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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: