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    The Week in Public Finance: Bankruptcy Looms in Hartford, Worries About the Sales Tax and Puerto Rico's Many Defaults

    BY  AUGUST 11, 2017
    Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin (AP/Jessica Hill)

    Bankruptcy Is On the Table in Hartford

    Over the past several months, the shadow of a potential bankruptcy has loomed large over Connecticut’s capital city. Hartford is struggling to close a $50 million budget hole -- nearly 10 percent of its spending -- and has stagnant revenues. As a result, it has been downgraded into junk status.

    Hartford officials have already cut the budget to the bone, and with one of the highest property tax rates in the state, Mayor Luke Bronin says he won't raise them more. So now the question is, will the financially beleaguered state -- which already pays for half of the city's budget -- step in with more aid? Connecticut, which is facing a two-year, $3.5 billion deficit, has yet to pass a budget more than one month into the fiscal year.

    Meanwhile, the city is likely trying to restructure its debt with bondholders. But if that is unsuccessful, it could seek permission from Gov. Dannel Malloy to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Either way, things are coming to a head with a $3.8 million debt payment due in September and another $26.9 million payment deadline in October.

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    The Hidden Wealth of Cities

    To find it, a new book says, localities need look no further than their roads, airports and convention centers.

    BY  AUGUST 9, 2017
    Downtown San Diego, with a view of the convention center.
    Downtown San Diego, with a view of the convention center. (Shutterstock)

    In the years since the Great Recession, there’s been a lot of effort made to ensure a government is sharing its complete fiscal picture. In many cases, this transparency push has resulted in a government’s bottom line going from a surplus to a shortfall thanks to the introduction of things like pension and retiree health benefit liabilities to annual balance sheets.

    But some think governments are still leaving a few things off the ledger. Dag Detter and Stefan Folster, co-authors of the new book The Public Wealth of Cities, say localities are failing to realize the true value of the public assets they own, such as airports, convention centers, utilities and transit systems, just to name a few. “The public sector owns a lot of commercial assets,” says Detter, a Swedish investment advisor and expert on public commercial assets.

    But, he adds, it doesn’t manage the risk of increased costs associated with those assets very well. Then, “the inclination is to give [management] away to the private sector,” he says. “But when you do that, you also have to give away the upside.”

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    The Week in Public Finance: Tardy State Budgets, Philly's Soda Tax Sputters and Raising the Debt Ceiling

    BY  AUGUST 4, 2017
    Connecticut state Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff, left, holds a GOP budget alongside state Democratic President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney. (AP/Jessica Hill)

    And Then There Were Three...

    It's been one month since the fiscal year began and three states still don't have a signed budget. Meanwhile, Rhode Island just enacted its budget Thursday night.

    Gov. Gina Raimondo signed Rhode Island's new budget almost immediately. The $9.2 billion plan includes a $26 million cut in the car tax, free community college tuition and an increase in the minimum wage, among other policies. The agreement means the governor now has to find $25 million in savings across state government.

    The three remaining states without a budget are Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In Connecticut, the legislature recently approved a new collective bargaining agreement with public employees that’s projected to cover $1.5 billion of the state's estimated $5 billion budget deficit over the next two years. The deal may now help move along negotiations on how to address the rest of the budget gap.

    Pennsylvania lawmakers have approved a spending plan, but have yet to address the state’s revenue problems. Key in the coming days will be whether the state’s House approves the Senate’s revenue package that includes several tax increases and expansion of legalized gambling.

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    Pension Plans Had a Great Year, But Retirees Likely Won't Benefit From It

    One good investment year isn't enough to fix struggling systems' problems.
    BY  AUGUST 3, 2017
    A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
    A trader working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (AP/Richard Drew)

    Public pension plans are reporting double-digit investment returns, and some are even finishing with record highs this year.

    The high earnings are due to a robust stock market and are welcome news after two straight years of below-average returns for most pension plans. But finance experts say the investment boost likely won’t translate into an equally impressive reduction in pension debt because of the increasing cost of pensions.

    "Government contributions tend to be insufficient to reduce unfunded liabilities -- even if the plans meet their target," says Tom Aaron, vice president and senior analyst at Moody's Investors Service.

    Pension plans rely heavily on investment earnings because annual payments from current employees and governments aren’t enough to cover yearly payouts to retirees. As it stands, roughly 80 cents on every dollar paid out to retirees comes from investment income.

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    The Week in Public Finance: Alaska Downgraded, Low Income-Tax Revenues and Congress Meddles in Online Sales Taxes Again

    BY  JULY 21, 2017
    The U.S. Capitol (FlickrCC/Geoff Livingston)


    Alaska Downgraded Again and Again

    Just weeks after it passed yet another budget that relied on rainy day savings, Alaska was downgraded by two credit ratings agencies.

    First came Moody’s Investors Service, which downgraded Alaska to Aa3, citing the state's continued inability to address structural fiscal challenges and come up with a complete fiscal plan. Just days later, S&P Global Ratings dropped its rating to AA. Like Moody’s, S&P chastised Alaska lawmakers: A reliance on reserves, S&P analyst Timothy Little said, “coupled with the state's economic contraction since 2012 and the fallout of oil prices in mid-2015, have reached an [unsustainable] level."

    The Takeaway: The downgrades, while not good news, should come as no surprise. Last month, S&P outright warned officials that it would downgrade the state if the governor and legislature failed to pass a sustainable budget that fully addressed its massive decline in oil revenues.

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