Stormy Governance & Federalism Challenges in the Wake of a Storm

eBlog

November 14, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s eBlog, we consider the governance and federalism challenges in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Maria impact on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where questions in a federal courtroom about the balance between Puerto Rico’s government and the federally appointed oversight board for Puerto Rico consider not just the Puerto Rican government’s authority—but also that of the Congress.  

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U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to deny the request to appoint Noel Zamot as the Transformation Officer (CTO), noting that the powers granted to the special panel by Congress are insufficiently broad to limit the actions of the government of Puerto Rico, holding that the Puerto Rico Oversight Board lacked authority to replace the leader of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The Board had requested the Judge to confirm its appointment of Noel Zamot as PREPA’s Chief Transformation Office—a position comparable to CEO. Instead, Judge Swain called on the Board and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to work collaboratively to address the U.S. territory’s problems—a call, in response to which, Gov. Rosselló responded by noting: “We are very pleased with the decision issued today by Judge Laura Taylor Swain, since it reiterates our position regarding the limit of power of the Financial Oversight and Management Board.…It is clear that the Financial Oversight and Management Board does not have the power to take full control of the government or its instrumentalities…We recognize that the reconstruction and recovery of the island requires a union of wills; therefore, we welcome any collaboration or technical support that the Board wishes to offer to the government elected by Puerto Ricans to ensure the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico.” Judge Swain noted that Congress could have eased the governance role of the oversight board if it had given the Board direct authority over Puerto Rico’s government and public entities; however, as she noted: it had not—instead it deliberately split power between the federally appointed oversight board and the government, adding: “I urge you to work together,” in regard to the PROMESA Board and the Rosselló administration, noting that every moment spent on complicated and expensive litigation was time lost for the Puerto Rico people. Judge Swain noted that the Board has multiple mechanisms to discharge its functions without requiring its direct intervention after the Congressionally created public corporation, its governing board and its executive director, Ricardo Ramos, were unable to articulate and effectively implement a plan to restore the electricity grid after its collapse in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Nevertheless, Judge Swain also called on the government of Puerto Rico to address the situation of the island, noting that millions of American citizens remain in the dark and in a dangerous situation, while every controversy aired in court is “a minute lost” for the future of Puerto Rico.

Unsurprisingly, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares responded he was pleased with Judge Swain’s decision, noting in written statements that the decision issued today by Judge Swain “reiterates our position on the power limit of the JSF: We have been clear from day one about the powers the [PROMESA] Board has, and those it does not have. It is clear that the (Board) does not have the power to take control of the government as a whole or its instrumentalities,” adding: “Our position is validated and it is recognized that the administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government…As Governor of Puerto Rico, I will defend the democratic rights of my people over any challenge and in any forum. We recognize that the reconstruction and recovery of the Island requires a union of wills, therefore, we welcome any collaboration or technical support that the Board wishes to offer to the Government elected by the Puerto Ricans to ensure the best interests of the People of Puerto Rico.”

The U.S. government yesterday filed notice it would defend the court supervised restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt against a constitutional challenge by an investor—with the filing coming in response to the Title III bankruptcy case related to Puerto Rico’s government debt to an adversary proceeding filed last August by the Aurelius Capital hedge fund. (Aurelius owned $473 million of Puerto Rico municipal bonds as of July.) The government argued that the Title III bankruptcy petition should be dismissed, because its filing had not been authorized by a validly constituted oversight board, whilst the fund asserted that the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, which empowers the President to appoint certain public officials with the “advice and consent” of the U.S. Senate was breached in appointing the board’s members: the Board was appointed under the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act to oversee fiscal and economic management in the territory and the restructuring of more than $70 billion of debt that the Puerto Rico government said could not be repaid under current economic conditions.

Aurelius claimed that the PROMESA Board is “unconstitutional,” and, because it is, its actions are “are void,” pressing Judge Swain to dismiss the case. In response, the Justice Department notified the court it would file a memorandum supporting PROMESA’s constitutionality on or before December 6th. Part of the dispute will relate to the process itself: the Board, as we noted initially, was named by the U.S. House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders, the Speaker and House Minority Leader, and former President Obama: neither U.S. Senate committees nor the Senate as a whole voted on the confirmations. Last Friday, the government of Puerto Rico, the COFINA Seniors Bondholders Coalition, the Unsecured Creditors Committee, and the Official Committee of Retired Employees of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico submitted memoranda against the Aurelius position, with the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico pressing the federal court to lift the stay on litigation outside of the bankruptcy process, arguing that Aurelius is seeking actions against the debtor and the Oversight Board outside the Title III process—something it asserts is barred by the PROMESA statute. In contrast, the COFINA Seniors argue that the Oversight Board’s membership is constitutional, because Congress’s power over the territories is plenary and not subject to the structural limitations of the United States Constitution, while the Unsecured Creditors argued that the “U.S. Constitution gives Congress virtually unlimited authority to govern unincorporated territories directly, or to delegate that power to such agencies as it” deems fit. This group said that there is precedent for the Board members’ appointment procedures, asserting the Board members are territorial officials and not U.S. government officials, as Aurelius claims.

Power to Puerto Rico. On a separate front, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico notched a significant win in court yesterday when Judge Swain rejected the appointment of a former military officer to oversee the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), after the PROMESA Board had sought to appoint retired Air Force Col. Noel Zamot to supervise the reconstruction and operations of PREPA in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the U.S. territory’s utility and the subsequent territory-wide blackout on September 20th—an inability to restore service since has led to accusations of mismanagement, especially as, PREPA, two months after the hurricane, is generating only 48 percent of its normal output. Thus it was that Judge Swain ruled that the PROMESA Board may not unilaterally seize control of the U.S. territory’s government agencies—a signal legal victory for the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and others who have argued that no independent official should oversee a local government agency—or, as the Governor noted: “Our position has been validated and it has been recognized that the administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.” PREPA is $9 billion in debt and continues to face scrutiny after signing a $300 million contract with Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings—a contract cancelled at the end of last month at the Governor’s request, but which is now undergoing federal and local audits. Both Gov. Rosselló and PREPA Director Ricardo Ramos are scheduled to testify this morning in Washington, D.C. before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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The Human & Fiscal Prices of Insolvency

October 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the spread of Connecticut’s fiscal blues to its municipalities; then we consider the health and fiscal health challenge to Flint; before, finally, observing the seemingly worsening fiscal and human plight of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Price of Solvency. It appears that the City of Hartford would have to restructure its debt to receive the requisite state assistance to keep it out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy under the emerging state budget compromise between the Governor and Legislature. Under the terms of the discussions, the State of Connecticut would also guarantee a major refunding of the city’s debt, as well as cover a major share of the city’s debt payments, at least for this fiscal year and next, with House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) indicating this was part of a bipartisan compromise the legislature recognizes is needed to avert municipal bankruptcy: “This budget gives the city all of the tools it needs to be on a structural path to sustainability…This solution truly is a bipartisan one.” According to the city’s Mayor Luke Bronin, Hartford needs about $40 million annually in new state assistance to avert bankruptcy. The emerging agreement also includes $28 million per year for a new Municipal Accountability Review Board, likely similar to what the Commonwealth of Virginia has used so effectively, to focus on municipalities at risk of fiscal insolvency and to intervene beforehand: approximately $20 million of that $28 million would be earmarked for Hartford. The new state budget would require Hartford to restructure a significant portion of its capital debt, but the state would guarantee this refinancing, an action which—as was the case in Detroit—will help Hartford have access to lower borrowing costs: the agreement also calls for the state to pay $20 million of the city’s annual debt service—at least for this fiscal year and next.

The state actions came as Moody’s Investor Service this week placed ratings of 26 of the state’s municipalities, as well as three of the state’s regional school districts under review for downgrade, citing state aid cuts in the absence of a budget, warning those municipalities and districts face cuts in state funding equal to 100% or more of available fund balance or cash—with those cities most at risk: Hartford (which currently receives 50 percent of its revenues from the state), New Haven, New Britain, West Haven, and Bridgeport. Moody’s was even fiscally moodier, dropping the credit ratings of an additional 25 Connecticut cities and towns, and three other regional school districts, while maintaining the existing negative outlook on the rating of one town. Moody’s list did not, however, include Hartford. The down-gradings come as the state has continued to operate under Executive order in the absence of an approved fiscal budget, now more than a fiscal quarter overdue. Gov. Dannel Malloy, at the beginning of the week, had submitted his fourth FY2018-19 budget to lawmakers, a $41.3 billion spending plan in the wake of his veto last month of the version approved by the legislature, reporting that his most recent fiscal plan would eliminate some revenue proposals, including new taxes on second homes, cell phone surcharges, ridesharing fees, and daily fantasy sports fees—instead, he has proposed an additional $150 million in spending over the biennium, while simplifying the implementor language. According to Moody’s, under the Governor’s new executive order, state aid to local governments will be nearly $1 billion below last year’s level—or, as Moody’s put it: “The current budget impasse highlights the ongoing vulnerability of funding that Connecticut provides to its local governments.” Connecticut traditionally has provided significant funding to its local governments, largely through education cost sharing grants, but also through payments in lieu of taxes and other smaller governmental grants. Connecticut’s GO bond prices have deteriorated with 10-year credit spreads around 80 basis points, well above historical levels, according to Janney Capital Markets Managing Director Alan Schankel: “A state’s fiscal stress tends to flow downstream to local governments, and Connecticut is no exception.” The fiscal irony is that despite the state’s high per capita wealth, the state’s debt, at 9.2% of gross state product, is highest among the states, lagging only behind Illinois.

Not in Like Flint. U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson has ordered Flint’s City Council to choose a long-term water source for the city by Monday after it spent more than three months refusing to make a decision. In his 29-page opinion, he took Flint’s City Council to task for sitting on an April agreement backed by Mayor Karen Weaver, the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agencies that would see the city stay on the Detroit area water system through a new 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority, writing:. “The failure of leadership, in light of the past crises and manifold warnings related to the Flint water system, is breathtaking.” Judge Lawson’s decision came in response to a suit filed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last June in the wake of the Flint City Council ignoring the state’s deadline for a water supply decision, arguing the delay would “cause an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health in Flint.” The Council, in hearing and filings, had requested more time from the court; however, Judge Lawson wrote that the state had demonstrated potential for “irreparable injury” in Flint and that there was an urgency to act, because the city’s short-term water agreements have expired and the long-term agreement is time sensitive, concluding: “The City Council has not voted on the negotiated agreement, it has not proposed an alternative, and the future of Flint’s fragile water system—its safety, reliability, and financial stability— is in peril…Because of the city’s indecision, the court must issue its ruling.” Judge Lawson’s order likely ensures the City Council will approve the proposed contract with the Great Lakes Authority that it had been resisting though it was negotiated with Mayor Karen Weaver’s approval. The city could choose to risk defying the court order; however, the State of Michigan has warned that tens of millions of dollars in extensive repairs and updates need to be made to the inactive Flint water plant—repairs which would take three and a half years to complete.

The warnings of Wayne State University Professor Nicholas Schroeck with regard to the risk to public health and the financial stability of the water supply system appeared key to persuading Judge Lawson to side with the state and issue a pre-emptive order. The Judge, in early August, had appointed a mediator in an effort to try gain an agreement between the city and the state Dept. of Environmental Quality; however, when the sides were unable to settle, he warned that  extending Flint’s contract with the Detroit area water system beyond 30 days could result in funding problems: “It seems to me that inaction is inviting intervention.” The Weaver administration analyzed various long-term water options for Flint, and the Mayor said Tuesday the Great Lakes agreement “proved to be in the best interest of public health by avoiding another water source switch, which could result in unforeseen issues.” The Michigan DEQ praised Judge Lawson for “recognizing there is no need to wait…and remains committed to working with the City of Flint to implement a plan once a source water determination has been finalized to ensure compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.” In its arguments before Judge Lawson, the State of Michigan had warned: “The City Council’s failure to act will result in at least a 55-63% increase in the water rate being charged to Flint residents, create an immediate risk of bankrupting the Flint water fund, will preclude required investment in Flint’s water distribution system, and create another imminent and substantial endangerment to public health in Flint.” That was similar to a statement from a key aide to Gov. Rick Snyder who had warned that stalling the water contract decision was costing the City of Flint an extra $600,000 a month, because it was paying for two sources—Great Lakes, from which it currently gets its treated water, and Karegnondi, from which it contractually would receive water by 2019 to 2020. Under the 30-year agreement with Great Lakes, Flint would no longer have to make payments to Karegnondi.

Unresponsiveness. President Trump last week awarded himself a perfect rating for his response to the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico: “I would give myself a 10,” he responded when asked by reporters how he would score his efforts, on a one to 10 scale. He told Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera that Puerto Rican governments “owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out. You can say goodbye to that.” A comment to which OMB Director Mick Mulvaney noted: “I wouldn’t take it word for word.” Indeed, a week later, Congressional Republicans unveiled a relief plan that would only add to Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt load. In his meeting this week with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who was in Washington to press for federal disaster relief, the President claimed: “We have provided so much, so fast.” Yet, today nearly 80 percent of the island remains without electricity, and almost 30 of the island still does not have access to clean water, according to Puerto Rican government figures.

In contrast with Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Irma, where thousands of repair workers rushed in to restring power lines, only a few hundred electrical workers from outside Puerto Rico have arrived to help: it was not until last Saturday that the Puerto Rican government said it had the federal funding needed to bring in more workers. That compares to some 5,300 workers from outside the region who converged on coastal Texas in the days after Hurricane Harvey to restore a power loss about a tenth of the size that struck Puerto Rico. Similarly, in Florida, 18,000 outside workers went in after Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity to most of the state last month, according to Florida Power and Light; whereas, in Puerto Rico, the challenge of restoration has fallen on the shoulders of about 900 members of local crews—an outcome industry experts report to be a result of poor planning, a slow response by power officials, and Puerto Rico’s dire fiscal situation—a sharp contrast to the President’s claim that his administration deserved a 10 for its response to the hurricanes which struck Puerto Rico and other parts of the United States.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charged by FEMA with restoring Puerto Rico’s power, estimated that it needed at least 2,000 additional workers. So far, the Corps has brought only about 200 workers, and most of them were dedicated not to restoring power, but to installing generators at crucial locations. In the wake of major storms, such as Katrina, power companies typically rely on mutual aid agreements to get electricity restored: such outside companies send thousands of workers, and electric companies pay for the service with funds from FEMA. However, providing such assistance to Puerto Rico is not just logistically a greater challenge—but also a discriminatorily greater challenge: the Jones Act—which the President only suspended for ten days—means that the time and cost of shipping comes at a 20% premium.  

The Human Storm. Maria risks accelerating the trend of the last decade of economic decline and depopulation, described as “a slower-moving catastrophe,” which is wreaking a devastating toll: The number of residents had plunged by 11 percent, the economy had shrunk by 15 percent, and the government has become fiscally insolvent. Already ranked among the worst cycles of economic decline and depopulation in postwar American history, the aftermath of Maria threatens an acceleration of residents fleeing en masse: accelerating economic decline and potentially accelerating a vicious cycle. Lyman Stone, an independent migration researcher and economist at the Agriculture Department notes: “We are watching a real live demographic and population collapse on a monumental scale.” At a news conference last week, Gov. Rosselló warned that without significant help, “millions” could leave for the U.S. mainland: You’re not going to get hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to the States—you’re going to get millions…You’re going to get millions, creating a devastating demographic shift for us here in Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado has warned, meanwhile, that without more aid, the government could suffer a shutdown by the end of the month.

Today, only about 40 percent of Puerto Ricans in the territory are employed or seeking work—more than 33% below levels on the mainland. The danger, now, is of increased flight—but flight by the young and those with college degrees. After all, with the PROMESA Board charged with fashioning a fiscal plan to pay off more than $70 billion in Puerto Rico’s municipal debt calling for efforts to raise taxes and significant cuts to the government, the Board has predicted continuing shrinkage of the Puerto Rican economy. Thus, there is a real apprehension

As a result, for Washington and Puerto Rican officials planning a recovery, the ongoing exodus poses a multifaceted dilemma. “They’ve got to start from the ground up,” a former U.S. Treasury official said of any new plan for the island. In the short-term, at least, the island is likely to see an economic boost; rebuilding after a hurricane often injects a jolt of spending into local economies. But, according to recent research of 90 years of natural disasters in the United States, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, major natural disasters also have unfavorable effects: They increase out-migration, lower home prices, and raise poverty rates. Like many on the island, Sergio M. Marxuach, policy director for the Center for a New Economy, a San Juan-based think tank, said a massive federal investment is necessary. “We’re going to need some significant government intervention — essentially a big rescue package, not only to rebuild the economy but get it growing…People are saying, ‘I don’t want my children to grow up in a place where the economy is going to be devastated for the next 10 years.’ If enough people think that way, it’s going to be a self-reinforcing downward spiral.”

In addressing complaints about ongoing struggles on the island, President Trump noted this week that the disaster in Puerto Rico in many ways had begun years ago. Puerto Rico “was in very poor shape before the hurricanes ever hit. Their electrical grid was destroyed before the hurricanes got there. It was in very bad shape, was not working, was in bankruptcy.”

At the Level of a Muncipio. While many have considered the fiscal and physical impact on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, fewer have considered the fiscal challenge to Puerto Rico’s municipalities. Consider, for instance, Juncos, one of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities: it is located in the eastern central region of the island; it is spread over 9 wards and Juncos Pueblo (the downtown area and the administrative center of the city). The city, one of the oldest in the United States,was founded on the request of Tomas Pizarro on August 2, 1797, having previously been a village which evolved from a small ranch, the Hatillo de los Juncos. Hurricane Maria has changed this municipality forever: more than 1,000 families in Juncos lost it all that unforgettable September 20th, when Hurricane Maria struck. Yet, in a remarkable effort, residents of the La Hormiga sector of Las Piñas neighborhood, in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, organized to help recover the humble community that is often highlighted by criminal incidents in the area: one of the community leaders of the sector, Wanda Bonilla, highlighted the deed of the trash rescuers: “Thanks to them, they have also relieved the pick up of the rubble.” The city’s community board worked immediately to install a shelter in the neighborhood community center given the circumstances that some 17 families, with between five and seven members each, where the storm tore the roofs off their homes—and most of those homes have single mothers. She noted: “Our president, Ivelisse Esquilín, who also lost everything, is helping us through the Municipality and with other donations.” Juncos Mayor Alfredo Alejandro noted that, in the wake of the storm, crossing arms was not an option for anyone “in the neighborhood” even though many of the 60 families living in the sector experienced the grief of having lost their home: “You have to do it because imagine …right now, look here, I have these pieces of a car to see if I invent a type of small generator to, even be, to turn on a fan.” The Mayor described Maria’s devastation to be of “great proportions:” Out of population of 42,000 people, more than 1,000 lost their homes and a comparable number suffered major damage to their structures; 85% of the city’s residents are still without potable water, while there are few expectations that electricity will soon be restored.

Can Congress Uninflict Federally Caused Fiscal & Economic Disparities & Distress?

October 13, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico, before heading north to New Jersey where the fiscal and governing strains between Atlantic City and the Garden State continue to fester.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Physical, Oratorical, & Fiscal Storms. President Trump served notice yesterday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria–even as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) goes to Puerto Rico this morning to assess not only the damage, but also how to more effectively respond to a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The Speaker will also bear some good news: the House yesterday approved 353-69, a $36.5 billion disaster aid package to help victims struggling to recover from a string of devastating hurricanes and wildfires, sending the aid package to the Senate, which returns from a weeklong recess next week. While the Trump administration requested $29 billion in supplemental spending last week, it asked for additional resources Tuesday night, including $4.9 billion to fund a loan program that Puerto Rico can use to address basic functions such as infrastructure needs. Speaker Ryan noted: “‎We think it’s critical that we pass this legislation this week to get the people the help they need, to support the victims, and also to help the communities still recovering and dealing with the problems with the hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló had warned Congressional leaders that the U.S. territory is “on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.”

President Trump yesterday claimed that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate for Puerto Rico, but that relief workers will not stay “forever,” even as, three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, much of Puerto Rico remains without power, with limited access to clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine, and many businesses remain  closed. The President added:  “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

The White House late yesterday issued a statement committing for now “the full force of the U.S. government” to the Puerto Rico recovery, seemingly contradicting the President, who has sought to portray Puerto Rico as in full recovery mode and has voiced frustration with what he considers mismanagement by local leaders. The Governor had warned earlier in the week that the U.S. territory is “on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.” The legislation the House adopted last night allows up to $4.9 billion in direct loans to local governments in a bid to ease Puerto Rico’s fiscal crunch—a vital lifeline, as, absent Congressional action, the territory may not be able to make its payroll or pay vendors by the end of this month.

In contrast, Speaker Ryan said that Puerto Rico must eventually “stand on its own two feet,” but that the federal government needs to continue to respond to the humanitarian crisis: “We’re in the midst of a humanitarian crisis…Yes, we need to make sure that Puerto Rico can begin to stand on its own two feet…But at the moment, there is a humanitarian crisis which has to be attended to, and this is an area where the federal government has a responsibility, and we’re acting on it.”

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), who was born in Puerto Rico, said in a statement that the President’s “most solemn duty is to protect the safety and the security of the American people. By suggesting he might abdicate this responsibility for our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, Mr. Trump has called into question his ability to lead. We will not allow the federal government to abandon Puerto Rico in its time of need.” Similarly, Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who will accompany Speaker Ryan today, said that those who live on the island “are American citizens and they deserve the federal assistance they need to recover and rebuild. The Chairman and the Committee fully stand by them in these efforts, and will continue to be at the ready to provide the victims of these devastating hurricanes with the necessary federal resources both now and in the future.” Without Congressional action, the territory may not be able to make its payroll or pay vendors by the end of the month. Unmentioned is whether such contemplated assistance might entail repealing the Jones Act—an act which means the price of goods in Puerto Rico is at least double that in neighboring islands—including the U.S. Virgin Islands. The New York Federal Reserve  found that the Act hurts the Puerto Rican economy—Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) and Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) have offered legislation to repeal or suspend the law.

President Trump yesterday warned that his administration’s response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico cannot last “forever,” tweeting: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” He added that the U.S. territory’s existing debt and infrastructure issues compounded problems. His tweeting came as the House is preparing to consider legislation under which Puerto Rico would receive a $4.9 billion low-interest federal loan to pay its bills through the end of October, as part of a $36.5 billion package. The temporary assistance comes as Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds to Ca from Caa3, in view of the protracted economic and revenue disruptions caused by Hurricane Maria. The President also threatened he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria: he said that relief workers will not stay “forever.” Three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall, much of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million Americans, remains without power. Residents struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine, and commerce is slow, with many businesses closed.

The lower ratings are aligned with estimates of Puerto Rico’s reduced debt servicing capacity given extensive damage from Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico faces almost total economic and revenue disruption in the near term and diminished output and revenue probably through the end of the current fiscal year and maybe well into the next. The weaker trajectory will undercut the government’s ability to repay its debt, a matter now being weighed in a bankruptcy-like proceeding authorized by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). For the University of Puerto Rico, the downgrade factors in expected pressure on enrollment-linked revenue and on funding from the Puerto Rican government.

With 155 mile-an-hour winds and a path that cut diagonally across the island, Hurricane Maria was the most destructive storm to hit Puerto Rico in almost 90 years. It knocked out all electric power, destroyed more than 100,000 homes, and ruptured bridges and other public infrastructure. Beyond the disruption of the immediate aftermath, the potential long-term repercussions may be somewhat mixed, however. On one hand, a massive exodus of residents relocating to the mainland, rather than rebuilding on the island, could further erode Puerto Rico’s economic base. Moody’s opined that an infusion of federal relief and rebuilding funds could spur the economic growth and infrastructure replacement that, under normal conditions, has eluded Puerto Rico: “We, nevertheless ,view the economic impact overall as a substantial negative that has weakened the commonwealth’s ability to repay creditors: The negative outlook is consistent with ongoing economic pressures, which will weigh on the commonwealth’s capacity to meet debt and other funding obligations, potentially driving bondholder recovery rates lower as restructuring of the commonwealth’s debt burden unfolds.”

Tens of thousands of islanders left for the U.S. mainland to escape the immediate aftermath of the storm. With conditions back home still grim—approximately 85 percent of residents still lack electricity and 40 percent are without running water, and neither is expected to be fully restored for months—many find themselves scrambling to build new lives away from the island. Particularly in states with large Puerto Rican populations, such as New York, Illinois, Florida, and Connecticut, people are bunking with relatives while trying to find longer-term housing, jobs and schools for their kids.

There have been several major migratory exoduses from Puerto Rico to the mainland over the years, most recently during the past decade when the island’s population shrank by about 10 percent because of a long economic slide that shows no sign of easing anytime soon. Hurricane Maria struck Sept. 20th, and, according to the latest figures from the Puerto Rican government, killed at least 45 people. It also created a new surge that could have lasting demographic effects on Puerto Rico and on the mainland. “I think that we could expect that people who did not plan to stay permanently might do so now,” said Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Florida International University who has long studied migration from the island. Many of those who left are elderly or sick people who fled or were evacuated because of the dangers posed by living on a tropical island with no power or air conditioning and limited water for an indefinite period of time.  It is too early to know exactly how many have departed Puerto Rico for the mainland, but Florida reports more than 20,000 have come to the Seminole state since Oct. 3rd. There were already about 1 million Puerto Ricans in the Sunshine State, second only to New York.

Addressing the urgency of fiscal assistance, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) stated: “These funds are vital right now, in the near term, to get the aid where it is needed most.” Puerto Rico faces a government shutdown at the end of the month without an infusion of cash, according to Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raul Maldonado: the proposed loan provides flexibility for repayment: it allows the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to “determine the terms, conditions, eligible uses, and timing and amount of federal disbursements of loans issued to a territory or possession, and instrumentalities and local governments.”

Gov. Ricardo Rossello Nevares, in his letter at the end of last week to the President, cited “independent damage assessments in the range of $95 billion–approximately 150% of Puerto Rico’s” economy, writing that “financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls: As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.”

Saving Atlantic City. New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez has ruled that Atlantic City can cut its Fire Department by 15 members early next year as a cost-saving measure under the Garden State’s Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, with his ruling lifting the restriction that any reduction in force must occur through retirements or attrition. Judge Mendez, who in late August had ruled against a state proposal for 50 layoffs, ruled no cuts may take place before February 1st—marking the first legal showdown under New Jersey’s Recovery Act takeover powers under designee Jeffrey Chiesa, which enables the state to alter outstanding municipal contracts. In his decision, Judge Mendez wrote: “Upon careful consideration of the facts and legal arguments, the court is of the view that the plan and timeline for immediate reductions is problematic but it’s not impermissible by the Recovery Act…The court will not restrict the Designee from establishing a plan to reduce the size of the ACFD from the current level of 195 to 180.”  Judge  Mendez ruled the state may exercise its authority; however, the cuts are not allowed until after Feb. 1, according to the ruling: “Upon careful consideration of the facts and legal arguments, the court is of the view that the plan and timeline for immediate reductions is problematic, but it’s not impermissible by the Recovery Act…The court will not restrict the Designee from establishing a plan to reduce the size of the ACFD from the current level of 195 to 180.” In his August ruling, the Judge had written that any reduction in force below 180 members would compromise public safety, and any further reduction would have to come through attrition and retirements. Under this week’s ruling, before the state makes cuts, however, officials must explore other funding to cover lost SAFER Grant funding, allow for additional attrition to take place, and provide fair notice to those who may lose their jobs.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said he had hoped the state would offer an early retirement incentive—especially after, last August, Gov. Chris Christie had signed a bill allowing the state to offer such an incentive to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs. However, the state has said the offer would not be financially beneficial, leading Mayor Guardian to note: “I am disappointed that the state has pushed forward this motion knowing that the state Senate, Assembly, and the Governor all passed an early retirement bill for just this reason: We could have easily gotten to 180 fighters through these incentives.”

New Jersey Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan noted: “We remain disappointed by the court’s insistence on requiring an artificially and unnecessarily high number of firefighters…While the decision to allow a modest reduction in firefighters on Feb. 1, 2018, will provide some budget relief, the city will still be forced to make additional and significant reductions to fire salaries in order to afford paying for 180 firefighters.” (Last January, the Fire Department had 225 members; now there are 195, or, as Judge Mendez wrote: “The plans to reduce the size of the ACFD have evolved from a request to approve a force of 125, resulting in a loss of 100 positions, to the current request to reduce the force to 180, resulting in a loss of 15 positions.” 

Human, Physical, & Fiscal Storms

October 3, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider Connecticut and its capital city’s fiscal road—including the assessment of municipal bankruptcy for Hartford, and then, with the President set to visit today, the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Road to Municipal Bankruptcy. Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo yesterday said the state, still lacking an FY2018 budget, remains on track to end the year with a deficit of $93.9 million under the provisions of an executive order by the Governor, even as Hartford City Council members yesterday received a legal report about the city’s bleak fiscal situation from advisers hired to explore chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy as one way to restructure Hartford’s fiscal future. An attorney from Greenberg Traurig, the firm hired by Hartford to assess the viability of Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, and a representative from financial advisory group Rothschild & Co., stressed that even if Hartford were to file for bankruptcy, the city would remain under the leadership and control of elected officials. Greenberg Traurig attorney Maria DiConza advised: “When a municipality files for bankruptcy, a judge, a court, does not take over and run the city: The city continues to run itself during the court-supervised process.” She added that filing for Chapter 9 protection would allow the city to restructure debt and re-open contractual arrangements: “It’s not a process where the court is taking over operations of the city. And that’s something that’s really important to understand.” Moreover, Todd Snyder, a restructuring specialist with Rothschild & Co., stressed that Hartford’s elected leaders would not be superseded by the orders of a federal bankruptcy court, should city leaders opt to take Hartford’s affairs there: “I want to be very, very clear—a federal judge is not going to come in here and say, ‘Oh, you’re overspending in this area, and you should change the way you govern the city of Hartford…That’s not going to happen.”

In response, Councilmember Larry Deutsch asked what would happen if the city “stiffed the bondholders” of a looming $27 million bond payment at the end of this month—in response to which, Mr. Snyder replied that opting not to make that municipal bond payment would be “tantamount to making the decision that you are going to file for bankruptcy.” Ms. DiConza advised that the city’s municipal bondholders could not repossess city property to cover missed payments, but they could take Hartford to court and try to force the city to raise taxes to cover its debts.

Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez questioned whether the two attorneys were doing enough to divert the city from bankruptcy “at all costs,” having previously deemed Mayor Luke Bronin’s consideration of municipal bankruptcy “undemocratic.” To that, Ms. DiConza said: “The city is trying to avoid bankruptcy—‘at all costs’ is really a question for you,” referring to the Council: “What is the cost of the city avoiding bankruptcy? Is the cost that people are going with trash all over their lawn, because there’s no trash service? Is the cost that crime is going to go up, because there’s no payments to the police force? Is the cost that taxes go up? That’s the question the city has to decide. What are the costs of avoiding Chapter 9?” Mr. Snyder added that whether or not Hartford files for municipal bankruptcy, the city still needs to address longstanding structural issues with the city’s finances that see it posting deficits and increasing debt year after year: “There’s a need to address all the constituencies about making contributions to this solution: We live in a beautiful city, and people have valuable property. I would think that restructuring our obligations and entering into a new partnership with the state would enhance everybody’s life in the city.”

In a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Mr. Lembo said the administration’s spending reduction authority under his executive order should allow him to meet current state savings targets, adding, however, that state spending trends so far, some 7.2 percent higher than the same period last fiscal year, demonstrate that fixed costs (including debt, state employee and teachers retirement and retiree health care) continue to rise, while discretionary spending is forcibly decreasing, writing: “The state’s municipalities, nonprofits and Connecticut residents, including the most vulnerable, depend on discretionary program spending for critical services and to enhance the quality of life…Vital programs that have faced significant cuts include Grants for Substance Abuse Services; Mental Health Service Grants; the Connecticut Home Care Program, Aid to the Disabled; Employment Opportunities; and the Early Care and Education program. He added: “The state’s capacity to meet its spending obligations is impaired by the inability to enact a budget that provides for policy changes that increase revenue. This problem is exacerbated each month as potential sources of additional revenue are foregone due to the absence of necessary changes to the revenue structure,” warning that as the “state enters the second quarter of the fiscal year, even a potential agreement to increase in the hospital tax remains in doubt, even though it would result in higher federal reimbursements. Moreover, ongoing budget uncertainty will slow Connecticut’s economic growth and could ultimately lead to the state and its municipalities receiving downgrades in credit ratings that will cost taxpayers even more…These results do not indicate Connecticut can grow its way out of the current revenue stagnation, especially in light of the state missing it revenue targets in the last two fiscal years.”

Adding to the downbeat state fiscal plight, he reported that preliminary state Department of Labor (DOL) data for August 2017 show that Connecticut lost 3,900 jobs during the month of August to a level of 1,687,200 seasonally adjusted, adding that July’s original preliminary job loss of 600 had been revised down by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to a loss of 1,100. Over the past 12-month period ending in August, the state has posted 6,000 new payroll jobs. During the last period of economic recovery, employment growth averaged over 16,000 annually. 

Physical & Fiscal Mayhem. Some two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, creating a humanitarian crisis, President Trump arrives today to see first-hand the damage, becoming the first President of the United States to make an official visit in the wake of a crisis. The President will meet with Gov. Rosselló Nevares and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz—who had alerted the media about the signal seeming disparities in responding to the human, physical, and fiscal crisis compared to Houston and Florida.

As President Trump visits Puerto Rico today, nearly two weeks after the destruction and havoc created by Hurricane Maria, officials report only 5% of the island has electricity and its schools are not close to reopening. Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Kelleher told CNN on Sunday that some public schools might not resume classes until mid-month because of storm damage, though decisions will be made on a regional basis. The U.S. territory has 1,113 public schools and a student population of 350,000; however, only a small fraction (400) have been assessed for damage; thus, school districts from Florida to Massachusetts are anticipating an influx of Puerto Rican students displaced by the hurricane, so a different kind of relief operation is underway to identify which schools have space and which resources will be needed in the wake of last month’s loss, all across Puerto Rico, of power and communications. Officials hope to reopen some schools by mid-month. Edwin Meléndez, Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, said his conservative estimate is that more than 200,000 children and adults will leave Puerto Rico for the mainland—with his decision coming one day after President Trump took to Twitter to criticize the leadership of Puerto Rican leaders, especially San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and those the President claimed “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” The inexplicably belated, temporary suspension of the Jones Act has enabled FEMA to expand its delivery of food and water throughout Puerto Rico, though officials stressed that many people still lack the essentials: FEMA has, finally, been able to deliver food and water to all of Puerto Rico’s 79 municipalities; however, FEMA reports that some isolated areas of these municipalities may not have received the commodities, partly because lack of communication systems has hampered distribution efforts. As of late Sunday, there was safe drinking water available to 41% of Puerto Rico; FEMA has installed eleven regional staging areas for food and water distribution; some 5 percent off the island has power, and Gov. Ricardo Rossello reported the Army Corps of Engineers has begun a mission to repair the power grid. Over the next few days, close to a million gallons of gasoline and half a million gallons of diesel fuel will arrive, according to the Governor, who added that just over one-third of Puerto Rico’s residents now have phone service: all landlines are operating, but only about 11% of the cell towers are operational; 51 of 69 hospitals are running in some capacity now, along with 46 of 48 dialysis centers.

Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon yesterday described the “patriotism, courage, compassion, and grit of the several thousand Coast Guard and other U.S. military personnel belatedly detailed by the White House to respond, writing: “But the overall approach might best be described as a modest response to a disaster: at a time when so many American citizens are suffering, we need to consider a much more massive effort.”

 

The Leadership Challenges on the Road to Fiscal and Physical Recovery

September 29, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico; Hartford’s steep fiscal challenges; and Detroit’s ongoing road to fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Fiscal Safety Net? The White House yesterday announced President Trump had agreed to waive the Jones Act, which will temporarily lift shipping restrictions on Puerto Rico and enable the hurricane-ravaged island to receive necessary aid; however, the waiver from the shipping law, which mandates that only American-made and-operated vessels may transport cargo between U.S. ports, will only last for 10 days, after which the equivalent of a 20 percent tax will be reimposed. The delayed U.S. response to the save U.S. citizens compared unfavorably to the response to save and protect foreign citizens in Haiti seven years ago, when the U.S. military mobilized as if it were going to war—with the U.S. military, in less than 24 hours, and before first light, already airborne, on its way to seize control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince. Within two days, the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route; within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated U.S. citizens, according to a briefing by an Army general yesterday, in addition to about 1,000 Coast Guard members.

The seemingly inexplicable delay in waiving the Jones Act—temporarily—was due to opposition of the waiver by the Department of Homeland Security, which had argued that a federal agency may not apply for a waiver unless there is a national defense threat (as, apparently, there might have been in Houston and Florida). Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) has, for years, sought to repeal this discriminatory law: The 1920 Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by vessels 1) built in the U.S., 2) majority-owned by American firms, and 3) crewed by U.S. citizens.

Key House and Senate members, since Monday, had been pressing for a one-year waiver from the rules in order to help accelerate deliveries of food, fuel, medical, and other critical supplies to Puerto Rico, especially with current estimates that Puerto Rico could be without power for six months. On Wednesday, 45 U.S. Senate and House Members had signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D.-N.Y.) warned: “If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico – and this will become his Katrina.” The temporary suspension of the onerous and discriminatory Jones law came only in the wake of a fierce backlash against the Trump administration for its inexplicable delay in not immediately lifting the federal law for Puerto Rico, especially after it issued a two-week waiver for Texas and Florida in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Nevertheless, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz praised the administration’s decision: she said it could help bring down the cost of emergency medical and other supplies, as well as vital construction materials by nearly 33 percent. Nevertheless, she warned there are still thousands of containers sitting idle at the ports of San Juan, a problem she blamed on “jurisdictional” and bureaucratic issues.

The belated Presidential action came as Puerto Rico continued to suffer the after effects of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Executive Director Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez warned it could take PREPA as much as half a year to restore electricity.

Meanwhile, it appears the PROMESA Oversight Board is ready to revise the amount of debt to be paid in the next nine years. The Board is scheduled to meet today in New York City to revise the March-approved fiscal plan: the current Board fiscal plan specifies there should be enough funds to pay approximately 24% of the debt; however, it appears the Board will have little choice today but to revise every fiscal plan. Clearly none of the previous underlying assumptions can hold, and now the Board will have to await the actions and finding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while the Treasury Department will have to work with Puerto Rico to settle on a massive restructuring—or, as Puerto Rico House Representative Rafael Hernández Montañez put it: “We can’t have money spent on corporate lawyers and PowerPoint producing technocrats while funding is needed for immediate reconstruction efforts.” While FEMA has committed to paying for 100 percent of the costs of some work, on others, it is mandating a match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work—a match which appears out of reach for the most savagely damaged municipalities or municipios—now confronted not just by enormous new capital and operating demands, but also by sharply reduced revenues.

Wednesday morning, the PREPA Bondholders Group offered up to $1.85 billion in debtor in possession loans to the authority. According to the group, part of the package would be a new money loan of up to $1 billion. Another part would be their possible acceptance of an $850 million in DIP notes in exchange for $1 billion in outstanding bonds owed to them—or, as the Group noted: “The new funding would allow PREPA to provide the required matching funds under various grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.” In response, PREPA’s Natalie Jaresko said: “We welcome and appreciate the expression of support from creditors…The Board will carefully consider all proposals in coordination with the government, but it is still very early as we begin to navigate a way forward following the catastrophic impact Hurricane Maria had on the island.”

The existing fiscal PREPA plan specifies there should be enough funding to pay about 24% of the debt due over the next decade; that, however, has raised questions with regard to the underlying assumptions of the Board, especially with regard to when FEMA will complete its work on the island.

Rafael Hernández Montañez, a member of Puerto Rico’s House, noted that Hurricane Maria put Puerto Rico’s territory-wide and municipal governments in very difficult financial situations. While FEMA has committed to paying for 100% of the costs of some work, he notes that the federal relief agency is still mandating a government match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work: “It’s going to be a huge effort to cover that 20% with the government’s unbalanced budget,” adding that the hurricane will also lead to reduced revenues for the local governments.

On Wednesday, 145 U.S. Representatives and Senators signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement–the same day as the PREPA Bondholders Group offer. 

The Category 4 Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid; it left the island desperately short of food, clean water, and fuel—and sufficient shipping options, notwithstanding the claim from the Department of Homeland Security that: “Based on consultation with other federal agencies, DHS’s current assessment is that there is sufficient numbers of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.” Thus DHS opposed a waiver of the Jones Act (Under the Jones Act federal cabotage rules, the entry of merchandise into Puerto Rico can only be made on US flag and crew ships – the most expensive fleet in the world.), which has been suspended in past natural disasters, to allow less expensive, foreign-flagged ships bring in aid. Former President George W. Bush suspended the Act after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and President Barack Obama suspended it after superstorm Sandy in 2012. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. McCain criticized the department for waiving the Jones Act in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but not for Puerto Rico. The Senator, who has long sought a repeal of the Jones Act, noted: “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies, and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster: Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act.”  Only the Department of Defense may obtain a Jones Act waiver automatically, which it did to move petroleum products from Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The White House is expected to send Congress a request for a funding package for Puerto Rico in the next few weeks, a senior congressional aide said.

The Road to Hartford’s Default. Citing deep cuts to higher education, sharp reductions in aid to distressed communities, and unsound deferrals of public pension payments, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday made good on his pledge to veto the budget that legislature, earlier this month, had adopted, deeming it: “unbalanced, unsustainable, and unwise,” adding his apprehension that were it to be implemented, it would undermine the state’s long-term fiscal stability and essentially guarantee the City of Hartford’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. His veto came as the Governor and top legislators continued bipartisan talks in an attempt to reach a compromise; however, despite legislative attempts to pass a bill to increase the hospital provider tax to 8 percent, a 25 percent increase over the current level, the legislature will not meet today. In his executive order, the Governor allowed key stated services to remain operating; however, he ordered steep cuts to municipalities and certain social service programs: under his orders, approximately 85 communities would see their education cost sharing grants, the biggest source of state funding for public education in Connecticut, cut to zero next month—no doubt a critical element provoking the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, which represents more than 100 of the state’s smallest communities, to seek an override in a special session the week after next in order to avoid local property tax increases. Nevertheless, Gov. Malloy stood strongly against the Republican plan and a potential override, stating: “This budget adopts changes to the state’s pension plan that are both financially and legally unsound…This budget grabs ‘savings’ today on the false promise of change a decade from now, a promise that cannot be made because no legislature can unilaterally bind a future legislature.” He added his apprehensions that the changes proposed to the state’s pension system could expose Connecticut taxpayers to potentially costly litigation down the road: “Prior administrations and legislatures have, over decades, consistently and dangerously underfunded the state’s pension obligations,’’ a strategy, he noted, which he said has led to crippling debt and limited the state’s ability to invest in transportation, education, and other important initiatives. Nonetheless, Republican leaders urged the Governor to sign the two-year, $40.7 billion budget, saying it makes significant structural changes, such as capping the state’s bonding authority and limiting spending. Fiscally conservative Democrats who bolted to the Republican side had criticized a Democratic budget proposal which had proposed new taxes on vacation homes, monthly cellphone bills, and fantasy sports betting, as well as increased taxes on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel room rates.

House Republican leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) warned she and her colleagues will try to override the veto—a steep challenge, as in Connecticut, that requires a two-thirds vote in each chambers, meaning 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate. The crucial Republican amendment passed with 78 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate—well short of the override margin in both chambers. The action came as S&P Global Ratings this week lowered Hartford’s credit rating, writing that its opinion “reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty,” albeit noting that the city could still avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy by restructuring its debts. The agency wrote: “In our view, the potential for a bond restructuring or distressed exchange offering has solidified with the news that both bond insurers are open to supporting such a measure in an effort to head off a bankruptcy filing. Under our criteria, we would consider any distressed offer where the investor receives less value than the promise of the original securities to be tantamount to a default. The mayor’s public statement citing the need to restructure even if the state budget provides necessary short-term funds further supports our view that a restructuring is a virtual certainty.” Hartford’s fiscal plight is, if anything, made more dire by the fiscal crisis of Connecticut, which is still without a budget—and where the Legislature has under consideration a budget proposal from the Governor to slash state aid to the state’s capitol city of Hartford—where the Mayor notes that even were the state to make the payments it owes, Hartford would still be unable to pay its debts—so that S&P dropped the city’s credit rating from B- to C—a four-notch downgrade, writing: “The downgrade to ‘CC’ reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty.”

The Steep Recovery Road. Almost three years after exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy, Detroit is meeting its plan of debt adjustment, but still confronts fiscal challenges to a full return to the municipal market, even as it nears its exit from Michigan state oversight next year. Detroit’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer and City Finance Director, John Hill, this week noted that while the Motor City recognizes that any debt the city plans to issue will still need a security boost from a quality revenue stream and some enhancement, such as a state intercept, Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment did not assume the need for market access in a traditional and predictable way, without added security layers, for at least a decade. That assessment remains true today, as Detroit nears its third anniversary from its exit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. With chapter 9, Mr. Hill adds: “Everything that we have been able to do since exiting bankruptcy has an attached revenue stream to it: You secure it, and bond lawyers agonize over how that will be protected in the unlikely event of another bankruptcy, because everyone has to ask the question now. Then there is a strong intercept mechanism that goes to a trustee like U.S. Bank where the bondholders now know this is absolutely secure.”

Municipal Market Analytics partner Matt Fabian notes that Detroit continues to struggle with challenges which predate its chapter 9 bankruptcy, adding the city is unlikely to regain an ability to access the traditional municipal markets on its own in the near-to-medium term: “They don’t have traditional reliable access where if they need to go to the market, you can predict with certainty that they will and they will be within a generally predictable spread,” adding that reestablishing its presence in the traditional market is important, because it indicates whether bondholders have confidence in the city as a going concern. In fact, Detroit has adopted balanced budgets for two consecutive years; it is on a fiscal path to exiting Michigan Financial Review Commission oversight, and the city ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus in its general fund; however, Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast shows an annual growth rate of only about 1%.

The city’s public pension obligations, mayhap the thorniest issue in cobbling together its plan of debt adjustment, are to be met per its economic plan, via a balloon payment.  Mr. Fabian notes that the Motor City’s recovery plan and future revenue growth is complicated by the need to set aside from surpluses an additional $335 million between Fy2016 and Fy2023 to address that significant, unfunded pension liability, worrying that while the plan is “fiscally responsible;” nevertheless, it comes “at the expense of using these funds for reinvestment and service improvement.”

The plan to address pension obligations is aimed at shoring up the city’s long-term fiscal health and Naglick says it shows the city has recognized the need to tackle it. Detroit developed a long-term funding model with the help of actuarial consultant Cheiron, obtained City Council approval for changes to the pension funding ordinance that established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million into this IRS Section 115 Trust. This fund, said Detriot CFO John Naglick, will grow to over $335 million by 2024 and will provide a buffer to increased contributions beginning then. “More importantly, the growing contributions each year from the general fund to the trust will build budget capacity to make the increased contributions in future years,” he said.

Mayor Mike Duggan claimed during his 2016 State of the City speech that consultants who advised the city through bankruptcy had miscalculated the pension deficit by $490 million. Pension woes aren’t the only challenge the city faces. Fabian said that economic development has been limited to the city’s downtown and midtown areas. The rest of Detroit’s neighborhoods haven’t fared so well.

Dan Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Gerry Anderson, the Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, are regarded to be among the important business leaders in Detroit, two key sectors of the Motor City’s economy, who see Detroit’s fiscal and economic trajectory as intertwined with the future of their companies; they  have headquarters in downtown and employ thousands of people including Detroiters—companies which had been making conscious and deliberate investments in the city. Asked recently to offer their perspectives about where Detroit is headed and how to include the many who are left out of the recovery, Mr. Loepp responded: “I’m a native Detroiter, and I lead a company that’s been a business resident of Detroit for nearly 80 years. I remember how uneasy it felt to be in Detroit when the national economy collapsed 10 years ago. It was hard and scary…From then to now, I strongly believe Detroit’s comeback is one of the best stories in America. The downtown is pulsing with growth and action. You’ve got business and residential development that has connected the river to Midtown and is now expanding into neighborhoods.” He added Detroit today is clear of debt and venture capital flowing backed by a city leadership which is “working well together, noting Detroit today is “now positioned to compete and win investment and jobs against any city in the country. All of this is great for Detroit.”

Notwithstanding, he warned that challenges remain: “The bankruptcy, while hard, gave the city’s leadership a clean slate to solve challenges faced by residents. The Mayor and council are working together on issues like lighting, infrastructure, zoning, and demolition…the Mayor, especially, has spent considerable energy advocating for the people of Detroit—doing things like making sure new housing developments hold space for working people of all incomes. This will promote a stronger, more diverse Detroit…Institutional issues, like improving the city’s schools and making neighborhoods safer for city residents, will take time to solve. They will take a constant, steady focus. And they need people within state and local government to work hand-in-hand with people from the neighborhoods to do the tough labor of finding sustainable solutions.” Nevertheless, he cautioned that the Motor City’s recovery is incomplete without participation of the majority: “Detroit can’t truly ‘come back’ if people living in the city are left behind. We need to always make sure there is a focus on people and that we make people a priority. Schools need to be improved. Transit needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. Employment opportunities and housing need to be part of the master plan.”

A Human & Fiscal Disaster

September 27, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s second Blog, we consider the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

President Trump has amended the Puerto Rico Disaster Declaration to provide that the federal government will cover 100%, rather than the usual 75%, of costs for debris removal and emergency protective measures in the wake of the extraordinary human, physical, and fiscal damage wrought—damage surely certain to set back the U.S. territory’s fiscal recovery and efforts under Judge Laura Taylor Swain to work out a quasi-plan of debt adjustment. Puerto Rico faces weeks, if not months, without electric service as utility workers repair power plants and lines that were already falling apart. It faces a potential permanent outflow of residents who can afford to leave—potentially leaving behind a quasi-state with disproportionate numbers of retired, poor, and less educated Americans. Judge Swain yesterday issued an order to indefinitely postpone the Title III PROMESA hearing, which had been scheduled for next Monday: she requested that stakeholders to submit comments by tomorrow with regard to when the hearing should be rescheduled—adding that all subsequent hearings will take place in New York City. Nonetheless, the attorneys representing the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority made clear their desire to move forward with the case as swiftly as possible: “Despite Puerto Rico’s current circumstances, FAFAA desires to move forward with these Title III cases with as little disruption as possible: FAFAA believes that any significant delay in advancing these Title III cases would place a cloud of uncertainty over these proceedings and potentially undermine the progress achieved to date.”

At the same time, elected leaders of the Puerto Rico House and Senate have requested that the PROMESA Oversight Board stop enforcing the fiscal plan’s austerity measures for at least this year and possibly over the next five years; Puerto Rico House President Carlos Méndez Núñez reportedly asked the Oversight Board to suspend all legal proceedings against the Puerto Rico government.

President Trump yesterday announced he will visit Puerto Rico early next week, stating: “The infrastructure was in bad shape, as you know, in Puerto Rico, before the storm…And now, in many cases, it has no infrastructure. So you’re really starting from almost scratch.” The announcement and tweets, far later than announcements, federal assistance, and Presidential visits to Houston and Florida in the wake of their respective hurricane, came in the wake a  series of tweets about Puerto Rico  Monday evening, including a reference to the “billions of dollars … owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with,’’ a tweet which drew criticism from U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who stated on the Senate floor that raising the debt issue paled “in comparison to the immediate humanitarian crisis that the island faces,” adding: “Puerto Rico needs help from aid workers, not debt collectors from Wall Street: Yes, Puerto Rico needs debt relief, but first they need humanitarian relief. Water. Food. Medicine. Fuel.” He asked that the administration prepare an immediate federal aid request to Congress for a vote by the end of this week, pointedly noting: “The administration submitted a request for aid for Hurricane Harvey less than a week after the storm made landfall: We are rapidly closing in on that same marker for Maria hitting Puerto Rico.” His remarks came as a group of 10 Democratic U.S. Senators yesterday sent a letter Tuesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., asking for both chambers to begin “immediate consideration of a supplemental appropriations bill to provide relief for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake Hurricane Irma and now Hurricane Maria…Specifically, we are asking that additional funds be provided to ensure an adequate balance in FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, and Community Development Block Grants for disaster recovery along with other disaster relief accounts be authorized and funded to respond to this catastrophe.’’

According to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) office, Congress is likely to act on several pieces of legislation: First up will be a supplemental “to ensure the FEMA disaster relief fund (DRF) has sufficient funds for immediate relief and recovery,” likely early in October, noting that the DRF also funds rebuilding and post-disaster mitigation—albeit that can take years to do. The Speaker’s office also expects the House will be “likely to provide more,” with the Speaker committing that the emerging package will address not just Puerto Rico, but also the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as remaining needs from the havoc wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The Speaker made clear Puerto Rico will get the same kind of help and aid as Texas and Florida, adding: “The bill we passed out of here a couple of weeks again for FEMA equally applies to Puerto Rico.”

All of Puerto Rico, yesterday, remained without power, except for generators being run by hospitals. Officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency have not yet offered an estimate when power or communication will be restored, but FEMA has identified the supplies needed for power restoration that will be delivered by barge once Puerto Rico’s ports are reopened. That will be a Herculean challenge: catastrophe risk modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated that more than 85% of the $40 billion to $85 billion in estimated insured industry losses caused by Maria are in Puerto Rico. AIR added that its estimate does not include infrastructure repair and replacement, the cost of hazardous waste cleanup, damage to pleasure boats and other marine craft, damage to levees or uninsured property. Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R-P.R.), Puerto Rico’s non-voting Representative in Congress has estimated that Hurricane Maria caused at least $25 billion in damage.

Long Term. Former U.S. Treasury official Kent Hiteshew, the Director of the Treasury Department’s Office of State and Local Finance in the Obama administration, said, “In the short-term, Hurricane Maria is likely to produce a severe economic and fiscal shock in Puerto Rico and may further accelerate out-migration off the Island – at least temporarily…Longer term, Maria’s silver lining will likely be significant amounts federal recovery aid that could stimulate Puerto Rico’s economy and rebuild its infrastructure in a way that would not have otherwise been possible absent the hurricane.” Nevertheless, he pointed out that apart from the President’s announcement that FEMA will pick up 100% of certain initial cleanup costs, any rebuilding aid provided by FEMA will likely be accompanied by limitations: “FEMA’s programs are administratively complex, funded on a reimbursement basis and generally project, rather than general fund-based: FEMA only funds repair and rebuilding of damaged facilities–not necessarily the broader capital plan envisioned in PROMESA’s Fiscal Plan. We will have to await more detailed assessments of Maria’s damage before we can fully understand the FEMA rebuilding opportunities.” He made an even more critical point: “Lastly, PROMESA’s Fiscal Plan will likely need to be revisited in light of all of these factors with potentially even fewer available revenues for debt service–at least in the near term: Any adjustments in the Fiscal Plan will impact the current litigation and debt restructuring mediation because, under PROMESA, any Plan of Adjustment must comply with the Fiscal Plan.”

Fiscal & Human Consequences. Florida government officials are taking measures to help Puerto Ricans migrating to that state–estimated in hundred thousand–as a result of Hurricane Maria. Florida State Representative Bob Cortés, the former Deputy Mayor of the Longwood City Commission, estimated a potential influx of 100,000 Puerto Ricans to Florida, noting: “Everyone here in Florida has family in Puerto Rico, and every Puerto Rican has lost something on the Island, those Puerto Ricans are going to come and take refuge with their relatives. Personally, I have seven relatives who are coming to my house.” That is, there is a potential double fiscal whammy: an outflow of those most fiscally and physically able to leave Puerto Rico—leaving behind a more aged, poorer U.S. territory, but a territory now confronting far steeper costs, short-term and long-term with a gravely deteriorated tax base.

Physical & Fiscal Tempests

September 26, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the physical and fiscal threats to Connecticut’s capitol city, and the comparable crime apprehensions which could adversely affect Detroit’s ongoing recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, before assessing the equity of the U.S. response to the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico–and what that might mean to its efforts of physical and fiscal recovery. 

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

 

Bleeding Hartford. As the City of Hartford reeled from a violent weekend during which two men were killed just hours apart, city leaders yesterday promised to bring more police to fearful neighborhoods, with Mayor Luke Bronin vowing the police department will continue increased staffing in areas where crime statistics show “a spike in violence or a risk of increased violence.” The Mayor’s vows came, however, at the same time he yesterday warned the holders of the city’s outstanding municipal bonds that Hartford has exhausted its fiscal capacity to levy new or higher taxes‒or to cut its way out of its insolvency: he reiterated that Hartford needs a substantial amount of state funding to avoid a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In a call with investors, Mayor Bronin detailed the city’s fiscal trauma, as well as its potential chapter 9 considerations—with one person describing the blueprint as relying on the “Detroit timeline as template for success,” referring to Detroit’s initial offer for pennies on the dollar. In this instance, the pre-planned investor call was made in the wake of Assured Guaranty’s public offer to support a refinancing of Hartford’s debt under a new Connecticut state law‒a plan under which the city would realize reduced debt service costs over the next 15 years‒with the remaining costs like a ball and chain extended far into the future, or, as Assured described it: “We believe a consensual agreement among stakeholders offers the city a better path forward than bankruptcy.”

Mayor Bronin, for his part, noted: “I appreciate Assured’s willingness to have constructive discussions…We are interested in long-term solutions that leave the city with a path to sustained solvency and strength.” The statements came as the city is biding time awaiting how much aid it might receive from the state, which itself is struggling, confronting high taxes, falling revenues, $73 billion of pension and debt obligations, and the risk of a greater out-migration of its citizens and businesses, as it is confronted by a $3.5 billion deficit over the next two years, even as its budget is nearly three months overdue. That is, Hartford’s fiscal deterioration has become part of a context of broader credit deterioration in the state—which, in response, appears likely to struggle within a context of worsening local credit quality in Connecticut. Not only is the state likely to make deep cuts to local aid in the current biennium: the state is already assuming that its municipalities will draw down reserves as a result—meaning that the fiscal ripples are likely to adversely the borrowing costs of municipalities throughout the state.

The Dangerous Road to Recovery. The FBI released data yesterday, which found that violent crime in Detroit surged 15.7 percent last year, ranking the city as the nation’s most violent big city, albeit a finding city police officials disputed. Last year, there were 13,705 violent crimes reported—murder, rape, assault, and robbery—more than 10 percent greater than the previous year. Nevertheless, Detroit Police Chief James Craig described the FBI numbers as wrong: he blamed an antiquated software system (CRISNET), which he said caused crimes to be double reported. The system, which was replaced in December, shows a 5 percent reduction in violent crime last year, according to Chief Craig. According to the FBI, Detroit’s rate of 2,047 violent crimes per 100,000 people placed it highest among cities with more than 100,000 residents, higher than St. Louis and Memphis, Tennessee—and seemingly reversing the city’s post chapter 9 implementation of its plan of debt adjustment: violent crime in the Motor City had declined 13% in 2015, making it second in the country behind St. Louis.  According to the FBI report, murders rose in Detroit last year as well: 303 in 2016 from 295 in 2015, up 3 percent, albeit that lagged the national violent crime rate increase, which rose for the second year in a row, up 4.1 percent from last year. Murders in the United States were up by 8.6 percent, according to the FBI data. Thus, notwithstanding the headlines the Windy City, Chicago, has garnered for its rise in murders: 765 in 2016 compared with 478 in 2015, a 60 percent increase, Chicago’s is significantly lower than Detroit’s.

A Double Standard for Puerto Rico? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló yesterday warned the U.S. territory was on the brink of a “humanitarian crisis,” even as U.S. Navy vessels docked in Virginia which could be invaluable in rendering the kinds of critical recovery the federal government provided to communities in Texas and Florida remain docked nearly a week after Hurricane Maria knocked out all of Puerto Rico’s electricity, most of its potable water, and fearful of the collapse of a major dam. The Governor urged Congress to act swiftly to avert a deepening disaster, asking that Puerto Rico be accorded the same treatment as hurricane-ravaged states. Despite the silence from President Trump, the Governor urged Republican leaders in Congress to move swiftly to send more funds, supplies, and relief workers: “Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, can turn into a humanitarian crisis…To avoid that, recognize that we Puerto Ricans are American citizens; when we speak of a catastrophe, everyone must be treated equally.”

The dire physical situation, moreover, could bode even more dire fiscal consequences: as Gov. Rosselló warned Puerto Ricans are expected to flee in droves to the continental U.S., increasingly leaving behind the old and the poor, aggravating the fiscal hurricane—or, as the Governor put it: “If we want to prevent, for example, a mass exodus, we have to take action. Congress, take note: Take action, permit Puerto Rico to have the necessary resources.”

In the wake of criticism for a lack of public support for Puerto Rico, President Trump yesterday took time from tweeting about the NFL to post a pair of tweets which nevertheless identified the devastating connections between the natural disaster to Puerto Rico’s increasingly desperate fiscal situation, writing that while Florida and Texas were coping well from hurricane damage, “Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” adding in a subsequent tweet: “…owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities—and doing well.” Congressional leaders yesterday claimed they were awaiting assessments of the damage in Puerto Rico, as well as a formal disaster request from the Trump administration, before Congress can act; unfortunately, such a request is not expected until early to mid-October, even as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghusyen (R-N.J.) issued a statement noting that Puerto Ricans on the island “are entitled to equal treatment under the law.”

FEMA is currently drawing from the same $15.3 billion appropriation approved this month by Congress in response to Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas, and Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida and damaged Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands. FEMA Director Brock Long, and Thomas P. Bossert, the President’s Homeland Security adviser, were both in Puerto Rico yesterday to assess the damage, with Director Long asserting that the federal government had 10,000 people “working around the clock” to help Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans can now file damage claims with FEMA, which has sent teams to 10 municipios to go house to house to collect information and pass it on, according to Gov. Rosselló; nevertheless, more than half the territory is without potable water—100 percent is without electricity. All of Puerto Rico’s wastewater and water treatment plants lack electricity.

Some Democrats want Congress to quickly approve a relief bill, but to, at the same time, temporarily forgive Puerto Rico’s loan repayments and remove a requirement that Puerto Rico contribute into the federal emergency pot. Indeed, the physical and fiscal damage to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, has meant the halt of all PROMESA-related creditor and debtor considerations: in the wake of the storm, and the diversion of all Puerto Rico governmental focus on saving lives, it is unlikely Puerto Rico will be making interest payments on its debts for the foreseeable future: the restoration of vital public utilities to ensure the provision of water and electricity is a much higher priority: there is access to safe drinking water to only a quarter of Puerto Rico’s residents. In the three decades that National Guard Brigadier General Wendul G. Hagler II has served, he described the situations as “about as large a scale damage as I have ever seen.” 

A related fiscal danger could be an accelerating exodus of more educated and skilled Puerto Ricans, likely in the thousands, to leave for the continental U.S., leaving behind a population in need of far greater vital public services, but a deteriorated tax base—with some estimates that such an exodus could be greater than 10%.