Something doesn’t seem right in Central Falls, the Rhode Island city that declared municipal bankruptcy yesterday. Now that the state receiver has filed Chapter 9, all the town’s dirty laundry has been hung out in public, and, like any bankruptcy, it’s not pretty. Overspending and declining tax revenues doomed this poor town, along with liberal doses of alleged corruption.
Here is what doesn’t seem right in Central Falls. The city is dead broke and those they owe money to are lined up at City Hall to collect. But for some odd reason, the city’s bondholders have pushed ahead of all the others in line to claim full repayment of their debts; those later in line must settle for 50 cents on the dollar. Retired police officers and firemen will have their pensions cut by 50%.
It wasn’t Central Falls’s decision to give preferential treatment to bondholders. Last year legislators in the state capitol passed a law making the claims of bondholders superior to all other claims in bankruptcy. The Rhode Island General Assembly’s action flies in the the face of common bond market practice, which is that bondholders get in line with everyone else and a judge overseeing bankruptcy proceedings gives a fair resolution to all the creditors.
The law passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly upends the order of priority for payments in bankruptcy. Municipal bankruptcy is filed in federal court, and cities cast themselves at the mercy of the federal bankruptcy law. Because our federal constitution reserves all rights to the states that the federal government does not claim, it makes this area of the law a funny hash of competing jurisdictions. And it possibly encourages the Rhode Island legislators to try and change the rules.
The federal bankruptcy code does create some special protection for holders of “special revenue” bonds. The law firm Jones, Day characterizes the exemption: