Former SEC attorney Ted Siedle (currently formerly Putnam Investments’ compliance director), has issued a new investigative report that blasts Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo about her lack of transparency over the state’s pension investments. The report was commissioned by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
The Rhode Island General Assembly’s House Finance Committee heard testimony last Thursday from Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Advisors – an independent research service with about 300 subscribers – about the cost and implications of the state defaulting on the 38 Studios moral obligation bonds. Committee Chair Helio Melo’s main line of inquiry was “Does it cost us more money in the long run” if the state were to default on those bonds?
Lots of ink has been spilled about the famous ex-Major League pitcher Curt Schilling, who convinced the state of Rhode Island’s Economic Development Corporation to issue $75 million of privately placed “special and limited obligations bonds” to fund a loan to his gaming company. After getting the loan Schilling and Company proceeded relatively quickly to go bankrupt and was unable to repay the loans to EDC, which funded the bonds.
Although the national media has always been a fan of Rhode Island State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, I’ve personally been lukewarm on her performance. She built a case for draconian changes in pension benefits for current workers by inflating the portion of the state pension plan that was unfunded. This led the State Assembly to adjust pension benefits in a way that seemed to go against the law. Unions sued the state and State Superior Court Associate Justice Sarah Taft-Carter has just ordered the case to undergo federal mediation. But I’ve always thought the bigger issue for Rhode Island was that its pension fund had horrible investment returns; some of the lowest in the country. And Treasurer Raimondo has only taken steps this week to change the fund’s management.
In his New York Times column yesterday, Joe Nocera laid the blame for the fiscal catastrophe in Woonsocket, Rhode Island on Jon Brien, a state legislator who blocked a bill that would have plugged a massive hole in the town’s budget by raising property taxes on its residents by 13.8 percent. Nocera argued that Brien took these actions to shrink the local government because he’s a conservative ideologue, further highlighted by the fact that Brien is also on the national board of ALEC, an advocacy group that pushes for smaller government.
This morning’s jobs report revealed that 79,000 net new jobs were created in the country in May, nearly 50 percent below the consensus forecast of 150,000. Almost immediately following the release, there were loud and insistent calls for another round of monetary and fiscal stimulus. “Job growth stumbles again, raising pressure on Fed,” the Reuters headline ran. My fellow Reuters blogger Felix Salmon called for immediate federal stimulus funded by more debt issuance. Felix’s rationale, like many others’, is that with U.S. borrowing costs so low, stimulating current economic activity is a higher priority than worrying about paying down the debt in the future. Or to put it differently, a little more debt is preferable to enduring the economic pain of the economy rightsizing itself.
Municipalities across the country are looking to local non-profits to pay for their share of community services. These payments, known as PILOTs, or “payments in lieu of taxes,” are voluntarily contributed by private schools, hospitals and other non-profits as an alternative to paying property taxes. As cities come under more fiscal stress, this will be a growing trend.
Chart source: Bonddesk
State politicians in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have lambasted municipalities within their borders that have either declared, or attempted to declare, bankruptcy. The politicians gripe that when a municipality in their state goes into Chapter 9 bankruptcy, it affects the cost of borrowing for the state and other issuers located there. But this rests on the false assumption that markets do not discriminate between different borrowers. Municipal bond issuers, like public companies, are looked at individually because every entity has its own story. After all, when American Airlines went bankrupt, it was not as if all airlines suffered.
It’s getting a little tiresome to hear all the adulation that’s being heaped on Gina Raimondo, the Rhode Island General Treasurer. She’s been praised in the Wall Street Journal, Time, and now CNBC as some sort of fiscal Joan of Arc who rescued the state’s public pension system from insolvency. I’ll give Raimondo credit for leading the charge to reduce benefits to Rhode Island public workers and increasing their retirement age, but she’s far from a pioneer in making tweaks to state pension plans — 17 other states have also made changes recently.
In her 2,500 word feature on the pension reform process in Rhode Island, New York Times reporter Mary Williams Walsh seems to have found more color than facts. The piece reads more like a campaign profile of Treasurer Gina Raimondo than an assessment of the gritty fight over public pensions in the nation’s sixth smallest state: