Fiscal & Physical Storm Recoveries

October 30, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider, again, the spread of Connecticut’s fiscal blues to its municipalities; then, we observe the lengthening fiscal and human plight of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Price of Solvency. Ending months of fiscal frustration, the Connecticut House of Representatives late Thursday provided its strong, bipartisan endorsement (126-23) to two-year, $41 billion state budget which closes a gaping deficit, rejects large-scale tax increases, and seeks to bolster the state’s future fiscal stability. Notwithstanding, S&P Global Ratings, the following day, issued its own fiscal storm warnings that it is a budget which will still leave the state’s municipalities at fiscal risk. Governor Dannell Molloy has not yet said if or when he might sign that budget into state law; however, because it passed both Houses by veto-proof margins, the question is no longer “if,” but rather: what will it mean for the state’s municipalities? Thus, S&P warned:  “We note that virtually all local governments will see some reductions to state aid, while only a few—typically those with the greatest economic challenges—will see flat year-over-year state aid.” Similarly, Conn. House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) told his colleagues: “We’re at the end of a journey: This budget offers needed reforms, but also some immediate comfort that is so needed by a lot of our residents and our towns…In the darkest of days…we found a way to pull through.”

As adopted, the budget bill provides financial assistance to eastern Connecticut homeowners dealing with crumbling foundations, reduced funding for UConn, offers $40 million to help the City of Hartford avoid filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Executive Director Joe DeLong, in the League’s initial analysis of the municipal impact of the bipartisan budget agreement, noted: “Municipal leaders acknowledge the difficult choices made by state leaders in forging this bipartisan budget agreement and the impact they have on the lives of Connecticut residents: The actions taken by State leaders to support cities and towns protects the interests of residents and businesses across the state and for that we are grateful.” With the State facing a $5 billion biennial budget deficit, the state budget agreement spares towns and cities from the draconian cuts set to roll out under the Governor’s Executive Order and includes many significant structural reforms that municipalities have been advocating for years. Mr. DeLong added that the final budget agreement provides for numerous municipal reforms sought by the League last January in its groundbreaking public policy initiative, “This Report Is Different.”  

Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz noted: “Leaders do things that are maybe not in their best interests, or may be against their own beliefs, in an effort to do what’s right. And I think that was done,’’ as Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven), Co-Chairwoman of the appropriations committee, described the bill as a significant step toward closing a $3.5 billion deficit over the next two years and righting the state’s wobbly finances for decades to come: “I want everybody to understand we must recalibrate the financial future of Connecticut, for our families and for our businesses and this budget begins that process.’’

As adopted, the budget does not increase income or sales tax rates, although it raises hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue via an assortment of smaller measures, such as higher taxes on cigarettes, a $10 surcharge on motor vehicle registrations to support parks, and new fees on ride-sharing companies, such as Uber. On the other hand, the final agreement rolled back proposed taxes on cellphone plans, second homes, and restaurant meals. In the end, small tax increases represent just .85 percent of the budget; fee hikes constituted an even smaller contribution .11%. On the revenue side, the new budget proposes the elimination of a property tax credit for many middle-income homeowners, raises the cigarette tax, and sweeps $64 million from a clean energy fund.

In the wake of the passage, S&P Global Ratings indicated it would review the state’s municipal bond rating, but noted the municipal impact, citing the $31.4 million cut to the Education Cost Sharing Grant, the primary state grant which goes to cities and towns to help operate their schools—albeit, the cut is to be nearly fully restored next year, and distributed using an updated formula which more heavily favors the state’s lowest-performing school districts. The adopted budget also rejected Gov. Malloy’s proposal to mandate that the state’s cities and towns assume some fiscal share of the state’s soaring contributions to the teachers’ pension fund. Nevertheless, the budget was less generous to municipalities on the revenue front: the 2015 state plan to share sales tax receipts with cities and towns is all but eliminated in this budget, which officially ends the diversion of these receipts into a special account: the last remnants of a program which was supposed to distribute more than $300 million per year in sales tax receipts are: A “municipal transition grant” worth $13 million in FY 2017 and $15 million for next year. Similarly axed: a $36.5 million payment this year to offset a portion of the funds communities with high property tax rates lose because of a state-imposed cap on motor vehicle taxes: the new budget would cut $19 million in each year from grants that reimburse communities for taxes they cannot collect on exempt property owned by the state and by private colleges, hospitals and other nonprofit entities.

The adopted budget, however, from a municipal perspective, proposes to revise the prevailing wage and binding arbitration systems: municipalities would have greater flexibility to launch more publicly financed capital projects without having to pay union-level construction wages, and arbiters would have more options when ruling on wage and other contract issues involving municipalities and their employees.

Nevertheless, S&P noted: “Since new state revenue measures would have less than a year to be collected, this may leave the state without the available resources to fully appropriate for these (municipal grants),” adding: “The length of the budget impasse underscores the state’s struggling financial health.” The rating agency last month had already placed nine Connecticut municipalities and one school district on a “negative” credit watch, warning it could lead to a rating downgrade within 90 days unless their fiscal outlook improves, citing the uncertainty of Connecticut’s ability to maintain existing levels of municipal aid, reinforcing Moody’s moody outlook earlier this month when it warned that the state actions could lead to lower bond ratings for 51 municipalities and six regional school districts, placing ratings for 26 cities and towns and three regional school districts under review for downgrade, and assigning negative outlooks to an additional 25 municipalities and three more regional school districts. For its part, S&P warned: “In the end, if state fiscal pressures persist, all local governments in Connecticut will continue to be affected…and the degree of credit deterioration will depend on each government’s level [of] budgetary reserves and ability to adapt.”

Underpowered. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he does not want to “come to conclusions” before he has all the information regarding the controversial $300 million contract of the Montana-based company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA); nevertheless, Chairman Bishop has given PREPA Chairman Ricardo Ramos until this Thursday to submit a series of documents related to the contract with the company—a company whose largest project prior to Hurricane Maria was $ 1.3 million in the state of Arizona—especially in the wake of the contract award here made without bidding—ergo triggering a series of questions and requests for investigations by the Office of  Inspector General and from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Chairman Bishop was part of the Congressional delegation with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) and Deputy Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), as well as Puerto Rico resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C., Jennifer González. House Speaker Paul Ryan ((R-Wis.) who had earlier visited the town of Utuado, known as “El Pueblo del Viví,’ which was founded in 1739 by Sebastían de Morfi, and derives its name from a local Indian Chief Otoao, which means between the mountains, to see first-hand the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—in the wake of which he noted: “Our committee, like other groups, will investigate and we will know what is behind the Whitefish contract. I do not know enough right now to come to a conclusion against or in favor, but that’s the idea, to know the details and how it happened.”

The Chairman was not alone: the Federal Agency for Emergency Management (FEMA) has released a statement making clear that agency’s concerns about certain aspects of the contract, including an absence of certainty that some prices were even “reasonable,” in apparent reference to the hourly pay of some employees of the company. FEMA also warned that entities that fail to meet FEMA requirements may not see their expenses reimbursed. Nevertheless, Chairman Bishop said he will not “let” any concern of FEMA “get in the way…FEMA will do its job,” he insisted when asked if he was worried that FEMA would not reimburse the Puerto Rico government for payments to Whitefish. (Last night, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares confirmed that he was about to receive a report he had requested from the Office of Management and Budget about the contract.).

Chairman Bishop noted that, as a result of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, he is considering possible changes to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), albeit, when asked about specific changes, he limited himself to saying that the Oversight Board “does not need more authority;” rather, he said, the focus now needs to be on the provision of power and drinking water. Asked by Majority Leader McCarthy whether the devastation he had witnessed makes him think that the aid mechanism for Puerto Rico should change, he answered that “a lot of infrastructure is needed, and we have to lift the electrical system…I spoke with (Minority Leader) Steny Hoyer. I do not think it would be the best use of taxpayers’ money to build the same grid that we had. We need a 21st century one that is more efficient and effective and we can do it with more transparency,” albeit he was unclear what he meant by transparency. Rep. Hoyer noted: “We know there is an urgency,”  adding the delegation needed to all go back to Washington, D.C. to work together, but “we need an urgency to fix the electrical system and for power to reach the whole island. Governor Rosselló Nevares, who accompanied them on the tour, has said that if the quality of life in Puerto Rico does not reach what it should be: “People will be disappointed, and they will leave.”

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