Puerto Rico governor says island can’t pay its public debt

Alejandro Garcia Padilla
FILE- In this April 30, 2015, file photo, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla delivers his budget address for the next fiscal year at the Capitol building in San Juan. Puerto Rico's governor believes the U.S. territory's $72 billion public debt is unpayable, his spokesman confirmed late Sunday, June 28, 2015, adding another blow to the international financial system already struggling with a possible default by Greece. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The governor warned that Puerto Rico can’t pay its $72 billion public debt as international economists released a critical report Monday on the island’s economy.

The news from Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla delivered another jolt to the recession-gripped U.S. island, as well as a world financial system already worrying over Greece’s collapsing finances.

Garcia is scheduled to air a pre-recorded televised address late Monday afternoon as legislators continue to debate a $9.8 billion budget that calls for $674 million in cuts and sets aside $1.5 billion to help pay off the debt. The budget has to be approved by Tuesday.

The governor hopes to defer debt payments while negotiating with creditors, spokesman Jesus Manuel Ortiz said late Sunday, confirming comments by Garcia that appeared in a report in The New York Times published that evening.

“There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics, this is math,” Garcia is quoted as saying in the Times.

Puerto Rico’s bonds were popular with U.S. mutual funds because they were tax-free, but hedge funds and distressed-debt buyers began stepping in to buy up debt as the island’s economy worsened and its credit rating dropped.

Garcia’s comments will likely not have much impact on Wall Street, said economist Jose Villamil, a former U.N. consultant and CEO of an economic and planning consulting firm.

“The markets are clear that Puerto Rico is heading to a direction of a restructuring or default,” said the economist, adding that a voluntary restructuring by bondholders might be the best option.

“The last four administrations have kicked the can down the road,” said Villamil. “At this point, there is no more can to kick. So we’re going to take some very strict measures and some very profound measures. It’s going to hurt, but there’s no way out.”

A report released Monday by a former World Bank chief economist and others found that Puerto Rico’s fiscal debt is larger than originally thought and urged the government to act quickly.

“This is a daunting agenda politically, legally and organizationally. It is also an urgent one: The government’s cash balances can evaporate in the face of delays, reducing the room for maneuver and intensifying the crisis,” the report stated.

The economists praised Garcia’s administration for taking action on higher taxes, pension reforms, spending cuts and freezes, but they also noted that anticipated revenue projections systematically exceed collections, and that policy failures have in part caused Puerto Rico to be cut off from market access.

“Growth has not just been low, but output has actually been contracting for almost a decade now, which is remarkable for an economy suffering neither civil strife nor overt financial crisis,” the report stated.

Some legislators were taken aback by Garcia’s comments to the newspaper, including Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the main opposition party.

“I think it’s irresponsible,” Gonzalez said. “He met privately with The New York Times last week, but he hasn’t met with the leaders of this island.”

Puerto Rico’s constitution dictates that the debt has to be paid before any other financial obligation is met. If Garcia seeks to not pay the debt at all, it will require a referendum and a vote on a constitutional amendment, she said in a phone interview.

The U.S. territory’s situation has drawn comparisons to Greece, where the government decreed this weekend that banks would be shuttered for six business days and restrictions imposed on cash withdrawals. Greece’s five-year financial crisis has sparked questions about its continued membership in the 19-nation shared euro currency and the European Union.

Garcia recently confirmed that he had considered having the Puerto Rico government seek permission from the U.S. Congress to declare bankruptcy amid a nearly decade-long economic slump. His administration is currently pushing for the right for Puerto Rico’s public agencies to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9. Neither the agencies nor the island’s government can file for bankruptcy under current U.S. rules.

The U.S. Congress is in recess this week for the July 4 holiday, and the island’s economic woes have not been an issue for lawmakers as they rushed to complete a high-profile trade bill, annual spending measures and other legislation before their break.

Puerto Rico’s public agencies owe a large portion of the debt, with the power company alone owing some $9 billion. The company is facing a restructuring as the government continues to negotiate with creditors as the deadline for a roughly $400 million payment nears.

Garcia has taken several measures to help generate more government revenue, including signing legislation raising the sales tax to 11.5 percent and creating a 4 percent tax on professional services. The sales tax increase goes into effect Wednesday and the new services tax on Oct. 1, to be followed by a transition to a value-added tax by April 1.

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