with regard to governance in the event of a default or municipal bankruptcy is a product of our country’s unique form of federalism.
In the case of Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory created under the Jones-Shafroth Act, however, the issue falls under Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone–as Puerto Rico is neither a municipality, nor a state: a legal status which has perplexed Congress, and now appears to plague the author of the PROMESA law, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to who, exactly, has governing or governance authority in Puerto Rico during its quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy process: is it Puerto Rico’s elected Governor and legislature? Is it the PROMESA Board imposed by the U.S. Congress? Is it U.S. Judge Laura Swain, presiding over the quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy trial in New York City?
Chairman Bishop has defended the PROMESA’s Board’s authority to preempt the Governor and Legislature’s ruling and governance authority, stressing that the federal statute gave the Board the power to promote “structural reforms” and fiscal authority, writing to Board Chair Jose Carrion: “It has been delegated a statutory duty to order any reforms–fiscal or structural–to the government of Puerto Rico to ensure compliance with the purpose of PROMESA, as he demanded the federally named Board use its power to make a transparent assessment of the economic impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico’s fiscal conditions–and to ensure that the relative legal priorities and liens of Puerto Rico’s public debt are respected–leaving murky whether he intended that to mean municipal bonholders and other lien holders living far away from Puerto Rico ought to have a priority over U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico still trying to recover from violent hurricanes which received far less in federal response aid than the City of Houston–even appearing to link his demands for reforms to the continuity of that more limited federal storm recovery assistance to compliance with his insistence that there be greater “accountability, goodwill, and cooperation from the government of Puerto Rico…” Indeed, it seems ironic that a key Chairman of the U.S. Congress, which has voted to create the greatest national debt in the history of the United States, would insist upon a quite different standard of accountability for Puerto Rico than for his own colleagues.
It seems that the federal appeals court, which may soon consider an appeal of Judge Swain’s opinion with regard to Puerto Rico’s Highway and Transportation Authority not to be mandated to make payments on its special revenue debt during said authority’s own insolvency, could help Puerto Rico: a positive decision would give Puerto Rico access to special revenues during the pendency of its proceedings in the quasi-chapter 9 case before Judge Swain.
Stabilizing the Ship of State. Farther north in Connecticut, progressive Democrats at the end of last week pressed in the General Assembly against Connecticut’s new fiscal stability panel, charging its recommendations shortchange key priorities, such as poorer municipalities, education and social services—even as the leaders of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth conceded they were limited by severe time constraints. Nevertheless, Co-Chairs Robert Patricelli and Jim Smith asserted the best way to invest in all of these priorities would be to end the cycle of state budget deficits and jump-start a lagging state economy. The co-chairs aired their perspectives at a marathon public hearing in the Hall of the House, answering questions from members of four legislative committees: Appropriations; Commerce; Finance, Revenue and Bonding; and Planning and Development—where Rep. Robyn Porter (D-New Haven) charged: “I’m only seeing sacrifice from the same people over and over again,” stating she was increasingly concerned about growing income inequality, asking: “When do we strike a balance?” Indeed, New York and Connecticut, with the wealthiest 1 percent of households in those states earning more than 40 times the average annual income of the bottom 99 percent, demonstrate the governance and fiscal challenge of that trend. In its report, the 14-member Commission made a wide array of recommendations centered on a major redistribution of state taxes—primarily reducing income tax rates across the board, while boosting the sales and corporation levies. Ironically, however, because the wealthy pay the majority of state income taxes, the proposed changes would disproportionately accrue to the benefit of the state’s highest income residents—in effect mirroring the federal tax reform, leading Rep. Porter to question why the Commission made such recommendations, including another to do away immediately with the estate tax on estates valued at more than $2 million, but gradually phase in an increase to the minimum wage over the next four years. From a municipal perspective, Rep. James Albis (D-East Haven), cited a 2014 state tax incidence report showing that Connecticut’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund municipal government “is incredibly regressive,” noting it has the effect of shifting a huge burden onto lower-middle- and low-income households—even as the report found that households earning less than $48,000 per year effectively pay nearly one-quarter of their annual income to cover state and local taxes. Rep. Brandon McGee (D-Hartford), the Vice Chair of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said the Committee’s recommendations lack bold ideas on how to revitalize Connecticut’s poor urban centers—with his concerns mirrored by Rep. Toni E. Walker (D-New Haven), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who warned she fears a commission proposal to cut $1 billion from the state’s nearly $20 billion annual operating budget would inevitably reduce municipal aid, especially to the state’s cities. Co-Chair Patricelli appeared to concur, noting: “Candidly, I would agree we came up a little short on the cities,” adding that the high property tax rates in Hartford and other urban centers hinder economic growth: “They really are fighting with one or more hands tied behind their backs.”
The ongoing discussion comes amidst the state’s fiscal commitment to assume responsibility to pay for Hartford’s general obligation debt service payments, more than $50 million annually—a fiscal commitment which understandably is creating equity questions for other municipalities in the state confronted by fiscal challenges. Like a teeter-totter, balancing fiscal needs in a state where the state itself has a ways to go to balance its own budget creates a test of fiscal and moral courage.