Federalism & Fiscal Challenges

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eBlog, 2/07/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider some of the implications of New Jersey’s constitution with regard to the state’s takeover of Atlantic City: does the state takeover violate parts of the Garden State’s constitution? Then we head south to the Caribbean to try to understand the extraordinary fiscal challenges to the neighboring U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

New Jersey Federalism? New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez has issued an order temporarily blocking the state’s effort to eliminate one hundred Atlantic City firefighter positions—all part of an order which momentarily halts the state from imposing any layoffs or unilateral contract changes to Atlantic City’s 225-member fire department. The issue and legal challenge here arose in the wake of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 198, and the AFL-CIO filing a lawsuit arguing that the State of New Jersey’s action under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act—which empowered the state takeover of the City, and authorized New Jersey’s Local Finance Board to take over the city, violates New Jersey’s constitution. The suit comes even as the state’s Department of Community Affairs claims the state had already decided before the ruling to push back implementing the firefighter cuts until next September—with the changes to pay structure, hours, and overtime postponed until the end of next week; however, the state made clear the “temporary restraining order signed by Judge Mendez does not change the State’s timetable for advancing reforms of Atlantic City firefighters’ contracts…We decided to delay implementing the proposed contract reforms until February 19th as a good faith gesture to give the fire department more time to prepare.”

Judge Mendez had initially scheduled a hearing for next Monday; however, the state successfully fought to get the case removed to federal court at an undetermined date. Judge Mendez issued the restraining order despite the state, in a court filing, advising the court it would hold off implementing the proposed 100 layoffs until September, and would delay changes to pay structure, hours, overtime, and benefits until February 19th. However, Judge Mendez’s order bars the state from taking any action under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act that is “in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection, Contracts, Takings, Collective Negotiation, and Civil Service clauses of the New Jersey Constitution.” The case marks the first legal challenge to the broad state preemption and takeover of Atlantic City imposed by the state last November: the subsequent court case could shape up to be a significant test of the takeover’s constitutionality against criticisms that it violates residents’ civil rights and the collective bargaining rights of the city’s unions.

The state’s strategy in responding by seeking removal to the federal court seems exceptional—and in stark contrast to the unique concept of dual federalism in this country, especially so in this case, because the New Jersey constitution includes a comparable provision with regard to voiding contracts—or, as a colleague late last night noted: “It’s odd for a state law to be appealed to the federal court when there are state constitutional issues at stake.” Nevertheless, the filing raises two issues: 1) would a federal court even consent? It is, after all, a matter of New Jersey law, and 2) it would seem, especially in a New Jersey court, that the state constitution issue should supersede a federal action.  

At the same time, in a separate fiscal arena, Moody’s Investor Service’s affirmed  Atlantic City’s deep-junk level Caa3 bond rating and retained the city’s negative outlook, citing an ongoing “liquidity crisis” and likely default in the next year notwithstanding the state’s takeover—the city, after all, is confronting a structural deficit of more than $100 million and has suffered five casino closures since 2014; it has $240 million in municipal bond debt and more than $500 million in total debt when factoring in casino tax refunds and other obligations. It would seem Moody’s is seeking to ensure investors are aware of what is transpiring—and needed to remind the city’s municipal bondholders that there will be a new Governor who will have to reassess what actions—and relationship with Atlantic City—they ought to consider.

Statehood I? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law a bill for a June referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status. The law provides for a non-binding referendum that would allow the U.S. territory to vote on statehood. The referendum, to be held this June, will allow the voters to choose between statehood and independence/free association. Those in support of Puerto Rican statehood believe approving statehood could help the country restructure its $70 billion in public debt and stave off further federal austerity measures. Functionally, if approved, Puerto Rican statehood would allow the state to receive $10 billion in federal funds per year, as well as allowing government agencies and municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In signing the legislation, Gov. Rosselló called the vote “a civil rights issue;” he said the U.S. will have to “respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy.” Importantly, if granted statehood, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico would, at long last, no longer be denied many of the benefits provided to citizens in U.S. mainland and Hawaii, including equal access to Social Security and Medicare, despite paying taxes for these services. In addition, Puerto Rico’s representatives in Congress would be granted the same voting rights as all other Members of Congress—except for the Delegate from the District of Colombia. Under the referendum, voters would, in effect, determine whether to alter Puerto Rico’s status as a territory granted under the Jones-Shafroth Act: they will be asked if they support Puerto Rico becoming a state or a country independent of the United States of America. Should voters opt for independence, a subsequent referendum next October would be held to determine whether citizens wish to maintain some sort of association with the U.S., or become independent. In a written statement from Gov. Rosselló, Puerto Rico House of Representatives President Carlos Méndez said, “The colonial situation that currently defines Puerto Rico has deprived Puerto Ricans of participating fully in the federal government, of voting for the president of the United States, of electing representatives with a say and vote in the federal congress, and of receiving equal treatment in opportunities that strengthen socio-economic development and quality of life.”

Statehood or Independence? Even as Gov. Rosselló has signed into law a provision to allow Puerto Rico’s citizens to vote on their own governing destiny, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-Puerto Rico) today plans to offer legislation in Congress to promote a federal plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans can select between independence and a free association pact between Puerto Rico and the United States, with a draft of his proposal, as reported by El Nuevo Día, stating: “The annexation of Puerto Rico as a state of the Union would be detrimental both to the United States and to Puerto Rico. It is time to return sovereignty to Puerto Rico…Statehood and full assimilation—in which Puerto Rico delivers its nationality, culture, Olympic team, language, and ability to determine its future—is not the only option and is not the best option for Puerto Ricans.” Under the proposed legislation, all Puerto Ricans or a father or mother born in Puerto Rico, would be granted the right to vote; rights granted via federal programs, such as veterans, pensions, and benefits from military service would be recognized. The proposal suggests a process to restructure public debt as well as an agreement to keep the current total of federal transfers, as a bloc, during a transitional period. The bill provides that citizenship of Puerto Rico would be recognized; however, Puerto Ricans would be eligible to retain U.S. citizenship.

Caribbean Fiscal Contagion? Fitch Ratings has lowered its credit ratings for the U.S. Virgin Islands, just seventeen miles from Puerto Rico, downgrading its ratings on about $216 million of the U.S. territory’s water and power authority municipal bonds—acting in the wake of the island government’s rescission of a utility rate increase which had been approved last month. Fitch’s action put the island’s ratings eight levels below investment grade—and near default, and came in the wake, last month, of its downgrade of the Virgin Islands’ public finance authority, which borrows on behalf of the government, writing: “The rating downgrade reflects the heightened credit risk as a consequence of the island’s Water & Power Authority’s continued inability to gain regulatory approval of rate relief needed to address its exceptionally weak cash flow and liquidity.” The downgrade came in the wake of the U.S. territory’s increasing inability to issue municipal debt: the government has been unable to issue municipal debt since December, twice delaying a planned $219 million municipal bond sale. The U.S. territory, confronted by budget shortfalls, had intended to use the bond proceeds to help cover the government’s bills. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp has proposed a series of tax increases intended to bolster the territory’s finances and restoring its access to the financial markets. However, as the Romans used to say: tempus fugit: Last week, Gov. Mapp warned the government may not be able to make payroll by the middle of this month if nothing is done.

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