WASHINGTON — Congress just gave Puerto Rico a lifeline.
On Wednesday night, the Senate passed a bill known as PROMESA (Spanish for “promise”) to help the island get out of a $70 billion debt burden. It passed with a vote of 68 to 30.
The legislation now heads to President Obama’s desk since the House already approved it. Obama is expected to sign it quickly.
Puerto Rico has a massive bill to pay by July 1. The island owes its creditors nearly $2 billion, but it doesn’t have enough money to pay.
PROMESA won’t provide any funding to pay the debt. The island is still expected to default on at least some of the payments due Friday, but the bill provides a path to end the island’s nearly 10-year economic crisis.
“There is still much work to be done. With legislation in place, Puerto Rico will now have time to work out an orderly financial path forward after July 1,” Obama’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said after the Senate vote.
The bill gives Puerto Rico immediate relief by preventing bondholders from filing more lawsuits. It also installs a fiscal Oversight Board to come up with a plan to finally solve the crisis. That plan may ultimately include giving creditors a “haircut” where they receive less money back or get delayed payments.
“We are in favor of PROMESA,” says Jorge Irizarry. He’s the head of Bonistas del Patio, a group representing the more than 60,000 Puerto Ricans who own some of the bonds that are in trouble. “We need economic growth. That’s the only thing that will get Puerto Rico back on its feet.”
Why July 1 is so important
Puerto Rico has already defaulted three times, but the July 1 payment is different.
If Puerto Rico misses this one, it will be the first time since 1933 that a state or territory (Puerto Rico is a territory under U.S. law) fails to pay its general obligation bonds on time, says Cate Long, an expert on government bonds and head of the Puerto Rico Clearinghouse, a research firm.
General obligation bonds are the creme de la creme of the bond world. Payment is supposed to be guaranteed.
“In the Puerto Rican constitution it requires the general obligation bond payment to be made before any other expenditure of the government,” says Long.
Puerto Rico’s economy has been contracting for almost a decade. People are literally fleeing the island in search of better jobs in Florida, Texas and elsewhere in the mainland U.S. The island has lost about 10% of its population in the past decade.
Taxes have gone up. Services have gone down. Home prices are plummeting, and a doctor a day is leaving the island.
PROMESA also creates a commission to study how to jumpstart the economy again and what else Congress can do to help.