By LEN WEISER-VARON

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 opinion in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, precluding states from discriminating against churches in at least some state financing programs, raises anew the question of whether states may, or are required to, provide tax-exempt conduit bond financing to churches and other sectarian institutions.  The Supreme Court’s decision further complicates an already complicated analysis of that question by bond counsel,  and in some instances may tip bond counsel’s answer in favor of green-lighting tax-exempt financing of some capital projects of sectarian institutions.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution precludes Congress and, via the Fourteenth Amendment, states from legislating the establishment of religion (the “Establishment Clause”), or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (the “Free Exercise Clause”).  Under a line of Supreme Court cases that has been cast into doubt but never expressly repudiated by a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Establishment Clause has been held to prohibit state financing of “pervasively sectarian” institutions, i.e. institutions that “are so ‘pervasively sectarian’ that secular activities cannot be separated from sectarian ones.” Roemer v. Board of Publ. Works of Maryland (1976).   Continue Reading Tax-Exempt Financing of Churches, Parochial Schools and Other Sectarian Institutions After Trinity Lutheran Church: Permitted? Required? Let us Pray for Answers

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

At the end of “The Candidate”, Robert Redford’s title character, having won, famously asks, “What do we do now?”

A similar question can be asked now that the federal district court in Puerto Rico has struck down the Puerto Rico Public Corporation Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act.

In a February 6, 2015 opinion, Judge Besosa rejected enough of Puerto Rico’s ripeness and standing arguments to reach the merits of the plaintiffs’  challenges to the validity of the Recovery Act.  As we had anticipated, Judge Besosa held that the Recovery Act is preempted by Section 903(1) of the federal Bankruptcy Code, which provides that “a State law prescribing a method of composition of indebtedness of [a] municipality may not bind any creditor that does not consent to such composition.”  The Recovery Act contains provisions that purport to permit changes to the debt obligations of eligible Puerto Rico public corporations without the consent of all affected debtholders. The court held that Section 903(1) applies to Puerto Rico, and that it not only invalidates those provisions of the Recovery Act that purport to bind non-consenting creditors, but preempts the Recovery Act entirely.

Puerto Rico enacted the Recovery Act because the federal Bankruptcy Code precludes Puerto Rico’s public corporations from availing themselves of Chapter 9 of the federal Bankruptcy Code to restructure their debts. Puerto Rico’s public officers are now asking themselves the Spanish version of Redford’s question: “Y ahora que hacemos?” Certain creditors of PREPA and other overleveraged Puerto Rico issuers may be asking variations of that question.

Some potential answers:

1)      The Recovery Act may yet recover. In addition to the ripeness and standing issues, Judge Besosa’s opinion rests on a textual analysis of Section 903(1), including the definition of the word “creditor” as used therein and elsewhere in the Bankruptcy Code and its applicability to creditors of an entity that is not a debtor in a federal proceeding. Puerto Rico is likely to appeal the federal district court’s ruling, both as to the ripeness and standing analysis and as to the applicability of Section 903 to Puerto Rico and the Recovery Act. The ruling is certainly a victory for the plaintiff bondholders and takes the Recovery Act off the table for the near future. In addition, Judge Besosa’s discussions of the contract clause and taking clause issues with the Recovery Act highlight the obstacles the Recovery Act has faced from the beginning as legislation that does not benefit from the federal bankruptcy power’s override of the contracts clause. Accordingly, a resurrected version of the Recovery Act, if any, would continue to face substantial legal challenges. But the Recovery Act, or something like it, will remain hovering in the background of any restructuring discussions during the pendency of the likely appeal.

2)      The invalidation of the Recovery Act, whether or not it proves permanent, eliminates the only existing process under which those public entities that would have been eligible to restructure under that legislation could do so over the objections of holdouts.  Both for Puerto Rico and for those creditors who believe that PREPA and/or certain other Puerto Rico issuers are incapable of sustaining their existing debt and must restructure, the invalidation of the Recovery Act may provide additional impetus to try to persuade the U.S. Congress to amend the Bankruptcy Code to authorize Puerto Rico to authorize its public corporations, or certain of its public corporations, to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9. Such legislation was filed in the prior session of Congress and its viability may be somewhat enhanced by Judge Besosa’s ruling.

3)      While any Recovery Act appeal wends its way through the higher courts, and while any  legislation to amend the federal Bankruptcy Code seeks to wend its way through Congress, PREPA and PREPA’s creditors, and any other Puerto Rico issuers who seek debt relief and their creditors, will need to negotiate without a forum, without a final arbiter, and without the ability to impose a majority or supermajority consensus on holdouts. That process can be a messy and difficult one, but not necessarily an impossible one. In contrast to Robert Redford’s most recent movie, the working title for the as-yet-unfinished movie about Puerto Rico and its creditors remains All Is Not Lost.

 

 

 

BY LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

The latest swerve in the rollercoaster that is Puerto Rico public finance occurred on April 11 with the release of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s ruling striking down as unconstitutional the bulk of the territory’s teacher pension reform legislation.  The outcome of the case creates some disarray in the executive and legislative branches’ efforts to stabilize Puerto Rico’s finances, as well as in the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s contracts clause jurisprudence.

We have previously discussed both the teacher pension reform litigation and the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s prior ruling in the Hernandez case upholding the territory’s public employee pension reform legislation.  In the 5-4 Hernandez case, the dissents included strongly worded accusations that the majority had rubber-stamped the legislature’s conclusion that there were no less onerous alternatives to the  challenged impairments of the employee’s pension rights.   In the 5-3 teacher pension case, the majority went to the other extreme and concluded that the legislature and governor had acted unreasonably in enacting the legislation, because (according to the majority) the legislation failed to take into account the high number of accelerated teacher retirements the legislation would provoke, which (according to the majority) would further strain, rather than improve, the teacher pension system’s finances.

In other words, the court majority concluded that the teacher pension reform legislation did not promote the public purpose to which it was addressed.  As we have previously discussed, the “contracts clause” in the U.S. and Puerto Rico constitutions has been interpreted as permitting state action that impairs contracts if such action promotes a necessary public purpose and there are no less onerous means of achieving that public purpose.  Because the Puerto Rico Supreme Court concluded that the teacher pension reform legislation did not serve its stated public purpose of preserving the viability of the teacher pension system, it did not have to address whether there were less onerous means of achieving that purpose than the legislation’s benefit cutbacks and contribution increases.

In particular, the court referenced certain provisions of the legislation that preserved certain benefits for teachers retiring prior to a near-term cutoff date, economic studies presented by the teachers’ union regarding the impact of the early retirement of 7000 teachers, and an actuarial study forecasting the consequences of the early retirement of 5,000, 7000, 10,000 and 15,000 teachers, respectively.  The court also referenced testimony to the effect that approximately 4,100 teachers had contacted the pension system about early retirement since the legislation was enacted, and that 10,000 or more teachers would be eligible for early retirement.  The court interpreted the actuarial studies as showing that if such large-scale early retirements occurred, the pension fund would be depleted at an earlier date than if no legislation were enacted.  The court noted that the legislation had been enacted during a 6-day period and that the legislature had commissioned no studies about the early retirements the legislation might trigger or the impact of such early retirements on the system’s solvency.  The majority concluded that the teachers’ union had met its burden of proof that the challenged legislation, instead of increasing the system’s solvency, would leave it in a more precarious position.

The court upheld the legislation as applicable to teachers who began or begin service subsequent to its enactment, and also upheld certain cutbacks on system contributions to teachers’ health plans and annual Christmas bonuses to retired teachers, concluding that those benefits were not pension rights or contract rights.

It is unusual for a court, in a situation of fiscal crisis,  to hold that the other branches of government are effectively wrong about the financial effect of legislation being positive rather than negative.  There no doubt are genuine distinctions between the evidence presented in the Hernandez case and in the teachers’ pension case; it is also clear that there was a change in the receptiveness of certain of the court’s members to the government’s arguments regarding the necessity of the applicable pension reform.  To understand the difference in analysis and result, one may need to go no further than the majority opinion’s second paragraph, which states that “Teachers are the ones that mold the knowledge of the members of our society.  They are a fundamental piece of the educational system.”   A majority of the court appears to have credited the teachers’ presentation on this difficult public policy matter over the government’s.

Puerto Rico bondholders have been following this case for its credit implications as well as its legal implications.  The result may be a mixed bag from both perspectives.  From a credit perspective, the decision invalidates teacher pension reform that the Puerto Rico government has touted as an important component of its financial stabilization plan; on the other hand, the court invalidated the legislation on the stated grounds that the reform would make things worse, not better.  From a legal perspective, the court’s closer scrutiny of contract impairment may be somewhat heartening to bondholders concerned that Puerto Rico’s debt may be next on the impairment list.  Whether any comfort is warranted remains to be seen, but it seems less likely that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court would second-guess the financial efficacy of any future attempts to legislate debt restructuring.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

Last Tuesday, Puerto Rico sold its much-ballyhooed $3.5 billion in non-investment grade general obligation bonds.  Two days later, two legislators in Puerto Rico’s Senate filed a bill which, if enacted, would permit insolvency filings by Puerto Rico’s public corporations in Puerto Rico’s territorial trial court.  The juxtaposition of the two events has some bond investors crying foul.  But though the timing of the insolvency bill must have Puerto Rico’s investor relations personnel swallowing ibuprofen, Puerto Rico itself is not a “public corporation” and the proposed legislation would not establish a process for an insolvency filing affecting the territory’s general obligation bonds.  (Although the legislation authorizes a bankruptcy-like process, the process is referred to in this post as “insolvency”  to distinguish it from the federal bankruptcy process.)

The proposed legislation is of greater interest to holders of bonds issued by Puerto Rico’s public corporation bond issuers.  To the extent the legislation responds to requests by one or more public corporations, it is not good news for bondholders, as it suggests that some of those public corporations may be actively considering an insolvency-related process.  However, press reports indicate that Puerto Rico’s Governor opposes enactment of this particular legislation.  Accordingly, the existence of the Senate bill, and its details, may deserve attention not so much because of any likelihood that such an insolvency process will be implemented in the short term, but rather as a case study in the legal complexity of any attempted restructuring of Puerto Rico’s governmental debt.

Whether legislation of the type represented by the Puerto Rico Senate bill, if enacted, would be constitutional would likely involve years of litigation following an attempt by any public corporation to avail itself of such protection as it provides.  As suggested in the bill’s preamble, Puerto Rico’s authority to create its own non-federal process to address insolvent public corporations is uncertain.  Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities are excluded from the definition of “municipality” under Chapter 9, which governs municipal bankruptcies.  Whether under the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy and bankruptcy clauses the existence of Chapter 9 preempts Puerto Rico’s ability to establish its own bankruptcy-like process for its public corporations, or whether Puerto Rico’s exclusion from Chapter 9  suggests that Congress did not intend such preemption, is the main constitutional question.  Further complicating the resolution of that question is Puerto Rico’s status as a federally-approved U.S. territory that has been recognized as akin to a “state” for at least some constitutional purposes by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

If legislation of the type filed in Puerto Rico’s Senate were enacted, and if the constitutionality of such a non-federal insolvency process in Puerto Rico were ultimately upheld, such legislation by its terms limits a public corporation’s ability to restructure its debts.   The legislation precludes a “significant” impairment of the public corporation’s major contractual obligations unless it is reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose.  The legislation defines an “important public purpose” as including (somewhat perplexingly) the obligation to comply with existing contracts, but, perhaps more significantly, as including “the stability and continuity of essential public infrastructure, utilities and services.”   In other words,  the bill would create a “bankruptcy-lite” statute designed to permit approval of restructuring plans only to the extent they satisfy the federal constitutional test for impairment of contracts.  The “contracts clause” of the U.S. constitution has been judicially interpreted not as a prohibition on contract impairment but rather as a balancing test under which contracts may be impaired if there is sufficient public necessity for doing so and there are no less onerous means of addressing such public necessity .

The limits on what can be achieved under the proposed legislation are compelled by the fact that, if it were enacted, in contrast to Chapter 9 it would not be enacted under Congress’s constitutional power to provide a bankruptcy process.  Whereas the constitutionally-sanctioned federal bankruptcy act expressly contemplates certain judicially approved contract impairments to give a debtor a “fresh start”, a Puerto Rican public corporation insolvency statute not enacted pursuant to the constitutional bankruptcy provisions would need to comply with the anti-impairment provisions of the U.S. Constitution.  Accordingly, any plan under a Puerto Rico statute that impairs bondholder rights would be subject to challenge on whether the statute’s definition of “important public purpose”  correctly incorporates the federal constitutional balancing test for permissible contract impairment and, if so, whether that test has been properly applied in the context of any particular impairment by any particular bonding authority of particular bondholder rights.   This is an inefficient process relative to the federal bankruptcy statute, which provides a process for bankruptcy plan approval that obviates the need to address on a case by case basis whether an approved contract impairment is constitutional.

The bill introduced in Puerto Rico’s Senate reinforces a risk already faced by Puerto Rico bondholders that Puerto Rico may seek by direct legislation or by legislatively-established process to impair to the extent constitutionally permissible the contractual rights of bondholders of insolvent bonding authorities.  That risk is already playing itself out for a different class of Puerto Rico’s creditors, its public employees and teachers, in legislation imposing certain pension cuts and in court challenges to such legislation.  If there is good news for Puerto Rico’s public corporation bondholders in the specific legislation filed in the Puerto Rico Senate, it is that the insolvency process outlined in such legislation, unlike the federal bankruptcy statute,  lacks a “cramdown” provision and would require approval of any restructuring plan by 75% in amount of affected creditors.  In other words, any cutbacks in bondholder rights under the proposed legislation would, in most conceivable instances, require the consent of a substantial proportion of the bondholders.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

We previously discussed the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s decision in the Hernandez case, in which by a 5-4 vote the court upheld the constitutionality under federal and Puerto Rico law of pension reform legislation affecting public sector employees, holding that though such legislation substantially impairs contract rights, the measures are reasonable and necessary to salvage the actuarial soundness of the pension system and that less onerous measures are unavailable.  Holders of bonds issued by Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities have now shifted their attention to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s handling of a constitutional challenge to recently enacted legislation reforming the teacher pension system.  The legislation currently under court review requires additional teacher contributions while deferring retirement age for current teachers with at least 30 years’ service from 50 to 55.

 

On January 14, 2014, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court issued an order taking over jurisdiction of the case from the trial court, and staying the effectiveness of the legislation pending further court action.  The court also appointed a special master to conduct an evidentiary hearing and present findings of fact to the court no later than today, February 7.  The court’s action, particularly the stay, is being evaluated by bond market participants as a potential sign that the constitutional challenge to this legislation may have more traction in the court than the Hernandez challenge mustered.

 

Bondholders have a mixed rooting interest in the outcome of the current pension reform litigation.  On the one hand, the cutbacks on future pension benefits effected by such legislation are viewed as a positive step by Puerto Rico’s legislative and executive branches to manage the liability side of Puerto Rico’s balance sheet, and therefore as a positive credit development.  On the other hand, such legislation impairs the contractual expectations of Puerto Rico’s teachers, much like the statute upheld in Hernandez impaired the pension rights of other public employees.  To the extent such impairments continue to survive constitutional challenges in Puerto Rico’s courts, questions are raised about how Puerto Rico’s courts would react should Puerto Rico feel compelled to adopt future measures that defer or reduce debt service payments or that otherwise impair its contracts with bondholders.

 

The tea-leaf reading in the teacher pension case includes review of brief statements delivered by some of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court justices in connection with the court’s stay order.  The Chief Justice indicated that he would have postponed the decision on the stay request until after the evidentiary hearing and findings of fact.  He indicated that such postponement would be consistent with court precedent to the effect that injunctive relief is not granted without a prior hearing.  One of the associate justices stated that she would not have granted direct Supreme Court review or the stay, but would have ordered the trial court to process the case on an expedited basis.  Three associate justices filed a concurring opinion citing precedent that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court can intervene in cases pending in lower courts that raise new questions of law or questions of high public interest that include any substantial constitutional question.  The concurring opinion states that the court order is appropriate given the high public interest for review of the changes to the teachers’ pension system and the urgent need to address the constitutionality of the challenged statute.  The concurring opinion asserts the need for a speedy resolution not only for the State of Puerto Rico and the teachers, but for the peace of mind of thousands of parents and children that the applicable justices assert are being deprived of education.  It also notes that the uncertainty over the teachers retirement system could force over 40,-000 teachers to decide in the coming days whether to resign, causing irreparable harm to the education system.

 

It is clear from the Chief Justice’s statement that the stay prior to a hearing is a departure from precedent. Whether that indicates that there is a majority of the court that favors a finding of unconstitutionality, or simply reflects the enormous public and political pressure associated with this case and the desire to temporarily mitigate the unrest sparked by the legislation remains to be seen.  What seems notable is the emphasis on fact-finding, which may include fact-finding on the key question of the existence of less onerous means of addressing the system’s solvency.  As described in our analysis of the Hernandez decision, the dissenters in that case castigated the majority for rubber-stamping the legislature’s findings of crisis and lack of alternative.  The Puerto Rico Supreme Court has given the plaintiff teachers, as well as the government, the ability to make presentations in a Supreme Court sponsored fact-finding that was not present in the Hernandez case.  Given the emphasis placed by the court on a speedy resolution of the challenge, whether that fact-finding results in a different outcome should be known fairly soon.