Is PROMESA Unpromising?

July 23, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider whether the PROMESA statute might be unconstitutional.

Tug of Governance War. This week, Judge Judith Dein will be challenged with the task of resolving the controversy between the government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Board over the budget. Judge Dein, a federal magistrate judge from the district of Massachusetts, has been designated to assist Judge Laura Taylor Swain in Puerto Rico’s Title III bankruptcy proceedings—as, according to an order by Chief U.S. District Court Judge Aida Delgado last month, her charge will be to “hold court and perform any and all judicial duties,” as needed, in relation to the Commonwealth’s Title III cases, with his order coming because of the unavailability of magistrate judges in the District of Puerto Rico, citing a statute which permits Chief judges to assign magistrate judges to temporarily perform judicial duties in a district other than the judicial district for which they have been appointed. Her test will come the day after tomorrow, when the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA) will try to convince Judge Dein that the budget to be implemented for the current year is the one approved and signed by Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares earlier this month, marking the first formal complaint filed by the Governor against the PROMESA Oversight Board. The challenge now joins a long litigation line of more than 75 lawsuits filed against the government or the Board—all questioning the scope of the PROMESA law.

While, to date, the bulk of such challenges have come from municipal bondholders and municipal bond insurers, this new legal avenue emerges from the elected officials of Puerto Rico, who, in light of PROMESA, would be called upon to execute the dual mandate granted to the Board. In these cases, several parties have already received denials from Court. Last week, for instance, Judge Dein denied a request from the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez to intervene in the litigation between the government and the PROMESA Board—which had asked for dismissal, alleging that it acts in accordance with the powers conferred by the federal statute. Likewise, in the related suit filed by Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Majority Leader Carlos “Johnny” Méndez (R-Fajardo) against the Board, Judge Dein, to whom Judge Laura Taylor Swain entrusted to resolve the controversy, denied the request.

The suit raises grave constitutional and governance questions relating to the kinds of principles of self-government upon which our nation was founded, as well as the stark difficulty of somehow applying chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to a U.S. territory—that is, a statute which only permits such a filing if authorized by a state. Constitutionalist Carlos I. Gorrín Peralta and former Judge President of the Bankruptcy Court in Puerto Rico Gerardo Carlo Altieri, nevertheless, believe it unlikely that the statute will be declared unconstitutional. Professor Gorrín Peralta, of the Inter-American School of Law believes it is unlikely that Judge Swain would declare the statute unconstitutional, a statute which, after all, created her special position, appointed by the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He explained that the Supreme Court pronouncements about Puerto Rico two years ago only served as a message to the U.S. Congress to take action regarding Puerto Rico, and the actions of that legislature have not been different from what they have been done for more than a century, noting: “Puerto Rico does not even have sovereignty to accuse a person of drug dealing, who has already been prosecuted by federal authorities, and then, the second message was the declaration of unconstitutionality of the Debt Restructuring Law,” referencing the cases Puerto Rico v . Sánchez Valle and Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust. Mayhap ironically, Prof. Peralta, in the case of the institutional funds which had successfully challenged the Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act (which was approved by the Puerto Rican government in 2014), he recalled came the same day on which the U.S. Senate was to vote on PROMESA, archly noting: “The Congress has exercised its colonial strength,” adding that now, the dispute between the PROMESA Board and the government is the result of the “conceptual ambiguity” under which Puerto Rico has suffered for decades. Rather, he is of the view that PROMESA, rather than a vehicle intended to help restructure the U.S. territory’s debt, actually is a statute designed to protect the economic interests of the United States, contain the effect that the Puerto Rican debt would have in the municipal bond market, and rid the federal government of any responsibility for the debt issued by a territory that was authorized to do so by Congress.

Meanwhile, Carlo Altieri considered that the allegations of Rosselló Nevares and legislative presidents regarding a possible usurpation of powers are of great importance. The same, he added, applies to the case of Aurelius Capital Management, which alleges that the body created by PROMESA is null because its members were not appointed with the consent of the Senate as dictated by the US Constitution.

However, according to the former Judge President of the Bankruptcy Court in Puerto Rico, the backdrop to settle the dispute between Gov. Rosselló Nevares, the Legislature, and the Board is not a purely civil or a constitutional rights claim case, but the procedures provided by the federal Bankruptcy Code and which are oriented to pragmatism and the rapid resolution of monetary disputes: “In Bankruptcy Courts, fast, practical, technical, and efficient processes are sought. Of course, PROMESA is a special law, it is not chapter 9 or chapter 11; it is a very special law and, definitively, attacks on constitutionality are not usual in traditional bankruptcies cases, either municipalities or Chapter 11 cases,” adding: “These constitutional arguments are very important, but they have the effect of delaying cases and resolving cases, they  confuse and add excessive costs,” opining that Judge Swain’s recent ruling in the Aurelius case points to Gov. Rosselló Nevares and the Legislature having little likelihood of prevailing, after her refusal to dismiss the request of Title III as requested by the investment fund, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and, as such, Congress “can thus amend the acts of a territorial legislature, abrogate laws of territorial legislatures, and exercise full and complete legislative authority over the people of the Territories and all the departments of the territorial governments.’” That is, he believes that, for Jude Swain, the PROMESA Board is an entity of the Commonwealth, and, therefore, U.S. Senate confirmation for its members is not required. He adds that, in his opinion, “I would not be surprised if the Court ruled against the Legislature and the government,” noting that, to date, it seems that what Judge Swain perceives PROMESA as granting the Board authority to approve fiscal plans and budgets; however, he made it clear that, in the future, especially for the confirmation process of the quasi plan of debt adjustment, the scope of the Board on the fiscal plan could change. He added that while Judge Swain appears to believe the Board is a territorial government agency, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Susan Braden has concluded otherwise in the lawsuit filed by Oaktree Capital Management, Glendon Capital, and others. (That lawsuit, which is on hold until the constitutional challenges filed by Aurelius are resolved, Judge Braden found that the Board is a federal agency and therefore, its actions are in themselves, the actions of the United States.)

Voz de la Gente (Voice of the People). Mr. Peralta appears to be of the view that, as PROMESA begins to have an effect on the citizens’ of Puerto Rico’s wallets and pocket books, there will be increasing dissatisfaction with the Board in Puerto Rico, noting that if the court were to rule in favor of Gov. Rosselló Nevares’ government and defined the powers of the Board, “the truth is that the body created by Congress will continue to have ‘gigantic’ powers to impose its criteria on the government of Puerto Rico.

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.

The Once & Future Puerto Rico?

April 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the fiscal and future governance options for Puerto Rico: will it become a second class state? A nation? Or, at long last, an integral part of the nation? And governance: who is in charge of its governance?

Before Hurricane Maria wracked its terrible human, fiscal, and physical toll; more than 50% of Americans knew not that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. Still, today, some six months after the disaster, more than 50,000 have no electricity. The fiscal and physical toll on low-income Americans on the island has been especially harsh: of the nearly 1.2 million applications to FEMA for assistance to help fix damaged homes, nearly 60% have been rejected: FEMA provided no assistance, citing the lack of lack of title deeds or because the edifices in need were constructed on stolen land or in contravention of building codes. That is to write that this exceptionally powerful storm took a grievous toll not just on life and limb, but especially on the local and state economy, destroying an estimated 80% of Puerto Rico’s agricultural crop, including coffee and banana plantations—where regrowing is projected to take years. The super storm devastated 20% of businesses—today an estimated 10,000 firms remain closed. Discouragingly, the government forecasts output will shrink by another 11% in the year to June 2018.

It might be, ojala que si (one hopes) that a burst of growth will ensue, with estimates of as much as 8% next year, in no small part thanks to federal recovery assistance and as much as $20 billion in private-insurance payments—as well as Puerto Ricans dipping into their own savings to make repairs to their own homes and businesses. Yet, even those positive signs can appear to pale against the scope of the physical misery: by one estimate, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will lose nearly $48 billion in output—and employment equivalent to 332,000 people working for a year. Of perhaps longer term fiscal concern are the estimated thousands of Puerto Ricans who left the island for Florida and other points on the mainland—disproportionately those better educated and with greater fiscal resources—leaving behind older and poorer Americans, and a greater physical and fiscal burden for Puerto Rico’s government.

The massive storm—and disparate treatment by the Trump administration and Congress—have encumbered Puerto Rico with massive debts, both to its central government and municipalities, but also to its businesses. Encumbered with massive debts—including $70 billion to its municipal bondholders and another $50 billion in public pension liabilities; Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s administration is making deep cuts: prior to the massive storm, the government had been committed to slashing funding to its local governments by $175 million, closing 184 schools, and cutting public pensions—pensions which, at just over $1,000 are not especially generous. Now, that task will be eased, provided the PROMESA oversight Board approves, to moderate the proposed cuts in services in order to do less harm the reviving economy.

Assisted by federal tax incentives, Puerto Rico’s economic model was for decades based on manufacturing, especially of pharmaceuticals. However, what Congress can bestow; it can take away. Thus it was that over the last decade, Congress steadily eroded economic incentives—Congressional actions which contributed to the territory’s massive debt crisis, and contributing to the World Bank dropping Puerto Rico 58 places in its ranking compared to the mainland with regard to the ease of doing business.

The havoc wreaked by Maria could be especially creative for the island’s private sector, which represents a chronically missed opportunity. Puerto Rico, for all its problems, is a beautiful tropical island, with white-sanded beaches, rainforest, fascinating history, lovely colonial buildings and a vibrant mix of Latin-American and European culture. Yet, with 3.5 million visitors a year, its tourism industry is less than half the size of Hawaii’s. It has an excellent climate for growing coffee and other highly marketable products, yet its agriculture sector is inefficient and tiny. The island has a well-educated, bilingual middle-class, including a surfeit of engineers, trained at the well-regarded University of Puerto Rico for the manufacturing industry, and cheap to hire. But in the wake of the departing multinationals, they are also leaving. Isabel Rullán, a 20-something former migrant, who has returned to the island from Washington to try to improve linkages to the diaspora, estimates that half her university classmates are on the mainland.

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) Unlike a normal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceeding, the process created by Congress under the PROMESA law created a distinct governance model—one which does create a quasi emergency manager, but here in the form of a board, the PROMESA Board, which, today, will submit its proposed fiscal plan, or quasi plan of debt adjustment to U.S. Judge Laura Swain Taylor; it will maintain its requirement to propose the reduction of the public pensions of Puerto Ricans by an average of 10 percent. Until last weekend, the PROMESA Board had kept under review the complaints to Governor Ricardo Rosselló with regard to the inclusion in its revised fiscal plan of the central government the base of a labor reform which, among other proposals, calls for the immediate reduction in vacation and sick leaves from 15 to 7 days for workers of private companies, according to two sources close to the Board. Under the fiscal plan proposed by the Governor Rosselló, the cuts would reach $1.45 billion in five years. The PROMESA Board has requested that they total $1.58 million by June of 2023. The proposal, unsurprisingly, has raised questions with regard to whether the Congress has the authority to impose on the government of Puerto Rico a reform of its labor laws—any more than its inability under our form of federalism to dictate changes in any state’s retirement systems—contracts which are inherent in state constitutions.

Pension reductions in chapter 9 cases, because they involve contracts, are difficult, as contracts are protected under state constitutions—moreover, as we saw in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment approved by now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the court wanted to ensure that any such reductions would not subject the retiree to income below the federal poverty level—a level which, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told Reuters, in an interview this past week, “many retirees are already under,” as he warned  that any further pension cuts could “cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” That is, in the U.S. territory struggling with a 45 percent poverty rate and unemployment more than double the U.S. national average, the fiscal challenge of how to restructure nearly $70 billion in debt, where public pensions, which owe $45 billion in benefits, are also virtually insolvent, makes the challenges which had confronted Judge Rhodes pale in comparison.  Moreover, with the current pensions already virtually insolvent, paying pension benefits out of Puerto Rico’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis, could cost the virtually bankrupt Puerto Rico $1.5 billion a year. The PROMESA Board has recommended that Gov. Rossello reduce pensions by 10 percent.  

For their part, the island’s pensioners have formed a negotiating committee, advised by Robert Gordon, an attorney who advised retirees in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, as well as Hector Mayol, the former administrator of Puerto Rico’s public pensions. The fiscal challenge in Puerto Rico, however, promises to be more stiff than Detroit—or, as Moody’s put it: Puerto Rico’s “unusual circumstances mean that it will not conform exactly” to recent public bankruptcies, in which “judges reduced creditor claims far more than amounts owed to pensioners.” Moreover, the scope or size of Puerto Rico’s public pension chasm is exacerbated by the ongoing emigration of young professionals from Puerto Rico to the mainland—making it almost like an increasingly unbalanced teeter totter.  The U.S. territory’s largest public pension, the Employee Retirement System (ERS), which covers nearly 100,000 retirees, is projected to run out of cash this year: it is confronted by a double fiscal whammy: in addition to paying retiree benefits, ERS owes some $3.1 billion to repay debts on municipal bonds it issued in 2008—bonds issued to finance Puerto Rico’s public pension obligations. Last year, Governor Rosselló had agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, indicating a willingness to seek as much as a 6% reduction. That appears not, however, to be something he currently supports.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of negotiations with the PROMESA Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences with regard to how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to implement such changes. The Governor, however, withdrew the proposal when the Board required that the labor reform be in full force by next January, instead of applying it gradually over the next three years, and conditioned the increase from $ 7.25 to $ 8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates. It seems the PROMESA Board is intent upon labor reform as an essential element for future economic growth.

The Challenge of “Shared” Governance. Unlike in Central Falls, San Bernardino, Detroit, Jefferson County, or other chapter 9 cases where state enacted chapter 9 statutes prescribed governance through the process, the PROMESA statute created a territorial judicial system to restructure Puerto Rico’s public debt, creating a Board empowered to reign until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved—or, as our colleague and expert, Gregory Makoff, of the Center for International Governance Innovation, who worked for a year as an advisor to the Department of Treasury in the Puerto Rican case, put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Mr. Makoff has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut of from $45 down to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the intent of equating it with the average that the states have. His suggestion comes as the Board aims to disclose its plans as early as this evening in advance of its scheduled sessions at the end of the week at the San Juan Convention Center, where, Thursday, the Board wants to certify Puerto Rico’s and PREPA’s proposed plans, and then, Friday, vote on the plans of the other public corporations: the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA), the Highways and Transportation Authority (PRHTA), the Government Development Bank, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the Cooperatives Supervision & Insurance Corporation (COSSEC).

Fiscal Balancing. The PROMESA law authorizes the Board the power to impose a fiscal plan and propose to Judge Swain a quasi plan of debt adjustment, as under chapter 9, on behalf of the government, much as in a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment‒albeit the PROMESA statute does not grant the Board the power to enact laws or appoint or replace government officials. The Congressional act retained for the government of Puerto Rico the capacity and responsibility to enact laws consistent with the fiscal plan and the fiscal adjustment plan, as well as, obviously, to operate the government.

The Promise & Unpromise of PROMESA: Who Is Encargado II? Unlike in a, dare one write “traditional” chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where state enacted legislation defines governing authority in the interim before a municipality receives approval of its plan of debt adjustment to exit municipal bankruptcy, the Congressional PROMESA statute has left blurred the balance—or really imbalance—of authority between the power of the Board to approve a budget and fiscal plans, with its possible lack of authority to implement reforms, such as changes to federal regulations it promotes. An adviser to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop ((R-Utah) recently noted that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Constitutional Law Professor Carlos Ramos González, at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, describes it, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.” An adviser to Chair Bishop said recently that if Gov. Rosselló’s administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the Board, the option for the PROMESA Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Professor González put it: “In one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

The Uncertain State of the State. An ongoing challenge to full recovery for Puerto Rico is its uncertain status—a challenge that has marked it from its beginning: in February of 1917, during debate on the Senate floor of HR 9533 to provide for a civil government for Puerto Rico, when Sen. James Wadsworth (R-N.Y) inquired of Senate sponsor John F. Shafroth of Colorado whether it would “provide woman suffrage in Puerto Rico?” Sen. Shafroth made clear his intent that the eligibility of voters in Puerto Rico—as in other states—“may be prescribed by the Legislature of Puerto Rico.” That debate, more than a century ago, lingers as what some have described as “the albatross hanging around the island’s neck: the uncertainty over its status.” Is it a state? A country? Or some lesser form of government?  Even though thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought and died serving their country in World Wars I and II, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Puerto Rico has never been treated as a state—and its own citizens have been unable to decide themselves whether they wish to support statehood.

Some believe Puerto Rico will become a state eventually. But to get there, especially without risking a violent nationalist repulse, Puerto Rico needs to understand what the federal requirements and barriers will be—and what the promise of PROMESA really will mean. And, as they used to say in Rome: tempus fugit. Time is running out: for, absent economic and fiscal recovery soon, the flood of emigration of young Americans from Puerto Rico will become a brain-drain boding a demographic death-spiral, leaving the island with too few taxpayers to cover its more rapidly growing health care costs for an aged population.

April 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the challenges of governance in insolvency. Who is in charge of steering a municipality, county, or U.S. territory out of insolvency? How? How do we understand and assess the status of the ongoing quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy PROMESA deliberations in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Then we head north to assess the difficult fiscal balancing challenges in Connecticut.

Governance in Insolvency.  Because, in our country, it was the states which created the federal government, making the U.S. unique in the world; chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is only, in this country, an option in states which have enacted state legislation to authorize municipal bankruptcy. Thus, unsurprisingly, the process is quite different in the minority of states which have authorized municipal bankruptcy. In some states, such as Rhode Island and Michigan, for instance, the Governor has a vital role in which she or he is granted authority to name an emergency manager–a quasi-dictator to assume governmental and fiscal authority, usurping that of the respective city or county’s elected officials. That is what happened in the cases of Detroit and Central Falls, Rhode Island, where, in each instance, all authority was stripped from the respective Mayors and Councils pending a U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s approval of respective plans of debt adjustment, allowing the respective jurisdictions to emerge from municipal bankruptcy. Thus, in the case of those two municipalities, the state law preempted the governing authority of the respective Mayors and Councils.

That was not the case, however, in Jefferson County, Alabama–a municipal bankruptcy precipitated by the state’s refusal to allow the County to raise its own taxes. Nor was it the case in the instances of Stockton or San Bernardino, California: two chapter 9 cases where the State of California played virtually no role. 

Thus, the question with regard to governance in the event of a default or municipal bankruptcy is a product of our country’s unique form of federalism.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory created under the Jones-Shafroth Act, however, the issue falls under Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone–as Puerto Rico is neither a municipality, nor a state: a legal status which has perplexed Congress, and now appears to plague the author of the PROMESA law, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to who, exactly, has governing or governance authority in Puerto Rico during its quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy process: is it Puerto Rico’s elected Governor and legislature? Is it the PROMESA Board imposed by the U.S. Congress? Is it U.S. Judge Laura Swain, presiding over the quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy trial in New York City? 

Chairman Bishop has defended the PROMESA’s Board’s authority to preempt the Governor and Legislature’s ruling and governance authority, stressing that the federal statute gave the Board the power to promote “structural reforms” and fiscal authority, writing to Board Chair Jose Carrion: “It has been delegated a statutory duty to order any reforms–fiscal or structural–to the government of Puerto Rico to ensure compliance with the purpose of PROMESA, as he demanded the federally named Board use its power to make a transparent assessment of the economic impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico’s fiscal conditions–and to ensure that the relative legal priorities and liens of Puerto Rico’s public debt are respected–leaving murky whether he intended that to mean municipal bonholders and other lien holders living far away from Puerto Rico ought to have a priority over U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico still trying to recover from violent hurricanes which received far less in federal response aid than the City of Houston–even appearing to link his demands for reforms to the continuity of that more limited federal storm recovery assistance to compliance with his insistence that there be greater “accountability, goodwill, and cooperation from the government of Puerto Rico…” Indeed, it seems ironic that a key Chairman of the U.S. Congress, which has voted to create the greatest national debt in the history of the United States, would insist upon a quite different standard of accountability for Puerto Rico than for his own colleagues.

It seems that the federal appeals court, which may soon consider an appeal of Judge Swain’s opinion with regard to Puerto Rico’s Highway and Transportation Authority not to be mandated to make payments on its special revenue debt during said authority’s own insolvency, could help Puerto Rico: a positive decision would give Puerto Rico access to special revenues during the pendency of its proceedings in the quasi-chapter 9 case before Judge Swain.

Stabilizing the Ship of State. Farther north in Connecticut, progressive Democrats at the end of last week pressed in the General Assembly against Connecticut’s new fiscal stability panel, charging its recommendations shortchange key priorities, such as poorer municipalities, education and social services—even as the leaders of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth conceded they were limited by severe time constraints. Nevertheless, Co-Chairs Robert Patricelli and Jim Smith asserted the best way to invest in all of these priorities would be to end the cycle of state budget deficits and jump-start a lagging state economy. The co-chairs aired their perspectives at a marathon public hearing in the Hall of the House, answering questions from members of four legislative committees: Appropriations; Commerce; Finance, Revenue and Bonding; and Planning and Development—where Rep. Robyn Porter (D-New Haven) charged: “I’m only seeing sacrifice from the same people over and over again,” stating she was increasingly concerned about growing income inequality, asking: “When do we strike a balance?” Indeed, New York and Connecticut, with the wealthiest 1 percent of households in those states earning more than 40 times the average annual income of the bottom 99 percent, demonstrate the governance and fiscal challenge of that trend. In its report, the 14-member Commission made a wide array of recommendations centered on a major redistribution of state taxes—primarily reducing income tax rates across the board, while boosting the sales and corporation levies. Ironically, however, because the wealthy pay the majority of state income taxes, the proposed changes would disproportionately accrue to the benefit of the state’s highest income residents—in effect mirroring the federal tax reform, leading Rep. Porter to question why the Commission made such recommendations, including another to do away immediately with the estate tax on estates valued at more than $2 million, but gradually phase in an increase to the minimum wage over the next four years.  From a municipal perspective, Rep. James Albis (D-East Haven), cited a 2014 state tax incidence report showing that Connecticut’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund municipal government “is incredibly regressive,” noting it has the effect of shifting a huge burden onto lower-middle- and low-income households—even as the report found that households earning less than $48,000 per year effectively pay nearly one-quarter of their annual income to cover state and local taxes. Rep. Brandon McGee (D-Hartford), the Vice Chair of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said the Committee’s recommendations lack bold ideas on how to revitalize Connecticut’s poor urban centers—with his concerns mirrored by Rep. Toni E. Walker (D-New Haven), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who warned she fears a commission proposal to cut $1 billion from the state’s nearly $20 billion annual operating budget would inevitably reduce municipal aid, especially to the state’s cities. Co-Chair Patricelli appeared to concur, noting: “Candidly, I would agree we came up a little short on the cities,” adding that the high property tax rates in Hartford and other urban centers hinder economic growth: “They really are fighting with one or more hands tied behind their backs.”

The ongoing discussion comes amidst the state’s fiscal commitment to assume responsibility to pay for Hartford’s general obligation debt service payments, more than $50 million annually—a fiscal commitment which understandably is creating equity questions for other municipalities in the state confronted by fiscal challenges. Like a teeter-totter, balancing fiscal needs in a state where the state itself has a ways to go to balance its own budget creates a test of fiscal and moral courage.

Catalysts to Fiscal Recoveries

November 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; the State of Michigan’s winnowing down of municipalities under state oversight; and the ongoing physical and fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Reframing the Motor City’s Post Chapter 9 Future. Nolan Finley, a wonderful contributor to the editorial page of the Detroit News, this week noted “elections are a wonderful catalyst for refocusing priorities, as evidenced by the just-completed Detroit mayoral campaign, which moved the city’s comeback conversation away from the downtown development boom and centered it on the uneven progress of the neighborhoods. Never before has such an intense spotlight shown on the places where most Detroit voters actually live.” He attributed some of the credit to the loser in this week’s mayoral election, challenger Coleman Young II, who forced Mayor Mike Duggan to defend his record on improving quality of life in the neighborhoods. He perceptively wrote that while candidate Young’s ugly “Take back the Motherland” rallying cry was dispiriting, it spoke to the governing challenge the newly, re-elected Mayor confronts, writing: “Detroit is not a city united. It must become one. There were too many skirmishes along the racial divide in this mayoral contest. The old city versus suburb story line was replaced by a neighborhood versus downtown narrative, but both are code for black versus white. Four years ago, Duggan’s election as Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years suggested much of the city was ready to stop looking back at its dark and divisive past and begin focusing on a brighter future.” Now, he wrote, after Mayor Duggan focused his first term on meeting the city’s plan of debt adjustment, and trying to improve the quality of life for residents—and as developers are beginning to add community projects to their downtown portfolios, “too many in the neighborhoods feel as if their lives are not getting better, or at least not fast enough.” Thus, he noted, Mayor Duggan needs to redouble his efforts to restore the city’s residential communities, and push ahead the timetable: “Four years from now, Detroit cannot still be wearing the mantle of America’s most violent city.” He added that while Mayor Duggan has little—too little—authority to address education in Detroit; nevertheless—just as his colleague Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago recognized, needs to strongly back Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s efforts to rapidly boost the performance of the Detroit Public Schools Community District: it is a key to bringing young families back into the city. And, Mr. Finley wrote, the mayor “must also find a way to connect the neighborhoods to downtown, to instill in all residents a sense of ownership and pride in the rejuvenation of the core city. That means getting way better at inclusion. Downtown’s comeback must be more diverse, and include many more of the people who have grown up and stayed in the city. Encouraging and supporting more African-American entrepreneurs is a great place to begin breaking down the perception that downtown is just for white people: Detroit needs more diversity everywhere in the city, both racial and economic,” referring especially to young millennials who are steeped in social justice and imbued with the obsession to give back that marks their generation. “They are committed Detroiters. And they deserve to be appreciated for their contributions, not made to feel guilty or viewed as a threat to hard-won gains.”

Free, Free at Last. Michigan State officials have released Royal Oak Township, a municipality of about 2,500 just north of Detroit, from its consent agreement: Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri said the Oakland County municipality has resolved its financial emergency and is ready to emerge from the state oversight imposed since 2014, stating: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Royal Oak Charter Township has made under the consent agreement…Township officials went beyond the agreement and enacted policies that provide the community an opportunity to flourish. I am pleased to say the township is released from its agreement and look forward to working with them as a local partner in the future.” The township’s financial emergency resulted in an assets FY2012 deficit of nearly $541,000. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls noted: “Royal Oak Charter Township is in better shape than ever…The collaboration between state and township has provided an opportunity to enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability.” Treasurer Khouri also said the township was the last Michigan remaining municipality following a consent agreement: Over the last two years, Wayne County, Inkster, and River Rouge were released from consent agreements because of fiscal and financial improvements and operational reforms. The Treasurer noted that today only three communities, Ecorse, Flint, and Hamtramck, remain under state oversight through a Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Preempting Authority. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R—Utah) this week said the PROMESA Oversight Board should be granted even more power to preempt the authority of the government of Puerto Rico, stating: “Today’s testimony will inform the work of Congress to ensure the Oversight Board and federal partners have the tools to coordinate an effective and sustained recovery,” in a written statement after a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources: “It is clear that a stronger mechanism will be necessary to align immediate recovery with long-term revitalization and rebuilding.” Chairman Bishop added: “This committee will work to ensure [the Puerto Rico Oversight Board] has the tools to effectively execute that mission and build a path forward for this island and its residents.” The Board was created last year to oversee fiscal management by the island government, which had said more than $70 billion of debt was unpayable under current economic conditions. Since the hurricane, the Board has clashed with the territorial government over leadership at the power utility. During the hearing the board’s Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, said the ability of Puerto Rico’s government to repay its debt was “gravely worse” than it was before Hurricane Maria, which arrived Sept. 20. By the end of December, the Board plans to complete a 30 year debt sustainability analysis with Puerto Rico’s government, she said: “After the hurricane, it is even more critical that the Board be able to operate quickly and decisively…to avoid uncertainty and lengthy delays in litigation, Congressional reaffirmation of our exercise of our authority is welcome.” On Oct. 27, the board had filed a motion in the Title III bankruptcy case for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) seeking the court’s permission to appoint Noel Zamot as the authority’s new leader. The government of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has made it clear that it intends to challenge this motion. The court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter on Monday, November 13th.

In calling for more board power, Chairs Bishop and Jaresko probably were at least partly referring to the struggle over PREPA’s leadership. They may also want the Board’s power augmented in other ways: the Board has already announced that it will be creating five-year fiscal plan for Puerto Rico’s government and for its public authorities this winter. Puerto Rico’s government will have substantial needs for federal aid in the coming years, Ms. Jaresko said. Congress plans to tie this aid to the government following the Board’s fiscal plan and this would be appropriate, she said. “Before the hurricanes, the board was determined that Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities could achieve balanced budgets, work its way through its debt problems, and develop a sustainable economy without federal aid,” Ms. Jaresko said in her written testimony. “That is simply no longer possible. Without unprecedented levels of help from the United States government, the recovery we were planning for will fail.” She also said that over the next 1.75 years Puerto Rico’s government will need federal help closing a gap of between $13 billion and $21 billion for basic services. She added the federal government should change tax laws to benefit the island: “The representatives of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) who appeared before the House Committee on Natural Resources insist on jeopardizing the necessary resources for the payment of pensions and job stability,” Gov. Rosselló testified in his written statement, adding to that the testimony of Ms. Jaresko and Mr. Zamot “evidenced ignorance about the recovery process in Puerto Rico, presenting incorrect figures relating to the existing conditions on the island,” adding: “I again invite the FOMB to collaborate so that the government of Puerto Rico, together with the support of the federal government, facilitates the fastest possible recovery of our island.” He noted that such assistance should not depend on the Board “assuming the administrative role” which belongs to the elected government of Puerto Rico.

Sanctioned Discrimination. The endorsement that the House Ways and Means Committee effectively incorporated in its “tax reform” legislation reported out of Committee this week appears to discriminate against Puerto Rico, imposing a tariff on the products which Puerto Rico exports to the mainland—threatening to deal a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s industrial base at the very moment in time the territory is striving to recover from the already disparate hurricane recovery blows. According to economists Joaquín Villamil: “None of these measures, nor the repatriation of profits, the corporate rate and the 20% tax on imports is positive for the island…The companies are not going to pay a 4% royalty to Puerto Rico and a 20% tax to bring their product to the United States. They will leave the island, especially if the tax rate is lowered there.” Mr. Villamil added: “If that happens, 21% of the income received by the Puerto Rican Treasury is eliminated,” he added, referencing P.L. 154, the statute which established a 4% tax on sales of an operation in Puerto Rico to its parent company in the mainland. In its markup, yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee left almost intact §4303 which establishes a 20% tariff on all imported goods for resale by companies and businesses in the United States. Moreover, the disposition forces multinationals with operations in places such as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to repatriate their income to the U.S. What that means is that the production of drugs, medical devices, and many other goods in Puerto Rico is done on U.S. soil; however, for federal tax purposes, Puerto Rico is deemed an international jurisdiction—or, as economist Luis Benítez notes: “This (House Ways and Means bill) generates greater uncertainty about what the economic future of the island should be: with this, the figure of the controlled foreign corporation (CFC) loses the competitive advantage it had (under §936).” He noted that by reducing the corporate rate to multinationals operating in Puerto Rico, the benefit of giving them tax exemptions at the local level is also reduced, as is the case of Law 73 on Industrial Incentives: via the elimination of §936, Puerto Rico, as a place to do business, went from competing with the continental U.S. to competing with countries such as Singapore and Ireland, adding that now a reduction in the corporate rate would cause Puerto Rico not only to compete with the rest of the world, but with jurisdictions on the mainland: “I think that if I were the Secretary of the Treasury, I would tremble with this situation.”

In Puerto Rico, he estimates manufacturing employs approximately 75,000 people directly—a number which rises to 250,000 when indirect and induced jobs are calculated, adding that even though the manufacturing sector has shrunk in the past years, the productive and contributory base rests on that activity, adding that: “As much as it is said that they do not pay taxes, this sector contributes 33% of the revenues…As long as jobs are lost there, the treasury will erode,” noting that the industrial sector plays such a large role in Puerto Rico’s economy that no other sector of the service economy can counterbalance it. He worries that if Congress fails to address the apparent discrimination, the chances that the PROMESA Board and the government of Puerto Rico can put together an economic recovery plan is minimal: “These are implications for all of Puerto Rico: It is difficult to think about options, because if this is approved, it would be disastrous, because of everything that has happened after Hurricane Maria.”

Last night, the former president of the Association of Certified Public Accountants, Kenneth Rivera Robles, who has been part of several lobbying delegations to Washington, remained relatively optimistic that the project language will be amended.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act into law on March 2, 1917, with the law providing U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico’s citizens, granting civil rights to its people, and separating the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of its government. The statute created a locally elected bicameral legislature with a House and Senate—but retained authority for the Governor and the President of the United States to have the authority to veto any law passed by the legislature. In addition, the statute granted Congress the authority to override any action taken by the Puerto Rico legislature, as well as maintain control over fiscal and economic matters, including mail services, immigration, defense, and other basic governmental matters. 

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.”

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress at the White House and State House

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07/31/17

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Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider whether President Trump’s appointment of new White House Communications Director of Communications might have fiscal implications for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future; then we turn to leadership efforts in the Virginia General Assembly to refine what a state’s role in oversight of municipal fiscal distress might be. 

Might There Be a Change in White House Direction vis-à-vis Puerto Rico? Prior to his new appointment as White House Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci, more than a year ago, questioned whether the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico should be granted authority more akin to a sovereign nation than a state—power which would, were it granted, authorize Puerto Rico to authorize its muncipios the authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, writing in an op-ed, “The shame of leaving Puerto Rico in limbo,” in Medium a year ago last May, just as the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee was seeking to report the PROMESA legislation. Mr. Scaramucci then indicated that creditors wanted to file with regard to the actions taken by the Puerto Rican government as if they were “equal to the intransigence of the Kirchner government in Argentina, but in reality the situations (of both countries) are completely different.” He explained: Not only does Puerto Rico not have the same public policy options as Argentina, but its economy and ability to pay its debts are worse off: Not only does Puerto Rico not have the same public policy options as Argentina, but its economy and ability to pay its debts are worse off.” He further noted that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) was in a difficult situation to deal with the situation in Puerto Rico, amid what he described as a “civil war” within the Republican Party—a war he described as “induced by Donald Trump.”

Now, of course, Mr. Scaramucci is in a starkly different position—one where he might be able to influence White House policy. Having written, previously, that the “tax code of the Commonwealth must be revised to be more friendly to economic development…Social assistance programs should be drastically reduced and labor laws softened,” Mr. Scaramucci has also called for public-private partnerships to make “essential” government services more efficient, such as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority—noting: “Ultimately…we must also allow Puerto Rico to operate as a sovereign country or grant them legal protections more similar to those of the states (which is the preference of the Puerto Rican people).” He argued that the case of Puerto Rico represents a “failure on multiple levels: the insatiable desire of US investment funds for Puerto Rico triple exemption bonds; U.S. Congressmen of the status of the Congressionally-created territory, and misappropriation of funds by the Puerto Rican government: “We must now face our failures and take pragmatic measures to create a better future:  The tax code of the Commonwealth must be revised to be more friendly to economic development; social assistance programs should be drastically reduced, and labor laws softened.” He noted that public-private partnerships could be vital in rendering “essential” government services more efficient, such as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, noting: “Ultimately, we must also allow Puerto Rico to operate as a sovereign country or grant them legal protections more similar to those of the states (which is the preference of the Puerto Rican people).” Referencing that, as in the Great Recession of 2008, he noted the case of Puerto Rico represents a “failure on multiple levels: the insatiable desire of US investment funds for Puerto Rico triple exemption bonds; U.S. Congressmen of the status of ELA (Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico), and misappropriation of funds by the Puerto Rican government…But as we did after 2008, we must now face our failures and take pragmatic measures to create a better future.”

Mr. Scaramucci’s comments came as the City or Pueblo of San Juan has filed a legal challenge to the PROMESA Oversight Board’s approval of the Government Development Bank (GDB) for Puerto Rico debt restructuring agreement: San Juan is seeking a declaratory judgement and injunctive relief against the PROMESA Oversight Board, the GDB, and the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority before U.S. Judge Laura Swain Taylor in the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico—a judge by now immersed in multiple bankruptcy filings, after the Bastille Day PROMESA Board’s approval of a restructuring agreement for the GDB’s $4.8 billion in debt—an approval for which the Board asserted it had authority under PROMESA’s Title VI.

San Juan’s filing claims the GDB holds more than $152 million in San Juan deposits—deposits which the city asserts are the property of San Juan, and thereby ineligible for Title VI restructuring, which explicitly addresses only municipal bonds, loans, and other similar securities. San Juan then claims the GDB deposits are “secured,” unlike the funds which the GDB owes to municipal bondholders—even as the PROMESA Board’s approved Restructuring Support Agreement provides for the municipalities to vote in the same class as all the other GDB creditors, asserting that such a voting practice would be contrary to PROMESA. The suit also notes that, under Puerto Rico statutes, municipal depositors are allowed to set-off their deposits against their GDB loan balances; however, the Restructuring Support Agreement (RSA) is grossly inaccurate in accounting for these deposits against the loans and, thus, the agreement is breaching the law—asserting:

“The ultimate effect of the RSA would be to provide a windfall to the GDB’s bondholders by using the resources of San Juan and other municipalities for the payment of bondholder claims while imposing enormous losses on those same municipal depositors through the confiscation of their excess [special tax deposit] and their statutorily guaranteed right to setoff deposits at the GDB against their loans from the GDB.” The suit further charged that the PROMESA Board convened illegal executive private sessions concerning the creation of the RSA—sessions which included representatives of the GDB and FAFAA. (The federal statute only allows executive sessions with board members and its staff present, according to the suit.)  Thus, in its complaint , the city is requesting that Judge Swain find the board’s approval of the agreement invalid, and that Judge Swain further find that PROMESA and Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution preempt Puerto Rican laws and executive order that have stopped the municipalities from withdrawing their funds from the GDB for over a year.

Not Petering Out. In the Virginia Legislature, Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg), the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Delegates, recently noted: “In this session, I’m carrying a very light load, just four or five bills, that are locality bill requests: As a lawmaker overall, you will always see me supporting those initiatives and those policy issues that reference those three priorities: jobs, education, and healthcare. I think that if I can execute on those priorities, that will definitely improve the quality of life for the citizens, the families and kids, not just for Petersburg but the entire district.” Del. Air noted that last year, the City of  Petersburg’s financial situation made headlines throughout the Commonwealth, and led to serious conversations about the financial health of Virginia’s cities and counties: “What we saw in Petersburg, in addition to a declining economy nationwide, was longstanding financial mismanagement, negligence, and declining cash balances dating back to 2009. And, what we saw in localities like Emporia, Martinsville, Lynchburg, Buena Vista—all classified as having significant fiscal stress—is that these historic cities were displaying similar indicators, and they were largely going unaddressed.” Thus, she played a key role in creating a work group which has examined local fiscal distress—and which has produced an action plan, a plan from which components have been incorporated into the state’s new budget: including:

  • improving how the Commonwealth of Virginia monitors fiscal activity and increases the level of oversight by the auditor of public accounts;
  • establishing a mechanism which is responsive to situations of local fiscal distress; and
  • providing readily available resources should intervention become necessary.

As a start, she noted that Virginia House has adopted a budget which allocates up to $500,000 to conduct intervention and remediation efforts in situations of local fiscal distress that have been previously documented by the Office of the State Secretary of Finance prior to January 1st, 2017. As part of a longer-term approach, the effort incorporates additional language establishing a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with the new subcommittee charged to review:

  • savings opportunities for increased regional cooperation and consolidation of services;
  • local responsibilities for service delivery of state-mandated or high-priority programs;
  • causes of fiscal stress; potential financial incentives and other governmental reforms for regional cooperation; and
  • the different taxing authorities of cities and counties.

Or, she she put it:

“An integral part of the approach we take towards addressing fiscal distress must also include conversations about electing capable local leadership and providing training in areas most critical to effective governance and financial management. Where there are gaps in knowledge and understanding, elected officials must be willing to educate themselves in every area necessary for good governance.”

Is There a PROMESA of Recovery?

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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.

 

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency

eBlog, 03/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenges for the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia as it seeks to depart from insolvency; we consider, anew, the issues related to “service insolvency,” especially assisted by the exceptional insights of Marc Pfeiffer at Rutgers, then turning to the new fiscal plan by the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, before racing back to Virginia for a swing on insolvent links. For readers who missed it, we commend the eBlog earlier this week in which we admired the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston with regard to municipal fiscal disparities.

Selling One’s City. Petersburg, Virginia, the small, historic, and basically insolvent municipality under quasi state control is now trying to get hundreds of properties owned by the city off the books and back on the tax rolls as part of its effort to help resolve its fiscal and trust insolvency. As Michelle Peters, Economic Development Director for Petersburg, notes: “The city owns over 200 properties, but today we had a showcase to feature about 25 properties that we group together based on location, and these properties are already zoned appropriate for commercial development.” Thus the municipality is not only looking to raise revenues from the sale, but also to realize revenues through the conversion of these empty properties into thriving businesses—or as Ms. Peters puts it: “It’s to get the properties back on the tax rolls for the city, because, currently, the city owns them so they are just vacant, there are no taxes being collected,” much less jobs being filled. Ms. Peters notes that while some of the buildings do need work, like an old hotel on Tabb Street, the city stands ready to offer a great deal on great property, and it is ready to make a deal and has incentives to offer:  “We’re ready to sit down at the table and to negotiate, strike a deal and get those properties developed.”

New Jersey & Its Taken-over City. The $72 million tax settlement between Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Atlantic City’s state overseers is a “major step forward” in fixing the city’s finances, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which deemed the arrangement as one that has cleared “one of the biggest outstanding items of concern” in the municipality burdened by hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and under state control. Atlantic City owed Borgata $165 million in tax refunds after years of successful tax appeals by the casino, according to the state. The settlement is projected to save the city $93 million in potential debt—savings which amount to a 22 percent reduction of the city’s $424 million total debt, according to Moody’s, albeit, as Moody’s noted: “[W]hile it does not solve the city’s problems, the settlement makes addressing those problems considerably more likely.” The city will bond for the $72 million through New Jersey’s state Municipal Qualified Bond Act, making it a double whammy: because the bonds will be issued via the state MQBA, they will carry an A3 rating, ergo at a much better rate than under the city’s Caa3 junk bond status. Nevertheless, according to the characteristically moody Moody’s, Atlantic City’s finances remain in a “perilous state,” with the credit rating agency citing low cash flow and an economy still heavily dependent upon gambling.

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency. One of my most admired colleagues in the arena of municipal fiscal distress, Marc Pfeiffer, Senior Policy Fellow and Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Jersey, notes that a new twist on the legal concept of municipal insolvency could change how some financially troubled local governments seek permission to file for federal bankruptcy protection. Writing that municipal insolvency traditionally means a city, county, or other government cannot pay its bills, and can lead in rare instances to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing or some other remedy authorized by the state that is not as drastic as a Chapter 9, he notes that, in recent years, the description of “insolvency” has expanded beyond a simple cash shortage to include “service-delivery insolvency,” meaning a municipality is facing a crisis in managing police, fire, ambulance, trash, sewer and other essential safety and health services, adding that service insolvency contributed to Stockton, California, and Detroit filings for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2012 and 2013, respectively: “Neither city could pay its unsustainable debts, but officials’ failure to curb violent crime, spreading blight and decaying infrastructure was even more compelling to the federal bankruptcy judges who decided that Stockton and Detroit were eligible to file for Chapter 9.”

In fact, in meeting with Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, at his first meeting in Detroit, Mr. Orr recounted to me that his very first actions had been to email every employee of the city to ensure they reported to work that morning, noting the critical responsibility to ensure that street lights and traffic lights, as well as other essential public services operated. He wanted to ensure there would be no disruption of such essential services—a concern clearly shared by the eventual overseer of the city’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who, in his decision affirming the city’s plan of debt adjustment, had written: “It is the city’s service delivery insolvency that the court finds most strikingly disturbing in this case…It is inhumane and intolerable, and it must be fixed.” Similarly, his colleague, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein, who presided over Stockton’s chapter 9 trial in California, had noted that without the “muscle” of municipal bankruptcy protection, “It is apparent to me the city would not be able to perform its obligations to its citizens on fundamental public safety as well as other basic public services.” Indeed, in an interview, Judge Rhodes said that while Detroit officials had provided ample evidence of cash and budget insolvency, “the concept of service delivery insolvency put a more understanding face on what otherwise was just plain numbers.” It then became clear, he said, that the only solution for Detroit—as well as any insolvent municipality—was “fresh money,” including hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by the state, city, and private foundations: “It is a rare insolvency situation—corporate or municipal—that can be fixed just by a change in management.”

Thus, Mr. Pfeiffer writes that “Demonstrating that services are dysfunctional could strengthen a local government’s ability to convince a [federal bankruptcy] judge that the city is eligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection (provided, of course, said municipality is in one the eighteen states which authorize such filings). Or, as Genevieve Nolan, a vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, notes: “With their cases focusing on not just a government’s ability to pay its debts, but also an ability to provide basic services to residents, Stockton and Detroit opened a path for future municipal bankruptcies.”

Mr. Pfeiffer notes that East Cleveland, Ohio, was the first city to invoke service insolvency after Detroit. In its so far patently unsuccessful efforts to obtain authority from the State of Ohio to file for municipal bankruptcy protection—in a city, where, as we have noted on numerous occasions, the city has demonstrated a fiscal inability to sustain basic police, fire, EMS, or trash services. East Cleveland had an approved plan to balance its budget, but then-Mayor Gary Norton told the state the proposed cuts “[would] have the effect of decimating our safety forces.” Ohio state officials initially rejected the municipality’s request for permission to file for municipal bankruptcy, because the request came from the mayor instead of the city council; the city’s status has been frozen since then.

Mr. Pfeiffer then writes:

Of concern.  [Municipal] Bankruptcy was historically seen as the worst case scenario with severe penalties – in theory the threat of it would prevent local officials from doing irresponsible things. [Indeed, when I first began my redoubtable quest with the Dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy Jim Spiotto, while at the National League of Cities, the very idea that the nation’s largest organization representing elected municipal leaders would advocate for amending federal laws so that cities, counties, and other municipal districts could file for such protection drew approbation, to say the least.] Local officials are subject to such political pressures that there needs to be a societal “worst case” that needs to be avoided.  It’s not like a business bankruptcy where assets get sold and equity holders lose investment.  We are dealing with public assets and the public, though charged with for electing responsible representatives, who or which can’t be held fully responsible for what may be foolish, inept, corrupt, or criminal actions by their officials. Thus municipal bankruptcy, rather than dissolution, was a worst case scenario whose impact needed to be avoided at all costs. Lacking a worst case scenario with real meaning, officials may be more prone to take fiscal or political risks if they think the penalty is not that harsh. The current commercial practice of a structured bankruptcy, which is commonly used (and effectively used in Detroit and eventually in San Bernardino and other places) could become common place. If insolvency were extended to “service delivery,” and if it becomes relatively painless, decision-making/political risk is lowered, and political officials can take greater risks with less regard to the consequences. In my view, the impact of bankruptcy needs to be so onerous that elected officials will strive to avoid it and avoid decisions that may look good for short-term but have negative impact in the medium to long-term and could lead to serious consequences. State leaders also need to protect their citizens with controls and oversight to prevent outliers from taking place, and stepping in when signs of fiscal weakness appear.”

Self-Determination. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has submitted a 10-year fiscal plan to the PROMESA Oversight Board which would allow for annual debt payments of about 18% to 41% of debt due—a plan which anticipates sufficient cash flow in FY2018 to pay 17.6% of the government’s debt service. In the subsequent eight years, under the plan, the government would pay between 30% and 41% per year. The plan, according to the Governor, is based upon strategic fiscal imperatives, including restoring credibility with all stakeholders through transparent, supportable financial information and honoring the U.S. territory’s obligations in accordance with the Constitution of Puerto Rico; reducing the complexity and inefficiency of government to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner; implementing reforms to improve Puerto Rico’s competitiveness and reduce the cost of doing business; ensuring that economic development processes are effective and aligned to incentivize the necessary investments to promote economic growth and job creation; protecting the most vulnerable segments of our society and transforming our public pensions system; and consensually renegotiating and restructuring debt obligations through Title VI of PROMESA. The plan he proposed, marvelously on the 100th anniversary of the Jones-Shafroth Act making Puerto Rico a U.S. territory, also proposes monitoring liquidity and managing anticipated shortfalls in current forecast, and achieving fiscal balance by 2019 and maintaining fiscal stability with balanced budgets thereafter (through 2027 and beyond). The Governor notes the Fiscal Plan is intended to achieve its objectives through fiscal reform measures, strategic reform initiatives, and financial control reforms, including fiscal reform measures that would reduce Puerto Rico’s decade-long financing gap by $33.3 billion through:

  • revenue enhancements achieved via tax reform and compliance enhancement strategies;
  • government right-sizing and subsidy reductions;
  • more efficient delivery of healthcare services;
  • public pension reform;
  • structural reform initiatives intended to provide the tools to significantly increase Puerto Rico’s capacity to grow its economy;
  • improving ease of business activity;
  • capital efficiency;
  • energy [utility] reform;
  • financial control reforms focused on enhanced transparency, controls, and accountability of budgeting, procurement, and disbursement processes.

The new Fiscal Plan marks an effort to achieve fiscal solvency and long-term economic growth and to comply with the 14 statutory requirements established by Congress’ PROMESA legislation, as well as the five principles established by the PROMESA Oversight Board, and intended to sets a fiscal path to making available to the public and creditor constituents financial information which has been long overdue, noting that upon the Oversight Board’s certification of those fiscal plans it deems to be compliant with PROMESA, the Puerto Rico government and its advisors will promptly convene meetings with organized bondholder groups, insurers, union, local interest business groups, public advocacy groups and municipality representative leaders to discuss and answer all pertinent questions concerning the fiscal plan and to provide additional and necessary momentum as appropriate, noting the intention and preference of the government is to conduct “good-faith” negotiations with creditors to achieve restructuring “voluntary agreements” in the manner and method provided for under the provisions of Title VI of PROMESA.

Related to the service insolvency issues we discussed [above] this early, snowy a.m., Gov. Rosselló added that these figures are for government debt proper—not the debt of issuers of the public corporations (excepting the Highways and Transportation Authority), Puerto Rico’s 88 municipalities, or the territory’s handful of other semi-autonomous authorities, and that its provisions do not count on Congress to restore Affordable Care Act funding. Rather, Gov. Rosselló said he plans to determine the amount of debt the Commonwealth will pay by first determining the sums needed for (related to what Mr. Pfeiffer raised above] “essential services and contingency reserves.” The Governor noted that Puerto Rico’s debt burden will be based on net cash available, and that, if possible, he hopes to be able to use a consensual process under Title VI of PROMESA to decide on the new debt service schedules. [PROMESA requires the creation of certified five-year fiscal plan which would provide a balanced budget to the Commonwealth, restore access to the capital markets, fund essential public services, and pensions, and achieve a sustainable debt burden—all provisions which the board could accept, modify, or completely redo.]  

Adrift on the Fiscal Links? While this a.m.’s snow flurries likely precludes a golf outing, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., a municipal bond insurer, appears ready to take a mighty swing for a birdie, as it is pressing for payback on the defaulted debt which was critical to the financing of Buena Vista, Virginia’s unprofitable municipal golf course, this time teeing the proverbial ball up in federal court. Buena Vista, a municipality nestled near the iconic Blue Ridge of some 2,547 households, and where the median income for a household in the city is in the range of $32,410, and the median income for a family was $39,449—and where only about 8.2 percent of families were below the poverty line, including 14.3 percent of those under age 18 and 10 percent of those age 65 or over. Teeing the fiscal issue up is the municipal debt arising from the issuance by the city and its Public Recreational Facilities Authority of some $9.2 million of lease-revenue municipal bonds insured by ACA twelve years ago—debt upon which the municipality had offered City Hall, police and court facilities, as well as its municipal championship golf course as collateral for the debt—that is, in this duffer’s case, municipal debt which the municipality’s leaders voted to stop repaying, as we have previously noted, in late 2015. Ergo, ACA is taking another swing at the city: it is seeking:

  • the appointment of a receiver appointed for the municipal facilities,
  • immediate payment of the debt, and
  • $525,000 in damages in a new in the U.S. District Court for Western Virginia,

Claiming the municipality “fraudulently induced” ACA to enter into the transaction by representing that the city had authority to enter the contracts. In response, the municipality’s attorney reports that Buena Vista city officials are still open to settlement negotiations, and are more than willing to negotiate—but that ACA has refused its offers. In a case where there appear to have been any number of mulligans, since it was first driven last June, teed off, as it were, in Buena Vista Circuit Court, where ACA sought a declaratory judgment against the Buena Vista and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority, seeking judicial determination with regard to the validity of its agreement with Buena Vista, including municipal bond documents detailing any legal authority to foreclose on city hall, the police department, and/or the municipal golf course. The trajectory of the course of the litigation, however, has not been down the center of the fairway: the lower court case took a severe hook into the fiscal rough when court documents filed by the city contended that the underlying municipal bond deal was void, because only four of the Buena Vista’s seven City Council members voted on the bond resolution, not to mention related agreements which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places.” Moreover, pulling out a driver, Buena Vista, in its filing, wrote that Virginia’s constitution filing, requires all seven council members to be present to vote on a matter which involved backing the golf course’s municipal bonds with an interest in facilities owned by the municipality. That drive indeed appeared to earn a birdie, as ACA then withdrew its state suit; however, it then filed in federal court, where, according to its attorney, it is not seeking to foreclose on Buena Vista’s municipal facilities; rather, in its new federal lawsuit, ACA avers that the tainted vote supposedly invalidating the municipality’s deed of trust supporting the municipal bonds and collateral does not make sense, maintaining in its filing that Buena Vista’s elected leaders had adopted a bond resolution and made representations in the deed, the lease, the forbearance agreement, and in legal opinions which supported the validity of the Council’s actions, writing: “Fundamental principles of equity, waiver, estoppel, and good conscience will not allow the city–after receiving the benefits of the [municipal] bonds and its related transactions–to now disavow the validity of the same city deed of trust that it and its counsel repeatedly acknowledged in writing to be fully valid, binding and enforceable.” Thus, the suit requests a judgment against Buena Vista, declaring the financing documents to be valid, appointing a receiver, and an order granting ACA the right to foreclose on the Buena Vista’s government complex in addition to compensatory damages, with a number of the counts seeking rulings determining that Buena Vista and the authority breached deed and forbearance agreements, in addition to an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, requiring immediate payback on the outstanding bonds, writing: “Defendants’ false statements and omissions were made recklessly and constituted willful and wanton disregard.” In addition to compensatory damages and pre-and post-judgment interest, ACA has asked the U.S. court to order that Buena Vista pay all of its costs and attorneys’ fees; it is also seeking an order compelling the city to move its courthouse to other facilities and make improvements at the existing courthouse, including bringing it up to standards required by the ADA.

Like a severe hook, the city’s municipal public course appears to have been errant from the get-go: it has never turned a profit for Buena Vista; rather it has required general fund subsidies totaling $5.6 million since opening, according to the city’s CAFR. Worse, Buena Vista notes that the taxpayer subsidies have taken a toll on its budget concurrent with the ravages created by the great recession: in 2010, Buena Vista entered a five-year forbearance agreement in which ACA agreed to make bond payments for five years; however, three years ago, the city council voted in its budget not to appropriate the funds to resume payment on the debt, marking the first default on the municipal golf course bond, per material event notices posted on the MSRB’s EMMA.

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.