Watching Harrisburg crash and burn

We are now watching Harrisburg crash and burn. The busted Pennsylvania capital of 49,000 is crushed by $463 million in city debt and an additional $282 million in debt for the public school system. The state senator representing the area, Jeff Piccola, used his power last June to pass state legislation (Act 47 amendments) that shackled Harrisburg with accepting a receiver appointed by the governor and barred the city from filing bankruptcy until June 30, 2012.

Adhering to the Act 47 requirement that the mayor work with the city council to approve a fiscal recovery plan, Mayor Thompson fought a months-long war that resulted in her plan being rejected three times and the governor’s appointment of a receiver, David Unkovic. After the Dauphin County court approved Unkovic last November, he tried to help the city balance the budget, sell assets and negotiate with bondholders. Amid all that action, a subset of the city council, against the mayor’s wishes, filed a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy petition that was ultimately rejected by a federal judge as a result of Senator Piccola’s Act 47 legislation.

Harrisburg’s biggest albatross is its responsibility for the debt of the Harrisburg incinerator – a monstrosity of design and a debacle of public financing. The responsibility for this debt first lies with the city and then with Dauphin County and bond insurer Assured Guaranty.

On Apr. 2 Unkovic inexplicably announced his resignation in a letter to the governor. This followed a dramatic press conference Wednesday in which Unkovic began to name names in the Harrisburg drama, beginning with State Senator Piccola, who recently announced his retirement from electoral politics. Also among those Unkovic named was the lobbyist who had worked with the staff of Governor Tom Corbett on the legislation to place Harrisburg into receivership and bar it from filing bankruptcy. Citizen journalist Tara Leo Auchey captured the Unkovic yarn-spinning at his hastily arranged press conference:

Which leads us to another player in the true Harrisburg debt story – Senator Jeff Piccola. During Unkovic’s press conference, he referred to the closing of the Dauphin Meadows landfill and Piccola’s position on that. Now, this is another history lesson but an important one. In 1990, Senator Piccola fought against the Incinerator and fought for use of the landfill for Dauphin County trash. The State agreed and all County trash went away from the Incinerator and to the landfill. When that happened, the Incinerator lost immense value over night.

Pennsylvania’s proposed fracking law will exacerbate its budget shortfall

As Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett prepares to release the state’s fiscal 2013 budget tomorrow, the AP is reporting that Republicans in the state legislature are planning to cram through a law that levies a minimal tax on gas and oil drillers in the state. Although taxes on gas and oil production could be a means of plugging substantial revenue shortfalls, it’s likely that the legislation will require drillers to pay the smallest level of fees of any state with recoverable energy assets.

From the AP today (emphasis mine):

Pennsylvania’s top-ranking state senator says he’s hoping for a speedy vote in his chamber on sweeping legislation to impose a drilling fee and update safety regulations on the booming natural gas industry.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said he hopes senators will vote on the bill by Monday night. The proposed compromise hasn’t been released publicly or amended into a bill, but Scarnati says he believes it will get enough votes to pass.

Pennsylvania’s fracking competitiveness

In a post earlier this week I said that Pennsylvania would be forgoing approximately $24 billion in fracking royalties and that the adoption of an “impact fee” would shortchange the citizens of the state.

The Pennsylvania governor’s office responded to my post claiming that I had neglected to include other taxes collected related to gas drilling:

First, any fair consideration as to the value that Pennsylvania taxpayers will receive from natural gas development would include ALL taxes paid by operators, and landowners, engaged in the activity. Nowhere in the analysis is consideration given to the hundreds of millions of dollars paid annually already under the state’s existing corporate net income, personal income, capital stock and franchise, liquid fuels and other taxes.

The Pennsylvania governor’s office responds

On my post arguing that the state of Pennsylvania will forgo $24 billion in royalties from gas fracking, the governor’s office has responded:

The premise of the article – that PA will “forgo” billions in royalties because it does not adopt a severance tax – is simply misplaced – and misleading.

First, any fair consideration as to the value that Pennsylvania taxpayers will receive from natural gas development would include ALL taxes paid by operators, and landowners, engaged in the activity. Nowhere in the analysis is consideration given to the hundreds of millions of dollars paid annually already under the state’s existing corporate net income, personal income, capital stock and franchise, liquid fuels and other taxes. While many states [against] which Pennsylvania is actively competing for limited capital investment may impose some level of severance tax, they do not impose the same suite of taxes.

Pennsylvania to forgo $24 billion in fracking royalties

There are shale gas fields covering more than half of the United States, but Pennsylvania has emerged as the rising star of domestic energy production with its “Mighty Marcellus” fields. This is a great resource for Pennsylvania, but I’ve been confused about legislation that would impose an “impact fee” on shale gas producers instead of the traditional volume-based royalty structure used by other states. The loss of revenues to the state over the next 20 years using the “impact fee” could be approximately $24 billion using current gas prices. If gas prices doubled (they are currently at 10-year lows), losses to the state could exceed $48 billion or more.

The energy states of North Dakota, Wyoming, Texas and Oklahoma historically have earned substantial revenues from energy royalties. It seemed odd that Tom Corbett, the Pennsylvania governor who received substantial campaign contributions from gas producers, barred his shale gas commission from even considering a royalty or gas tax.

When energy producers do cost-benefit analyses, they use very sophisticated modeling in which the primary input is the quantity of “recoverable” oil or gas in an area. The second input is the projected demand and supply for energy, which in turn determines its price. Finally, the modelers factor in business expenses, primarily the depth of well drilling required and the cost to haul the energy to a pipeline terminus or railroad depot. In the case of natural gas they might include the cost to liquefy the gas for easier transport. Generally at the end of all the calculations they look at the cost of paying mineral rights fees to landholders and royalty fees to the state. All these inputs move around constantly, and projecting them years or decades ahead requires quantitative wizardry.

Muniland’s most active states

In the municipal bond market, one of the most insightful ways to examine a state is to look at how actively its bonds trade. Broker-dealers make money by trading, so naturally they go where the action is and commit market-making resources to those states. It’s generally true that the most populous states are the ones with the most traded bonds, but if we map the wealth of a state’s citizens to how often that state’s bonds trade, we get some interesting results. For example, New Jersey, which has only 2.8 percent of the national population but a high proportion of its wealthy citizens, might have the highest number of municipal bond owners as a percentage of state population.

The municipal bond market does not trade on an exchange but rather on “alternative trading systems” (ATS). These are systems where dealers post inventories of bonds to be aggregated. The largest of the retail ATS is Bonddesk, which does some excellent data analysis for both the municipal and corporate bond markets.

From Bonddesk’s December Transparency Report I pulled the data for these charts showing the seven most actively traded states’ bonds. Bonddesk uses “investor buys” data, which represents trades that end up in a retail investor’s account. In the bond markets there are often many trades between broker-dealers before the securities land in an investor’s account, so Bonddesk scrubs the data to show the real level of investor demand.

Where does fracking water go?

Fracking — the extraction of natural gas from underground deposits of shale — is receiving an increasing amount of attention. The 2010 documentary Gasland brought the issue into the national spotlight and highlighted the problem of contaminated groundwater that can occur when a well casing ruptures and fracking fluids escape into the water table. In addition, there is the issue of used fracking liquids being injected into spent wells for permanent disposal. Of course, the fracking industry and environmentalists have a lot of disagreement about the extent to which these fluids contaminate groundwater.

There is another, less discussed, problem of used fracking fluids that are moved offsite for processing and disposal. Where are these fluids going and who is regulating them? The community of Kingston, NY (near where I live) decided they didn’t want to accept these fracking fluids for processing. From the Daily Freeman:

The city engineer says no spent hydrofracking fluid will be coming to the sewage treatment plant even though the state Department of Environmental Conservation lists the plant as a capable of handling the fluid.

Harrisburg back to square one

Federal bankruptcy judge Mary France dismissed the Harrisburg City Council’s petition to file municipal bankruptcy last Thursday. According to Bloomberg her ruling stated:

“For Chapter 9 bankruptcy to work, all of the branches of the municipality must be on the same page,” France said. “Therefore I find that city council was not authorized to file the petition.”

Judge France has hit the nail on the head. The legislative and executive branches of Harrisburg’s government have been behaving like two sides of a family fighting over a deceased parent’s estate. The battle has been brutal and family members have talked past each other. Harrisburg mayor Linda Thompson seems to have little patience for others’ views, which is a tough way to govern.

Harrisburg needs the bankruptcy option

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett took the next step in the process of pushing the bankrupt capital of his state towards fiscal recovery today. Bloomberg reports:

David Unkovic, chief lawyer for the Pennsylvania Community and Economic Development Department, is set to run the finances of Harrisburg after Governor Tom Corbett nominated him as the state’s first municipal receiver.

Once approved by a state court, the overseer may act without the consent of the bankrupt capital city’s elected officials. Unkovic’s appointment may be reviewed as soon as Nov. 28.

Harrisburg’s leadership shortage

Harrisburg is a town that’s been crushed by debt and years of incompetent management. The city has been led by a mayor, Linda Thompson, who is unable to work with a majority of her city council and who will likely find her role greatly diminished as the state takes fiscal control of the insolvent city. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a politician who has so little control over the affairs of her city. Edith Honan and Kristina Cooke of Reuters did an outstanding backgrounder about the level of dysfunction among the Harrisburg’s political class:

Prayers notwithstanding, [Linda] Thompson and [Comptroller] Dan Miller, the city’s top financial official, refuse to speak to one another, even as the city they lead continues hemorrhaging money. Thompson characterized Miller as a “political opportunist who will stop at nothing to accomplish his self-centered ambitions.” Miller, who plans to challenge Thompson for mayor in 2013, said he considers Thompson “paranoid,” “not well educated” and “a phony.”

His words seem kind compared with those offered by four former Thompson aides. They told the local newspaper that the mayor isn’t fit to hold office.

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