Puerto Rico’s fiscal mess has Congress working frantically to provide “relief.” The island territory is overloaded with debt and cannot meet its obligations, and House Speaker Paul Ryan set March as a deadline for Congress to provide a “responsible solution.” Now Washington is busy debating whether to simply bailout Puerto Rico or instead allow it to stiff creditors through bankruptcy. Few seem willing to consider that both options would create terrible precedent and undermine real reforms.
The economic downturn has obviously taken a toll, but like so many other distressed jurisdictions, Puerto Rico has been hampered by fiscal irresponsibility, mismanagement, and widespread corruption. Its politicians also spent frivolously, increasing spending by 100 percent between 1980 and 2013, far outpacing the 12 percent population growth during that period.
In five of the last six years, Puerto Rico’s government has ignored its constitutional requirement to pass a balanced budget. And in 14 of the last 15 years, it has failed to adhere to the budgets it passed. Today it has over $70 billion in outstanding debt.
Much of the problem is due to the island’s bloated and generously paid government workforce. Over two-thirds of the budget goes to payroll, with public sector workers earning on average more than twice Puerto Rico’s median household income. Governor Padilla has refused to further trim the government labor force.
Instead, Puerto Rico’s politicians have responded to the growing debt crisis in the worst manner possible by raising both taxes and spending year after year. And now Washington is preparing to reward their irresponsible overspending.
Some Republicans argue that allowing Puerto Rico or its government-owned subsidiaries, like its utility companies, to file for bankruptcy is a preferable alternative to a taxpayer bailout. But this is a false dichotomy. Neither option provides a responsible path forward.
A bailout would not only be unfair to mainland taxpayers, but would create a moral hazard and signal to other big spending states and municipalities that Washington will be there to rescue them from the messes of their own making. But a bankruptcy that allows the government to stiff its creditors poses the same problem, while only shifting the financial costs from federal taxpayers to bondholders.
Puerto Rico issued bonds with the understanding that default was not an option. It shouldn’t get to retroactively change the rules now. That doesn’t mean, however, that it can’t negotiate with creditors for better terms, such as happened earlier this year when the state-owned power company reached an agreement with a group of bondholders to restructure. Unfortunately, the island’s government overall has so far preferred gamesmanship to good faith engagement by withholding financial information, being excessively tardy in filing audited annual financial statements, and using restrictive NDA’s to prevent creditors from talking to one another.
What Puerto Rico needs is a fiscal correction and pro-growth reforms. That won’t happen so long as Washington is intent on granting a reprieve from the consequences of bad policy.
There are some constructive things that Congress can do, however. Many of the counter-productive, European-style labor rules that inhibit hiring are of Puerto Rico’s own making, but Congress decades ago forced it to equalize its minimum wage laws with the federal level. Because the island’s standard of living is lower, the same minimum wage imposes a higher burden on Puerto Rican businesses than it would elsewhere. The island is also hurt by the Jones Act, which roughly doubles shipping costs by requiring that only American built, owned, and operated ships can operate between U.S. ports. Congress should lead by example and help kick start Puerto Rico’s pro-growth reforms by repealing costly federal regulations and mandates.
All eyes seem to be on Congress to do something about Puerto Rico, when that attention would largely be better directed at Puerto Rico itself. The island doesn’t need a Washington bailout regardless of the form it takes. It needs fiscal responsibly, and that won’t happen if politicians are allowed to worm out of their obligations through bankruptcy.