Federal Tax Reform in a Post-Chapter 9 Era

December 4, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges that the pending federal tax “reform” legislation might have for the nation’s city emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, before returning to the governance challenges in Puerto Rico.  

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Harming Post Chapter 9 Recovery? As the House and Senate race, this week, to conference on federal tax legislation, the potential fiscal impact on post chapter 9 Detroit provides grim tidings. The proposed changes would eliminate federal tax credits vital to Detroit’s emergency from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; the elimination of low-income housing tax credits would reduce financing options for the city: the combination, because it would adversely affect business investment and development, could undercut the pace of the city’s recovery. Most at risk are historic rehabilitation and low income housing tax credits: the House version of the tax “reform” legislation proposes to eliminate historic tax credits—the Senate version would reduce them by 50%; both versions propose the elimination of new market tax credits. The greatest threat is the potential elimination of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LITC), proposed by the House, potentially undercutting as much as 40% of the current financing for low income housing in the Motor City. While both the House and Senate versions retain a 9% low income housing tax credit, the credit, as proposed, would limit how much the Michigan State Housing Development Agency may award on an annual basis—putting as much as $280 million at risk. According to the National Housing Conference, the production of low income housing could decline by as much as 50%. The combined impact could leave owners and developers of low income housing with fewer options for rehabilitation—an impact potentially with disproportionate omens for post-chapter 9 municipalities such as Detroit.   

Is There Promise or Democracy in PROMESA? Since the imposition by Congress of the PROMESA, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy legislation, under which a board named by former President Obama appointed seven voting members, with Gov. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló serving as an ex officio member, but with no voting rights—there have been singular disparities, including between the harsh fiscal measures imposed on the U.S. territory, measures imposing austerity for Puerto Rico, even as the PROMESA Executive Director receives an annual salary of $625,000—an amount 500% greater than the executive director of Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy oversight board, and some $225,000 more than the President of the United States—with Puerto Rico’s taxpayers footing the tab for what is perceived as an unelected board acting as an autocratic body which threatens to undermine the autonomy of Puerto Rico’s government. Unsurprisingly, the Congressional statute includes few incentives for transparency, much less accountability to the citizens and taxpayers of Puerto Rico. Indeed, when the Center for Investigative Journalism and the Legal Clinic of the Interamerican University Law School, attorneys Judith Berkan, Steven Lausell, Luis José Torres, and Annette Martínez—both in one case before the San Juan Superior Court and in another before federal Judge Jay A. García-Gregory, as well as the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted an amicus brief seeking clarification with regard to the legal standards of transparency and accountability which should be applied to the board, the PROMESA Board asserted that the right of access to information does not apply to it. 

Governance in Insolvency. As we have followed the different and unique models of chapter 9 and insolvencies from Central Falls, Rhode Island, through San Bernardino, Stockton, Detroit, Jefferson County, etc., it has been respective state laws—or the absence thereof—which have determined the critical role of governance—whether it be guided via a federal bankruptcy court, a state oversight board, in large part determined by the original authority under the U.S. system of governance whereby the states—because they created the federal government—individually determine the eligibility of municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In Puerto Rico, sort of a hybrid, being neither a state, nor a municipality, the issue of governing oversight is paving new ground. Thus, in Puerto Rico, it has opened the question with regard to whether the Governor or Congress ought to have the authority to name an oversight board—a body—whether overseeing the District of Colombia, New York City, Detroit, Central Falls, Atlantic City, etc.—to exercise oversight in the wake of insolvency. Such boards, after all, can protect a jurisdiction from pressures by partisan and outside actors. Moreover, the appointment of experts with both experience and expertise not subject to voters’ understandable angst can empower such appointed—and presumably expert officials, to take on complex fiscal and financial questions, including debt restructuring, access to the municipal markets, and credit.  Moreover, because appointed board members are not affected by elections, they are in a sometimes better position to impose austerity measures—measures which would likely rarely be supported by a majority of voters—or, as former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry said the District of Columbia oversight Board, it “was able to do some things that needed to be done that, politically, I would not do, would not do, would not do,” such as firing 2,000 human-service workers. 

In Puerto Rico—which, after all, is neither a municipality nor a state, the bad gnus is that these governance disparities are certain to continue: indeed, despite the PROMESA Board’s November 27th recommendations, Gov. Rosselló announced he would spend close to $113 million on government employees’ Christmas bonuses-an announcement the PROMESA Board responded to by stating that its members expect “to be consulted during the formulation and prior to the announcement of policies such as this to ensure the Government is upholding the principles of fiscal responsibility.” (Note: it would have to be a challenge for PROMESA Board members to observe the current federal tax bills in the U.S. House and Senate as measured by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office and believe that Congress is actually exercising “fiscal responsibility.”)

Nevertheless, there might be some help at hand for the U.S. territory: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tx.), in trying to mold in conference with the Senate the pending tax reform legislation, is considering options to avert what top Puerto Rican officials fear could be still another devastating blow to its already tottering economy: both versions would end Puerto Rico’s status as an offshore tax haven for U.S. companies—a devastating potential blow, especially given the current federal Jones Act which imposes such disproportionate shipping costs on Puerto Rico compared to other, competitive Caribbean nations. Now, the Governor, as well as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s sole nonvoting member of Congress, are warning that Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria could suffer an irreparable setback if manufacturers decide to close their factories. Commissioner Gonzalez said 40% of Puerto Rico’s economy relies on manufacturing, with much of that related to pharmaceuticals; ergo, she is worried that any drop in the $2 billion of annual revenue these businesses provide would undercut the economic recovery plan instituted by the PROMESA Board. The Commissioner notes: “Forty percent of the island is living in poverty,” even though the federal child tax credit only applies to a third child for residents of Puerto Rico.

Thus, many eyes in Puerto Rico—and, presumably in the PROMESA Board—are laser focused on the House-Senate tax conference this week, where the House version would extend, for five years, the so-called rum cover which provides an excise tax rebate to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on locally produced rum—a provision which Republican leaders appear unlikely to retain, albeit, they appear to be amenable to changes which could help reboot the island’s economy. (Puerto Rico produces 77% of the rum consumed in the U.S., according to the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Agency.) In a sense, part of the challenge is that for Puerto Rico, the issue has become whether to focus its lobbying on retaining its quasi-tax haven status. Gov. Rosselló worries that if that status were altered, “companies with a strong presence on the island would be forced to shutter those operations and decamp for the mainland or, worse, a lower-tax country…This would put tens of thousands of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico out of work and demolish our tax base right as we are trying to rebound from historic storms.” Chairman Brady, after meeting with Commissioner Gonzalez at the end of last week, told reporters the meeting was with regard to “ideas on how best to help Puerto Rico…I know the Senate too has some ideas as well…“Yeah, we’re going to keep working on that.” In conference, the House bill imposes a 20% excise tax on payments by a U.S. company to a foreign subsidiary; the Senate bill proposes a tax ranging from 12.5% to 15.625% on the income of foreign corporations with intangible assets in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico officials and U.S. businesses operating there describe both the House and Senate versions as putting Puerto Rico at a disadvantage—or, as one official noted: “The companies are asking from exemptions from all of this if Puerto Rico is involved…They want to be exempted from the taxes going forward that would prevent companies from accumulating untaxed profits abroad.” Foreign earnings, which includes revenues earned by corporations operating in Puerto Rico, could be repatriated at a 14% rate if the funds were held in cash and 7% if its illiquid assets under the House bill; the Senate version would tax cash at 10% and illiquid assets at 5%. Companies operating in Puerto Rico would be taxed at the same rate on the mainland of the U.S. and in foreign countries. In addition, the average manufacturing wage is three times lower in Puerto Rico than on the mainland and companies operating there can claim an 80% tax credit for taxes paid to the territorial government, according to officials. Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) noted he wishes to “help Puerto Rico, but not in this tax bill.”