The Week in Public Finance: What the Rate Hike Means, a Legal Win for Online Sales Taxes and More

A roundup of money (and other) news governments can use.
BY  DECEMBER 16, 2016

Movin' On Up

The Federal Reserve announced a short-term interest rate hike on Wednesday, the first one in a year and a move that was largely expected. But what wasn’t on the radar was the Fed's announcement that it plans to raise rates three more times in 2017, up from previous expectations of two rate hikes.

Given the reticence to move rates for most of the last decade, the faster pace for next year has municipal analyst Chris Mauro calling the decision a “rather splashy hawkish surprise.”

The rate hike will move the target interest rate on short-term debt up one-quarter of a percent -- to a range of 0.5 to 0.75 percent. The Fed's previous rate hike was a year ago, and that was the first one in nine years.

The Takeaway: The Fed's plan to raise rates signals that economic growth is accelerating.

Startups Seek to Democratize the Muni Market

They're bringing in new investors, big and small, to disperse the power and lower interest rates. It's already paying off for some governments.
BY  DECEMBER 15, 2016

For all the post-recession financial market reforms, few ultimately made their way to the municipal bond market. For the most part, the muni market remains a low-tech place by Wall Street standards, and one that's still largely controlled by the same group of big investors.

"The muni market has a lot to do with relationships, power and influence," said Rob Novembre, a former trader who has spearheaded a new alternative bond trading system. "The bigger you are as an account, the more attention you get from sellers. If you buy bigger blocks [of bonds], that gets you more power."

Thanks to Novembre's new startup and another in San Francisco, though, that's starting to change. The two companies are not only set to give the market a tech update but also to bring it more buyers. The idea is that more buyers will increase demand for municipal bonds and, in turn, will net governments lower interest rates on their debt.

The Week in Public Finance: Federal Budget Chaos, a Bankruptcy Win and Pension Portfolios

BY  DECEMBER 9, 2016
Chaos on Capitol Hill ... and in Statehouses

As state lawmakers begin preparing for their fiscal 2018 budgets, their biggest challenge is in the unknown. With Donald Trump’s election, the future for key state and local funding is almost anybody’s guess.

With Trump in the White House next year, Stan Collender, author of The Guide to The Federal Budget, predicts that a Republican-controlled Congress will move quickly on making major changes before the 2018 midterm elections. But after this unpredictable election, few are willing to predict what exactly those changes will be. All we know now is what’s on the table.

This Government Bond Insures Against Failure

The first-ever environmental impact bond gives an agency some of its money back if its idea doesn't pan out.
BY  NOVEMBER 10, 2016

As the drive for accountability in government spending increases, many are looking for ways to keep from paying the full price for programs that don't work.

In Washington, D.C., that desire has led to the first-ever environmental impact bond, issued this fall by DC Water, the city's water and sewer authority. The $25 million bond will pay for new, green infrastructure like rain gardens and permeable pavement to reduce stormwater runoff.

But if the projects don't work as expected, that's where the new financing structure comes in. Under the terms of the bond, which DC Water sold directly to Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group and the nonprofit Calvert Foundation, the utility stands to get a multimillion discount on its total borrowing costs if the project doesn't meet a certain threshold.

It's essentially an insurance policy on the project's effectiveness. Here's how it works: After five years, the new infrastructure will be evaluated. If stormwater runoff isn't reduced by at least 18.6 percent, investors will owe DC Water a $3.3 million "risk share" payment. The payment represents a near-full refund of the 3.43 percent interest rate payments DC Water made during the first five years of the bond. After that, the bonds would likely be refinanced into 25-year bonds. DC Water would also drop green infrastructure projects and go back to so-called gray ones (like pumps and water tunnels) to reduce runoff.

Arkansas, California Voters Approve Spending on Mega Projects

In an anti-debt climate, voters in the two states cleared the way for spending on major economic development projects.
BY  NOVEMBER 9, 2016

In the post-recession era, "debt" is a four-letter word. State debt levels as a whole have been stagnant in recent years and, in 2014, actually recorded the first decline in the 28 years Moody's Investors Service has been tracking them.

It's in this climate that voters in Arkansas and California have cleared the way for more spending on mega projects that could be economic development boons in those states.

In Arkansas, voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative that eliminates the state's current 5 percent cap on debt related to economic development projects. Proponents of Arkansas’ Issue 3, who included Gov. Asa Hutchinson, want the cap lifted so the state can be more competitive in attracting new corporations by helping fund mega projects. Voters easily approved the measure, 65-35.

In California, which has one of the highest taxpayer debt burdens in the country, the results were much closer. Voters narrowly rejected a proposal, 51-49, that could have derailed two of Gov. Jerry Brown's legacy projects. Prop. 53 would have limited the state's ability to issue debt for major projects by requiring voter approval to issue more than $2 billion in revenue bonds.

The Week in Public Finance: Mega-Subsidies Math, a Comeback for Bond Insurance and More


Megadeals Don’t Add Up

When it comes to economic development, spending more often results in a smaller return.

Looking at more than 170 economic development "megadeals" made in recent decades, a new report finds that states and localities spend more than $658,000 per job on average. By contrast, “most workforce development programs cost only a few thousand dollars per job, and studies find they pay off well,” said Thursday's report by Good Jobs First, which tracks government subsidies.

The Week in Public Finance: Why Some Pensions Are Falling Behind, Stress Testing States and More

A roundup of money (and other) news governments can use.
BY  AUGUST 12, 2016

Pollyannaish About Pension Returns

Houston is fighting a losing battle with its pension system: The unfunded liability between Houston’s three plans totals at least $3.9 billion, up from $212 million in 1992. Meanwhile, pension costs as a percentage of the city’s revenue have doubled since 2000 and were one of the reasons behind a recent credit rating downgrade.

new report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute identifies two main culprits for the funding crisis: Even though the city is now paying its full pension bill, it’s still not enough to chip away at the unfunded liability, and the three plans have assumed investment returns of between 8 and 8.5 percent -- that's higher than the national average and even higher than their own recent experience.

The report's authors looked at examples of pension changes in other major cities and highlighted potential solutions, including raising the cap on the city’s revenues so it can generate more money for pensions; increasing employee contributions; and reducing cost-of-living payments to retirees. “All of these options would generate different amounts of funding in different time frames,” the report said. "[But] none would likely solve the problem alone.”

The Week in Public Finance: Hot Munis, Cooling Off Creditors and Warming Up to Facebook

A roundup of money (and other) news governments can use.
BY  JULY 22, 2016

It’s July and Muni Bonds Are Hot

The municipal bond market could be off to its best start since 2010, when federal policies helped fuel new issuance. During the first six months of this year, a total of $221 billion in bonds have been brought to market by state and local governments, according to data from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA). The total includes new bonds and refinanced ones.

Most of that activity has come from the second quarter of the year, specifically in May and June when the volume of new bonds in each month was the highest since 2008, according to an analysis by RBC Capital Markets’ Chris Mauro. Even Puerto Rico’s recent default on a $2 billion debt payment has not appeared to phase investors or hurt interest rates.

The market is currently on pace to finish the year with over $430 billion in issuance. But with more than five months to go before the end of the year, anything could happen -- particularly with a volatile presidential contest underway. Last year, the pace cooled in the second half of the year, with the value of total bonds issued finishing just shy of $400 billion. Still, Mauro said he is increasing his original prediction of new bond volume to somewhere between $400 billion and $425 billion.

Chicago’s Shockingly Bad Finances

You’ve probably read about the Windy City’s money problems. But chances are they're worse than you thought, and a recent ruling didn't help.
BY  MARCH 25, 2016

You’ve probably read headlines about the Windy City’s financial woes. About how Chicago’s years of borrowing to pay for its operations has finally caught up to it. About how inadequate funding of its pensions has saddled it with huge annual payments.

But unless you’ve been paying close attention, chances are Chicago is worse off than you think.

The numbers are staggering. The city has about $34 billion in outstanding debt, with roughly $20 billion of that coming from its five pension plans. That’s compared with a little more than $9 billion total annual budget. The teachers’ retirement fund is short about $9.6 billion and owes an additional $6 billion to bondholders. The outstanding bonds alone exceed the system’s annual $5.8 billion budget. Overall, Chicago Public Schools has struggled to sell enough bond debt to get through the current year, and the system is even facing a possible state takeover. Both the city and the school system’s credit ratings have been downgraded to junk status.

A New Twist on ‘Pay for Success’ Programs

A variation on the existing model would provide a money back guarantee should a project fail.
BY  MARCH 24, 2016

This year has already seen a flurry of activity when it comes to governments and the private sector partnering on social programs. Fewer than three months into 2016 and three governments have announced so-called pay for success or social impact bond projects, boosting the total number of such programs to 11 across the country.

Now, there may be a new option for governments interested in the model, but wary of its complicated nature. Under a pay for success or social impact bond program, private funders finance a preventive social or health program and only get paid back if the project meets its goals over the course of a predetermined set of years. The new model, announced by Third Sector Capital Partners on Thursday, offers a money back guarantee.

With a “social impact guarantee” or SIG project, governments front the money (instead of a private investor) and get paid back if the project doesn’t meet its goals. Specifics are sparse, but Third Sector co-founder George Overholser says he's currently working with two states on creating the country’s first SIG projects and hopes to announce them by the end of this year.

Congress Creates Bipartisan Municipal Finance Caucus

The group's top priority will be preserving the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds, which President Obama wants to reduce for higher earners.
BY  MARCH 2, 2016

State and local governments have a new bipartisan set of advocates for their interests on Capitol Hill. This week, two congressmen launched the Municipal Finance Caucus to protect the municipal bond market.

U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, an Illinois Republican, and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, announced the formation of the caucus on Tuesday at the annual legislative meeting for the National Association of State Treasurers in Washington, D.C. They didn't say how many members they've recruited, but both have regularly rallied support on municipal finance issues from more than 100 of their Democratic and Republican colleagues.

“Our primary focus will be on telling the story of how important the current tax [status] of municipal finance is, and how risky, damaging and how harmful a change would be,” said Hultgren. “So we’re going to be very active, very vocal in telling these stories.”

The Week in Public Finance: States Dare Online Retailers to Sue, a Local Government Shutdown Threat and More

A roundup of money (and other) news governments can use.
BY  FEBRUARY 26, 2016

Don't Like It? Sue Me

Tired of waiting for Congress to approve a tax on Internet sales, more than a dozen states -- including Alabama, South Dakota and Utah -- are moving to pass bills or change regulations in ways that deliberately invite lawsuits from Internet retailers. The goal? Landing the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Alabama, for its part, will start enforcing an old law it says allows it to tax out-of-state sellers. The state will audit companies that don’t file returns.

“We’re confident that some remote sellers will not comply and therefore it will lead to litigation,” Alabama Deputy Revenue Commissioner Joe Garrett told The Wall Street Journal. “We have been very open about what we’re doing.”

Rethinking the Game Plan for Stadium Bonds

Is a 30-year bond realistic when the economic lives of stadiums are proving to be much shorter?
BY  FEBRUARY 11, 2016

In the world of sports stadiums, 20 is the new 30.

Stadiums are typically financed through bonds that take 30 years to pay off. But their useful life isn't always that long.

Just take last month’s announcement that the St. Louis Rams would be decamping to Los Angeles, leaving behind its 20-something football stadium for a shiny new one. The St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority is still paying off a portion of the $259 million in bonds it issued to build the Rams a new stadium when they moved from L.A. in 1995.

It's not the only issuer paying off 30-year debt for a project that didn't make it the full life of the bond. In Georgia, the Atlanta Falcons are moving to a new stadium next year even though the Georgia Dome is less than 25 years old. The San Antonio Spurs left the Alamodome in 2003, just 10 years after it was built.

How Detroit Put a Rain Delay on El Paso's Stadium Financing


There isn’t much that links a low-lying Texas border town like El Paso to a former northern industrial hotbed like Detroit—that is, there wasn’t until very recently, when the 1,700 miles stretching between the two suddenly seemed too close to officials in the southwestern city.