Accounting for Municipal Futures

July 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider we consider the ongoing governance challenges in Puerto Rico—and how distinct its form of governmental bankruptcy is, before looking at some innovative efforts by Puerto Rico’s elected local leaders to institute new accounting measures.

Who’s in Charge of Puerto Rico’s Physical and Fiscal Future? U.S. District Judge Laura Swain Taylor has granted a motion by the Commonwealth to accelerate the terms of the motions and the aftershocks associated with the lawsuit filed by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares against the PROMESA Oversight Board, a judicial action which Christian Sobrino, the Governor’s representative before the Board, could be completed the end of this month, noting: “The Judge has a good appreciation of the right which will apply in the case and understands that (the dispute in the lawsuit) is a matter that is not dependent on facts, but rather on an interpretation of PROMESA statute.In the case, which was filed as an adversarial suit within the government’s quasi bankruptcy cases, Judge Swain is asked to issue an injunction and a declaratory judgment against the Oversight Board for preempting, by means of its fiscal plan and budget aims, to impose public policy decisions, rather than recommend “non-binding” recommendations. Therefore, the motion asserts the Governor does not have to comply, or, as he put it: “I think the judge appreciates how essential it is (the demand) for the government’s operation.”

The motion would appear to set a short time frame: the Oversight Board would have to respond to the demand by Thursday; responses to the motions will continue until July 20th, with the arguments considered as part of an “omnibus” hearing scheduled for July 25th in the District Court of Puerto Rico, in Hato Rey, the most densely populated neighborhood in San Juan. In his complaint, the Governor has argued that the Board is intent upon “micro administering” the government of Puerto Rico—a governing responsibility which belongs to his administration, and not to the body created by the U.S. Congress to control the finances of the government of Puerto Rico—adding that the remedy requested by the government of Puerto Rico does not imply that the fiscal plan approved by the Oversight Board last April is nullified, but rather that the so-called ‘corrective sheets’ issued by the Board, such as the suspension of the Christmas bonus, the reduction of personnel in the public service, or the consolidation of agencies, and the way in which the pension plans will be reformed, are competences of the government—not of the Oversight Board. A key sticking point, as we have noted, has been with regard to Law 80, the Law on Unjustified Dismissal (Law 80). The Board had demanded the preemption or elimination of this law, asserting it would improve the business climate in Puerto Rico—a preemption unsurprisingly opposed by legislative leaders, who had rejected an agreement between Gov. Rosselló Nevares and the PROMESA Board in which, in exchange for the repeal of Law 80, the Board would have granted a series of increases to some budget items for the new fiscal year which commenced this month. Thus, Gov. Rosselló, last Thursday, went to court to challenge the budget imposed by the PROMESA Oversight Board, claiming the Board had overstepped its authority. Moreover,

Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said he supported the Governor’s suit against the both the Board and its proposed preemption budget, while the Board defended its authority, citing the 2016 PROMESA statute enacted, theoretically, to help the Commonwealth manage its economy and restructure its debt. In response, the PROMESA Board issued a statement: “The Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico approved and certified a Commonwealth budget for FY2019 in compliance with the certified fiscal plan and in accordance with [the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act to put Puerto Rico on the road to recovery. The Oversight Board will vigorously defend against any suit attempting to thwart the carrying out of the budget and fiscal plan,”  referring to the fiscal plan it had approved on June 30th by unanimous consent and declaring it to be the valid budget for Puerto Rico—a proposed budget which allocated $8.758 billion for the General Fund and $20.664 billion for Puerto Rico’s consolidated budget—a fiscal budget intended to preempt Puerto Rico’s authority and go into effect on July 1.

Gov. Rosselló said that he would ask a court to establish that the Board’s fiscal plan and budget are recommendations—and recommendations only, adding he would seek a “declaratory judgment and an injunction” on the Board’s attempt to usurp the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s right to home rule by including components in the budget which control public policy—no doubt referencing the PROMESA Board’s approved budget’s elimination of funding for the government’s longstanding Christmas bonus, for a municipal aid program, and several other purposes supported by the Governor. The PROMESA Board had agreed with the Governor Rosselló to funding these items in exchange for a promise from the Governor that Puerto Rico would adopt at-will employment by rescinding Law 80; however, as we have noted, under the leadership of Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, the Puerto Rico Senate refused to rescind Law 80—an action which, while it led to strained relations between the Governor and Senate leader late last month, appears to have dissipated in the face of the preemptive efforts by the unelected PROMESA Board—or, as Sen. Rivera Schatz at the end of last month put it: “We must put a stop to the Napoleonic pretensions of the fiscal control board. We have and must defend the people of Puerto Rico. That’s the right thing, Governor. I congratulate you…Puerto Rico has a democratically elected government: “We don’t accept an imposed and abusive government.”

The federalism challenge came as, on June 30th, the PROMESA Board also approved budgets for the Government Development Bank, the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority, the University of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority—approvals upon which the Governor has not yet indicated whether he planned to challenge these budgets in court as well.

Nevertheless, the Governor has called for an extraordinary session of the Legislature in a bid to pass Law 80, the controversial labor reform bill which would modify worker protections in order to make the U.S. territory more attractive for investment—an effort the PROMESA Oversight Board has long insisted upon—a call which, at least so far, has gone begging . Nevertheless, the legislature has balked, including leaders from Governor Rossello’s own political party. Absent the reform, basic assumptions about Puerto Rico’s fiscal and governance future are unclear. The Governor, in a televised address to the Commonwealth, called for a last-ditch session of lawmakers to approve a version of the reform, noting: “I’m confident that this call for an extraordinary session will serve to avert the damage that the failure to fulfill the agreement with the Board causes to the island’s economy, as well as important sectors of our society.” Previously, both Gov. Rossello and the Board had acknowledged, reluctantly, that critical questions for the island’s future may have to be settled by a court—a settlement which the Governor apparently believes the government would stand little chance of winning, as his reading of PROMESA makes clear the Board’s power in matters of the budget, ergo, he said, compromise was critical to create a sense of predictability around Puerto Rico’s future. Nevertheless, he also said that he had signed the legislature’s budget, as opposed to an alternate version advocated by the PROMESA Board, and that, for the time being, that was the version, which is in effect: the PROMESA Board’s budget was unacceptable, he noted.

The Commonwealth has defaulted on its municipal bonds; it is confronted with $120 billion in debt and pension obligations, which it simply cannot fiscally meet. And now the question of ‘Who’s on First,” in the wake of a decade of recession and then the disparate federal fiscal and physical response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—combine with the fiscal hurricane of federal preemption with the imposition by Congress of a fiscal oversight board—has made the path back to self-governance its own fiscal and governance maze.

Natalie Jaresko, the Executive Director of the PROMESA Board, stated: “The Board continues to believe that comprehensive labor reform, including the repeal of Law 80 to make Puerto Rico an at-will-employment jurisdiction, is an essential component of the reforms needed to improve the island’s economy and make the business environment more competitive.” Last Friday, at a press conference, PROMESA Board members said they viewed labor reform as essential to Puerto Rico’s transformation—demonstrating that, as opposed to governance in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies, where, under most state laws, there is an emergency manager designated to put together a plan of debt adjustment for approval by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court; in PROMESA, it is almost as if there are too many judicial/fiscal cooks in the kitchen.

Accounting for Municipalities Futures. Even as the path to fiscal solvency is conflicted for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the issue of municipal accounting is drawing constructive attention among the island’s municipalities. Mayor Carlos Delgado Altiera of Isabela, a muncipio spread over 13 wards and also known as the “Garden of the Northwest,” for its many wild flowers, and as the town of “Leaf Cheeses,” for its production of white cheese wrapped in banana leaves—and as the City of Fighting Cocks,” as it has served as a home for the breeding of these birds since the 18th century, has indicated that the issue of creating a standardized municipal accounting system “generates many questions,” so that there is an interest to acquire technology to standardize the accounting systems of the municipalities. Thus, Mayors or Alcaldes of the New Progressive Party have urged Gov. Rosselló Nevares to veto a measure (Senate 550) authored by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, which seeks to impose a unique accounting system in the municipalities. The rejection of the so-called Senate 550 Project has also been joined by the popular municipal executives: the consensus is that such a change would represent a setback and an unnecessary and impossible economic investment for most municipalities—or, as Mayor Javier Jiménez of San Sebastian put it: “The Governor was being asked to veto that project, because, definitely, centralizing again (those functions) would create a tremendous problem for us,” noting that, in recent weeks, he has met with some 20 mayors, both popular and penepés (supporters of statehood): all are opposed to the measure. The Mayor argued that each municipality has already developed an accounting system, which meets their needs.

Indeed, it seems that for several mayors, the measure has come as a surprise, even more so when the Senate President had become their ally on other issues, such as the elevation to the constitutional rank of municipal autonomy and the development of measures aimed at having the State consult them with regard to the approval of exemptions and charges that adversely impact their collections. Mayor Jiménez explained that, in the past, the Office of Municipal Affairs was the body in charge of operating the accounting systems for the island’s municipalities. However, given the inability to maintain an updated system and in line with the progress, the mayors had been permitted to contract and use that technology that would meet their needs—or, as Mayor José A. Santiago of Comerío put it: “I cannot understand how, after so many examples of the problems caused by centralization: let us walk in the opposite direction to what should be the strengthening of local governments.” Under the proposal, which would be implemented through a contract with a private company, a requisite, so that the municipalities could access advanced services and reduce the risk of loss of essential services and municipal revenues, such a service would also give them the flexibility they need to adapt to the advances and challenges. The proposed Municipal Revenue Collection Center (CRIM) would become the entity charged, as the founders are of the perception that manymunicipalities do not have the way to know with certainty how much money they owe in municipal contributions, the debts between the different funds or their cash balances, or how many businesses have started or stopped operating in recent years.” The effort, the founders note, is necessary, because the “state government does not have the economic resources to develop such a large technology, the immersion of the private sector is of crucial importance,” with Isabel Mayor Carlos Delgado noting that among the island’s 78 municipios, a number simply lack the requisite technology and management experience.

In a letter sent to the Governor signed by the executive director of the Federation of Mayors, Mayor Isabelo Molina Hernandez, and signed by Federation President Carlos Molina Rodríguez, they wrote:The Federation of Mayors does not endorse the project…It promotes unnecessary centralization and negatively affects the public policy of greater municipal autonomy.”

According to the measure, a September 2016 report from Puerto Rican Office of the Comptroller, the “vast majority of municipios failed to comply” with the criteria considered in the components of computerized systems, such as physical security and environmental controls, logical access control and control of computers, among others.” Mayor Hernández argued that municipios are subject to oversight by the Office of the Comptroller, Government Ethics, the Federal Inspector General, as well as external audits; thus, he added, if the central government wishes to have additional tools to provide greater access to the public, it can develop an information system in which municipalities publish their financial information.

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Will Congress Grant Puerto Rico Statehood?

June 27, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider statehood issues for Puerto Rico.

Un Estado? Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress is introducing legislation, H.R.6246 to modify the Jones-Shafroth Act and make the U.S. territory a state by 2021—an effort she is making with the key support of House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah). As of yesterday, Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez reported she had 20 Republican and 14 Democratic co-sponsors, noting: “This is the first step to open a serious discussion regarding the ultimate status for the island.” In addition to Chairman Bishop, another key co-sponsor is Indian and Insular Affairs Subcommittee Chair Doug Lamalfa (R-Ca.). As proposed, the bill calls for the creation of a bipartisan, nine-member task force which would submit a report to Congress and to the President identifying laws which would need to be amended or repealed in order for Puerto Rico to be granted statehood. In response, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares noted: “In the past, this issue has been very hard to move forward…No longer do we want ambiguity. We want clarity. Either here in Congress you are with us or you are against the people of Puerto Rico.”

Under the proposed legislation, Puerto Rico would immediately become an incorporated territory; Congress would establish a Working Group with the promise of studying how the U.S. territory could become a state in January of 2021—the bill does guarantee the direct admission to statehood, nor does it propose a new referendum. The effort, however, faces a short timetable in the remaining few months of this Congress and little sense of White House support. Its chances depend upon the efforts of a bicameral, bipartisan Working Group  of nine members, eight appointed by the legislative leadership (four from the House and four from the Senate), which must be submitted within a period of 13 months, along with a report to Congress on how laws which do not apply to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico or are enforced in the territory differently from the states would have to be “amended or eliminated” in order to provide for a transition to equal treatment of Puerto Rico, with the states, effective January 1, 2021. The effort will also have to address a transition—e.g., incorporate “flexibility in the entry of federal programs” and the development of the territorial economy through “incentives, tax arrangements, and other measures.”

As proposed, the legislation also requires proposing rules and dates for elections to federal positions in the territory, as well as studying the effect of perhaps adding as five new Members of Congress—a potential conundrum, as it would increase the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to 440—effectively diluting the strength of other state delegations. Indeed, bearing in mind that one Congress cannot tie the hands of another, the bill provides that the ratification of the legislation would imply “the intention of the Congress to approve legislation based on of the final report of the Working Group.”

In reaction, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares noted; “This is the moment. The catastrophe left by the hurricanes Irma and María stripped bare the reality of the unequal treatment of the American citizens living in Puerto Rico, the Executive having to approve waivers, and the Congress to make exceptions in the laws so that we could receive help.” He added: “This is a matter of equality, justice and civil rights.” It would also be a taxing matter: statehood, were it granted, would subject Puerto Ricans to federal income taxes without the political rights of statehood, and the US Constitution would have full force.

Chairman Bishop noted that one of the obstacles to statehood would be the current PROMESA statute—which created the current PROMESA Board to oversee (along with a federal court) Puerto Rico’s quasi plan of debt adjustment—a panel of which eight of the nine named committee members were appointed by the Congressional leadership, with the Chair appointed by the Speaker of the House, who would designate the Chairman of the committee. Subcommittee Chair LaMalfa noted that the proposed legislation provides that once the Working Group presents its report to Congress, “We will make a decision” with regard to Puerto Rico’s statehood.

Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, at an event with Gov. Rosselló Nevares yesterday, noted: “This is the common front that Puerto Rico wanted to see a long time ago.” Other Members expressing support included Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska), Don Bacon (R-Neb.) Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Delegate Amata Coleman Radewagen (Samoa). For her part, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), who is Puerto Rican and a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, emphasized that attention by Congress must be focused on the “reconstruction of Puerto Rico,” adding: “I do not know how statehood for Puerto Rico will solve the problems of Puerto Rico,” and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Ca.) warned: “What you are going to do is cause additional problems. The fiscal mismanagement in Puerto Rico does not make them eligible for admission to the United States.” Chair Bishop noted the process towards statehood would proceed “one step at a time.”

In Puerto Rico, the possibility of statehood finds a mixed reaction, with the Popular Democratic Party and Independence Party perceiving pro-statehood legislation by Congress as futile. The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP),  which boycotted the 2017 referendum, saw the new pro-statehood legislation as a futile and contradictory process. Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party President Héctor Ferrer worries proposed changes could “lead Puerto Rico to the worst of the relationship through assuming all the responsibilities of the state, without receiving the supposed benefits of being a state.” He also noted there remain only 32 legislative days before November’s elections.

Nevertheless, Puerto Rico’s fiscal situation, as the new hurricane season is underway, is on the upswing: the May General Fund revenues were $217.7 million or 32% higher than budgeted, marking a recovery from the physical and fiscal devastation of last September’s Hurricane Maria; the territory’s budget has experienced a surge, leaving its revenues $78.9 million or 1% ahead of budget projections for the first 11 months of the fiscal year. In a non-April Fool’s report, that month’s revenues were 20.2% ahead of projections, with Puerto Rico Secretary of the Treasury Raúl Maldonado Gautier reporting that increased economic activity connected to rebuilding from the hurricanes had helped tax collections—a finding that could affect the PROMESA Board’s decision with regard to when and how Puerto Rico should resume making interst payments on its outstanding municipal bonds—or, as Puerto Rico Secretary of the Treasury Raúl Maldonado Gautier put it, the fact that revenues are now ahead of budget “is a favorable fact in view of the fiscal challenges faced by public finances since before the hurricanes collections were favorable but after the hurricanes for several months the revenues were low.” According to Secretary Maldonado Gautier, much of the increase was due to temporary economic activity of companies engaged in recovery tasks and to the flow of money from insurance payments, both in response to the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico in September. Key revenue changes included non-resident withholding ($63.1 million), sales and use tax revenues ($40.9 million), and the individual income tax ($25.8 million). Over the first 11 months, the tax categories deviating the most from projections in dollar terms were the corporate income tax, which came in $197.4 million ahead of budget, and the Law 154 foreign corporate profit tax, which arrived $151.2 million short. Secretary Maldonado Gautier noted he was confident that once June’s revenues are included, FY2018’s revenues will come in ahead of projections.

Is There a PROMESA of Recovery?

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy, after which we journey north to review the remarkable fiscal recovery from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of one of the nation’s smallest municipalities.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico is trapped in a vicious fiscal whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet short-term obligations to its creditors all across the U.S., including laying off some 30,000 public sector employees and increasing its sales tax by nearly 75% have seemingly backfired—doing more fiscal harm than good: it has devastated its economy, depleted revenue sources, and put the government on a vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006, while its poverty rate has grown to 45%. At the same time, a demographic imbalance has continued to accelerate with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly 500% greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Thus, with the island’s hedge-fund creditors holding defaulted municipal general obligation bonds on the verge of completing a consensual agreement earlier this week, the PROMESA oversight board intervened to halt negotiations and place Puerto Rico under the Title III quasi municipal bankruptcy protection. That will set up courtroom confrontations between an impoverished population, wealthy municipal bondholders in every state in the domestic U.S., and hedge funds—pitted against some of the poorest U.S. citizens and their future. Nevertheless, as Congress contemplated, the quasi-municipal bankruptcy process enacted as part of the PROMESA statute provides the best hope for Puerto Rico’s future.

Thus the PROMESA Board has invoked these provisions of the PROMESA statute before a federal judge in San Juan, in what promises to be a long process—as we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, and other cities, but with one critical distinction: each of the previous municipal bankruptcies has involved a city or county—the quasi municipal bankruptcy here is more akin to a filing by a state. (Because of the dual federalism of our founding fathers, Congress may not enact legislation to permit states to file for bankruptcy protection.) Unsurprisingly, when Puerto Rico was made a U.S. territory under the Jones-Shafroth Act, no one contemplated the possibility of bankruptcy. Moreover, as chapter 9, as authorized by Congress, only provides that a city or county may file for chapter 9 bankruptcy if authorized by its respective state; Puerto Rico inconveniently falls into a Twilight Zone—to write nothing with regard to access to such protections for Puerto Rico’s 87 municipalities or muncipios.

Moreover, while from Central Falls, Rhode Island to Detroit, the role of public pension obligations has played a critical role in those chapter 9 resolutions; the challenge could be far greater here: in Puerto Rico, retired teachers and police officers do not participate in Social Security. Adopting deep cuts to their pensions would be a virtual impossibility. So now it is that Puerto Rico will be in a courtroom to confront hedge funds, mutual funds, and bond insurers, after the negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors over a PROMESA Board-approved fiscal plan that allocates about $787 million a year to creditors for the next decade, less than a quarter of what they are owed, was deemed by said creditors to be a slap in the face—with the Board having pressed for a combination of debt restructuring spending cuts in its efforts to revive an economy trapped by a 45% poverty rate—and where the Board had proposed upping water rates on consumers, liquidating its decades-old industrial development bank, and seeking concessions from creditors of other government agencies. Moreover, amid all this, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has recently renegotiated to mitigate politically unpopular fee increases on residents, now finds himself nearly transfixed between desperate efforts to sort out governance, meet demands of his constituents and taxpayers, and negotiate with a federally imposed oversight board, even as he is in the midst of a campaign for U.S. statehood ahead of a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s political status—and in the wake of being named a defendant in a lawsuit by hedge funds after the expiration of a stay on such suits expired this week. Hedge funds holding general obligation and sales-tax bonds filed the suit on Tuesday, naming Gov. Rosselló as a defendant—albeit, the suit, and others, are nearly certain to be frozen, as the main judicial arena now will fall into a quasi-chapter 9 courtroom epic battle. And that battle will not necessarily be able to fully look to prior chapter 9 judicial precedents: while Title III incorporates features of chapter 9, the section of the U.S. bankruptcy code covering insolvent municipal entities, courts have never interpreted key provisions of Title III—a title, moreover, which protections for creditors which chapter 9 does not.

The Rich Chocolatey Road to Recovery! Moody’s has awarded one of the nation’s smallest municipalities, Central Falls, aka Chocolate City, Rhode Island, its second general obligation bond upgrade in two months, a sign of the former mill city’s ongoing recovery from municipal bankruptcy—an upgrade which Mayor James Diossa unsurprisingly noted to be “very important.” Moody’s noted that its upgrade “reflects a multi-year trend of stable operating results and continued positive performance relative to the post-bankruptcy plan since the city’s emergence from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012,” adding that it expects the city will enhance its flexibility when its plan of debt adjustment period ends at the end of next month—at which time one of the nation’s smallest cities (one square mile and 19,000 citizens) will implement a policy of requiring maintenance of unassigned general fund reserves of at least 10% of prior year expenditures. In its upgrade, Moody’s reported the upgrade reflected Central Falls’ high fixed costs, referring to its public pension obligations, OPEB, and debt service–costs which add up to nearly 30% of its budget—and what it termed a high sensitivity to adverse economic trends compared with other municipalities, with the rating agency noting that a sustained increase in fund balance and maintenance of structural balance could lead to a further upgrade, as could a reduction in long-term liabilities and fixed costs and material tax-base and growth.

 

June 30, 2015

Is Puerto Rico at the Tipping Point? Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla yesterday praised a report, “Puerto Rico—a Way Forward,” by Anne Krueger, Ranjit Teja, and Andrew Wolfe—which calls for a comprehensive solution to Puerto Rico’s problems, including debt restructuring. The report, which Puerto Rico commissioned, calls for fiscal adjustment, structural reforms, and debt restructuring. As for the latter, the authors say that even after Puerto Rico took major revenue and expenditure measures, there would be large financial gaps. These would peak at about $2.5 billion in fiscal 2016 and generally decline to about $0 in fiscal 2024. By comparison, the total commonwealth government debt service in fiscal 2016 is slated to be about $3.6 billion. The report notes: “Debt relief could be obtained through a voluntary exchange of old bonds for new ones with a later/lower debt service profile. Negotiations with creditors will doubtlessly be challenging.” They make clear the general obligation as well as other commonwealth government debt should be restructured. The authors also call for negotiations on the public corporations debt and for the federal government to make the corporations eligible for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

The report warns that Puerto Rico will need to seek relief from principal and interest payments falling due from 2016 to 2023; however, it also warns that any restructuring of general obligation, or central government debt, would set a precedent as “no U.S. state has restructured (such debt) in living memory,” and any such attempt would face legal challenges—even as it made clear there are limits with regard to how much more expenditures can be cut or taxes raised. Or, as Adam Weigold, senior portfolio manager at Eaton Vance, put it last Friday: This coming week “is the tipping point:” Puerto Rico’s debt problems could lead to a reduction in government services. Nevertheless, Reuters noted that the island is not contemplating a partial or full shutdown of government services. With some of Puerto Rico’s creditors, restructuring negotiations are already underway: late last week, Puerto Rico officials and creditors of the island’s electric power authority were apparently close to a deal which would avoid a default on a $416 million payment due the day after tomorrow, and, with other payment deadlines looming, Gov. Padilla and his staff said they would begin looking for possible concessions on all forms of government debt.

The key takeaways from the report:

  • This is a problem years in the making;
  • The problems are structural–not cyclical;
  • This is a “vicious cycle” where unsustainable public finances are feeding uncertainty and low growth;
  • “failed partial solutions argue for a comprehensive approach;
  • “[the]single most telling factor is that 40% of the adult population — versus 63% on the mainland — is employed.” Why? Because the minimum wage; local overtime, paid vacation, benefits are too costly to the governments—and to the 147 municipalities; local welfare benefits are more generous than the minimum wage.
  • Public sector debt has risen each year–reaching 100% of GNP by the end of FY’14;
  • “If federal obstacles could be overcome, there is no reason why Puerto Rico could not grow in new directions…”

June 29, 2015

More Trouble in River City. A critical issue for any municipality is an audit; that is even more the case when a city or county files for bankruptcy: it provides that outside review important to the city’s taxpayers, the federal bankruptcy court, and the municipality’s creditors. While an audit, technically, is not necessarily required by San Bernardino’s charter committee, City Attorney Gary Saenz had warned that failure to have those audits by the deadline would be “devastating for the city.” City Manager Allen Parker had agreed, last spring, with council members who said its absence in the city’s plan of debt adjustment would allow San Bernardino’s creditors to attack the plan before the federal court as unprepared and undeserving of bankruptcy protection. Notwithstanding that apprehension, Deputy City Manager Nita McKay has now confirmed the audit has not been completed, and, obviously, not been included in the city’s plan of debt adjustment. Worse, the city’s accounting firm, Macias, Gini and O’Connell LLP, not only has missed repeated deadlines, but had also requested nearly half a million dollars—more than double its original cost estimate given to the city—to complete it. Unsurprisingly, the attorney representing San Bernardino’s municipal bondholders had charged in U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s first hearing earlier this month that San Bernardino had failed in its duty to the court and the city’s creditors by not even disclosing that its plan of debt adjustment did not mention the missing audits—either in its submitted plan or in its testimony before the court. Nor, the attorney charged, had the city proposed a hearing date at which Judge Jury could consider the adequacy of San Bernardino’s financial disclosure statement. For her part, Judge Jury has noted that a bankrupt entity normally would have proposed such a date to keep momentum in the case. Instead, Judge Jury set the hearing date for October 8th. The problem appears to lie not just with the city’s auditor, Macias, Gini and O’Connell LLP accounting firm, but also with the city’s own transparency and at least perceived competency. While there is every indication San Bernardino staff have been responsive to every request from the auditor—according to the auditor; as late as last Thursday, the firm’s audit managers gave the city staff a new list of outstanding items—a list city staff described as one which “contains 29 items, 24 of which have not been requested before the time of the meeting…For eight of these items, they could not articulate what it is that they are requesting, i.e. ‘changes to General Fund accounts receivable resulted in additional testing being needed for $3.7 million. Sample to follow.’” San Bernardino Councilmember Fred Shorett at the end of last week stated the seemingly obvious: the city might need to consider starting over with a new firm, even though that would present difficulties: “This sounds as though this auditing firm is incompetent or (not) working…Giving no responses to you and coming at us with requests at the eleventh hour is not acceptable. This whole situation needs review. I’m very concerned that this firm has some kind of agenda that is not helpful to us.” Councilman Rikke Van Johnson also questioned the firm’s motives. “Sounds as if they are playing us and trying to get more money!” he wrote. The auditing firm is surely on notice that, despite its 13th hour demands for a significant increase in payments for a job not done, it is requesting said increases as, now, one of many creditors in bankruptcy—it will not be paid one hundred cents on the dollar—but its integrity and competence, as well as the failure of the city to oversee—or disclose—the absence seem hardly likely to curry respect from Judge Jury.

Is Puerto Rico at the Tipping Point? With the increasing likelihood that Congress will continue to ignore the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico’s looming insolvency—or even give Puerto Rico the ability and authority to offer its 147 municipalities access to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro García Padilla stated:  “My administration is doing everything not to default…But we have to make the economy grow…If not, we will be in a death spiral.” Gov. Padilla has now conceded the commonwealth cannot likely pay its nearly $72 billion in outstanding debts, warning the island is in a “death spiral,” but, unlike any other U.S. corporation, denied access to the federal bankruptcy courts.

Puerto Rico needs to restructure its debts and should make reforms, including cutting the number of teachers and raising property taxes, a report by former International Monetary Fund economists on the Caribbean island’s financial woes said. Gov. Padilla, and senior members of his staff said last week that they would probably seek significant concessions from as many as all of the island’s creditors, which could include deferring some debt payments for as long as five years or extending the timetable for repayment: “The debt is not payable…There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics, this is math.” Gov. Padilla is also likely to release a new report today by former IMF economists, who were hired earlier this year by the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank to analyze Puerto Rico’s economic and financial stability and growth prospects—a report concluding that Puerto Rico’s debt load is unsustainable. The report suggests a municipal bond exchange, with the new bonds carrying “a longer/lower debt service profile,” noting that: “There is no U.S. precedent for anything of this scale or scope.” The report is not solely focused on Puerto Rico, however, but also seems aimed at the White House and Congress—neither of which appear to be willing to devote time or resources on these events affecting hundreds of thousands of Americans, although both New York Federal Reserve leaders and United States Treasury officials have been advising the island’s government in recent months amid the worsening fiscal situation.

Said report, according to Reuters, recommends structural reform and debt restructuring, writing: “Puerto Rico faces hard times…Structural problems, economic shocks, and weak public finances have yielded a decade of stagnation, out-migration, and debt… A crisis looms.” The report recommends restructuring of Puerto Rico’s general obligation debt, as well as suspending the minimum wage and reducing electricity and transport costs, noting the U.S. territory must overcome a legacy of weak budget execution and opaque data.

Seemingly overwhelmed by its staggering $73 billion debt load and faltering economy—and with its Government Development Bank running out of cash, Puerto Rico this week has a number of municipal bond payments coming due—even as its public power utility, PREPA, is in talks to avoid a possible default. The report warns that Puerto Rico will need to seek relief from principal and interest payments falling due from 2016 to 2023; however, warning that any restructuring of general obligation, or central government debt, would set a precedent as “no U.S. state has restructured (such debt) in living memory,” and any such attempt would face legal challenges—even as it made clear there are limits with regard to how much more expenditures can be cut or taxes raised. Or, as Adam Weigold, senior portfolio manager at Eaton Vance, put it last Friday: This coming week “is the tipping point:” Puerto Rico’s debt problems could lead to a reduction in government services. Nevertheless, Reuters noted that the island is not contemplating a partial or full shutdown of government services. With some of Puerto Rico’s creditors, restructuring negotiations are already underway: late last week, Puerto Rico officials and creditors of the island’s electric power authority were apparently close to a deal that would avoid a default on a $416 million payment due the day after tomorrow, and, with other payment deadlines looming, Gov. Padilla and his staff said they would begin looking for possible concessions on all forms of government debt.

The ever perceptive Mary Walsh Williams of the New York Times this morning notes “Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds have a face value roughly eight times that of Detroit’s bonds.” That is, as she wrote, Puerto Rico’s fiscal meltdown and inability to access U.S. bankruptcy courts could have fiscal implications for cities and counties throughout America, writing: “Its call for debt relief on such a vast scale could raise borrowing costs for other local governments as investors become more wary of lending. Perhaps more important, much of Puerto Rico’s debt is widely held by individual investors on the United States mainland, in mutual funds or other investment accounts, and they may not be aware of it. Puerto Rico, as a commonwealth, does not have the option of bankruptcy. A default on its debts would most likely leave the island, its creditors, and its residents in a legal and financial limbo that, like the debt crisis in Greece, could take years to sort out.” She writes that Puerto Rico must set aside as much as $93 million each month to pay the holders of its general obligation bonds — a critical action, because Puerto Rico’s constitution requires that interest on its municipal bonds—payments which go to citizens in every state in the U.S.—be paid before any other expense, adding that “No American state has restructured its general obligation debt in living memory.” The government’s Public Finance Corporation, which has issued bonds to finance budget deficits in the past, owes $94 million on July 15. The Government Development Bank — the commonwealth’s fiscal agent — must repay $140 million of bond principal by Aug. 1.

Here Come da Judge. It turns out that even though Congress appears determined to bar Puerto Rico from access to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Puerto Rico is creating its own wise investment, this month hiring retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven W. Rhodes, who presided over the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in Detroit’s 18 month municipal bankruptcy. In addition, Puerto Rico is also consulting with a group of bankers from Citigroup who advised Detroit on a $1.5 billion debt exchange with certain creditors. The ever electronically and musically perceptive Judge Rhodes told Ms. Williams that Congress needs to go further and permit Puerto Rico’s central government to file for bankruptcy — or risk chaos, telling her in an interview: “There are way too many creditors and way too many kinds of debt…They need Chapter 9 for the whole commonwealth.”

June 25, 2015

Not My Problem. A unique characteristic of the United States and federalism is dual sovereignty, making the U.S. and its kind of federalism unique among all nations. In the field of bankruptcy, it means Congress lacks Constitutional authority to even grant authority to states to file for bankruptcy; similarly, the federal government cannot grant municipalities such authority—except by means of authorizing states to, as is done under chapter 9. Unsurprisingly, then, not only do not all states authorize municipalities to file for municipal bankruptcy, but among those that do, virtually no two provide such authority the same way. Moreover, as we have noted, not only the differing statutes, but also the state role in those states where municipalities have filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, has been profoundly different. Key issues have related not only to whether, under such state authorizing legislation, the state asserts authority to preempt local authority by means of the appointment of a receiver or emergency manager—appointments which have meant suspension of any authority for the elected leaders of a city or county, but also the role of the state in contributing in some way to the development and implementation of an ensuing plan of debt adjustment—the plan which must be approved by a U.S. bankruptcy court for a city or county to successfully exit bankruptcy. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett keenly noted the precipitate role of the State Alabama in leading to Jefferson County’s bankruptcy, while in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder gradually began coordinating with key bipartisan leaders of Michigan’s House and Senate in making critical contributions to Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment—granted with some exceptionally innovative and creative contributions by U.S. Chief Judge Gerald Rosen. So it is that, unlike municipal bankruptcy in any other country around the world, states not only have a role under the U.S. Constitution, the federal municipal bankruptcy law, but also the unique politics and leadership within each state.

Ergo, mayhap ironically, California appears to be set on the Alabama model—spurning the more constructive roles taken by Rhode Island, Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. If anything, that message appeared to be reinforced yesterday when Gov. Jerry Brown offered no positive reinforcement to San Bernardino’s Mayor Carey Davis in his quest to the state capitol in Sacramento. Mayor Davis, notwithstanding the absence of any affirmative state role in the municipal bankruptcies of Vallejo or Stockton, nevertheless had made the long trip just in case.

It was time and resources, scarce commodities for a city in bankruptcy, apparently for naught. Gov. Brown’s response, according to the city, was no. The key issue – ironically in the midst of the surge of the so-called sharing economy – was sharing vital public services. Or, as Mayor Davis’ chief of staff, Christopher Lopez, put it: the “cornerstone” of San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment pending before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury is contracting out for some services, including fire protection. Specifically, the city has pressed for the 110-year old California state agency Cal Fire to submit a bid for providing fire services to San Bernardino—part of the city’s plan to contract out such services, and something the city has repeatedly sought to pressure Cal Fire to provide. Given the lack of any response, the delegation yesterday sought a prod from Gov. Brown—a prod which produced, apparently, not even a spark, or, as Mr. Lopez put it: “Governor Brown’s office has recently made San Bernardino aware that Cal Fire will not provide a proposal and that our additional requests will not be considered.” In contrast, the San Bernardino County Fire Department and a private firm, Centerra, have each submitted proposals to provide San Bernadino’s fire services—bids which the city guesstimates could save it as much as $7 million annually. Having struck out on the fire front, the Mayor and delegation then sought assistance on other key items on their list, including some relief from a potential California Public Employees’ Retirement System penalty, the threatened decertification of the San Bernardino Employment and Training Agency, a loan, help with the dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency, and clarification on its tax agreement with Amazon. They went home empty-handed.

Send for Batman! In most instances, in the case of a potential drowning, a lifeguard at least throws a buoy, but in the wake of Wayne Count Executive Warren Evans’ request for Michigan state intervention, Standard & Poor’s put the county’s speculative grade rating on CreditWatch with negative implications yesterday. The downgrade will increase costs for the fiscally struggling county; the harder question is what S&P’s actions might mean to the many municipalities, including Detroit, within its boards. Jane Ridley, S&P’s analyst, wrote: “The CreditWatch placement reflects our expectation that with the onset of actions under Michigan Act 436, the county could lose some of the autonomy currently held by the CEO and his staff.” Ironically, Mr. Evans’ June 17th request was intended to enable the county to enter into a consent agreement with the state (please not the stark contrast with the seeming lack of any intergovernmental commitment in California, above) to enhance Wayne County’s authority to deal with labor contracts and other pending issues critical to the county’s fiscal sustainability—and, as state officials have made clear, municipal bankruptcy or even the appointment of an emergency manager is not only not in the picture, but also Michigan state officials almost immediately made most clear that municipal bankruptcy is not only not in the picture, but also that they perceive Mr. Warren’s request as a positive, constructive step towards resolution of Wayne County’s fiscal challenges. Nonetheless, in its warning, S&P noted that under Michigan law, if the county’s request were approved by the state for a financial review, the Wayne County board would be faced by four options: a consent agreement; appointment of an emergency manager; a neutral evaluation; or it could pursue a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing, with Ms. Ridley writing: “In our view, the county’s request for financial review does not signal the start of filing for bankruptcy, but rather a step in its stated goal of using all possible tools to regain structural balance…However, given the uncertainty associated with these four options—as well as the potential for a prolonged time frame to make additional meaningful structural changes while this process is underway—we have placed the rating on CreditWatch,” adding that its actions reflect apprehensions Wayne County’s autonomy in its restructuring could be diminished if an emergency manager is ultimately named: “In our view, this could mean that making the significant, meaningful adjustments necessary could be delayed or adjusted, which would have an impact on the county’s long-term financial health.” If, instead, Wayne County retains control over its restructuring, as seems to be not only its intent, but also the state’s impression, S&P noted it could remove the rating from CreditWatch and assign a negative outlook, reflecting the long-term budget pressures the county is facing. Interestingly, in light of the discussion re: federalism above, Ms. Ridley notes that S&P views the appointment of an emergency manager as more risky due to the loss of autonomy—a loss the credit rating agency notes which could lead to a credit rating downgrade: “Notwithstanding the uncertainty of the county’s near-term management control, without the county’s clear, demonstrable progress in the next year to regain structural balance and reduce its sizable pension burden, we could lower the rating…In addition, should Wayne County’s liquidity position deteriorate significantly, we could lower the rating.”

Trying to Balance its Budget. The Puerto Rican Senate is currently considering the U.S. territory’s FY2016 budget—a balanced budget, like every state in the U.S., albeit unlike any Congressional budget in modern times, which the House adopted and sent to the Senate early this week, and which includes austerity measures to improve Puerto Rico’s fiscal health. As passed, the House budget estimates $9.8 billion in revenues, and proposes $9.55 billion in spending. The House proposed $674 million in spending cuts, with much of the savings to anticipate the territory’s increasing debt service costs and public pension obligations; the House cut nearly 60 percent off the Puerto Rico Development Bank’s budget request of $700 million—with the bank facing potential insolvency later this summer when some $4 billion in debt it issued begins to become due. The House Chairman of Committee on Treasury and the Budget, Rep. Rafael Hernández Montañez, noted the development bank could be forced to restructure its debt, but that the House-passed budget would be sufficient to ensure Puerto Rico would not default on any of its general obligation or G.O. bonds, albeit, he warned that if the U.S. territory’s development bank encounters difficulties in meeting its obligations and is forced to restructure its debt, there might have to be some delay in setting aside the proposed funding in the House-adopted budget to meet pending general obligation bond payments—warning that the alternative would be a government shutdown—an alternative he made clear would be devastating to the island’s economy.

In the Fiscal Twilight Zone. Even as Puerto Rico’s elected leaders have been pressing to address the U.S. territory’s overwhelming debts—and hedge funds have mounted an expensive lobbying and advertising campaign with full page adds—“No Bailout for Puerto Rico”—in the Wall Street Journal as part of a heavily financed lobbying blitz in the U.S. Congress to bar granting Puerto Rico the same authority provided to every state in the U.S., or even broader authority so that the U.S. Bankruptcy courts could act to ensure the continuity of essential public services while overseeing the development of a plan of debt adjustment; Congress so far has been seemingly paralyzed—and it is focusing its attention in a diverting way, so that Puerto Rico’s Governor, Alejandro García Padilla, is urging Congress to act on pending legislation to give the U.S. territory access to municipal bankruptcy authority—and not divert its focus to the issue of potential statehood. The urgency came this week in the face of continued inaction by the House Judiciary Committee, but, instead, a hearing yesterday by the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs on proposed legislation to authorize a means for Puerto Ricans to determine what legal options might be available for its citizens to opt for statehood. Even with the U.S. territory nearing a potential default and insolvency, Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) had scheduled the hearing earlier this month to consider legislation proposed by Rep. Pedro Pierluisi (D-P.R.) to authorize a U.S. sponsored vote to be held in Puerto Rico within one year of its enactment: the vote suggested in the bill would be solely on the question with regard to whether Puerto Rico should become a state—a status which, were it to be adopted, would render Puerto Rico not only able to authorize its 147 municipality’s the option to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but also make the state-to-be eligible for billions of dollars in additional annual federal funding. Rep. Pierluisi stated: “I don’t seek special, different or unique treatment…I don’t ask (for Puerto Rico) to be treated any better than the states, but I won’t accept being treated any worse either. I want only for Puerto Rico to be treated equally. Give us the same rights and opportunities as our fellow American citizens, and let us rise or fall based on our own merits. Because I know that we will rise.” He testified of his apprehensions that, absent statehood, he worried there would be a continuing exodus of intelligent workers to the U.S. mainland in search of full rights available in the 50 states. Puerto Rico Attorney General César Miranda, testifying on behalf of Gov. Padilla, urged Congress to focus on the immediate, “truly dire” situation: Puerto Rico’s “state of fiscal emergency,” telling the Committee that diverting attention to the issue of authorizing a mechanism for considering statehood should await resolution of the island’s most crucial issue: granting bankruptcy authorization rights to the island: “We have the capabilities to come across and bring the island to a brighter condition…We need to have an instrument to deal with the debt that we are carrying now. That is why we support extending Chapter 9 to Puerto Rico.”