Resolving financial distress in large American cities will require more than simple debt adjustment. Municipal bankruptcy can and should involve governance restructuring if it is to provide for a lasting fix. That is the case made in a recent article by NYU Law Professor Clayton Gillette and Penn Law Professor David Skeel in The Yale Law Review.
Recent proceedings involving large municipalities such as Detroit, Stockton, and Vallejo illustrate both the utility and limitations of using the Bankruptcy Code to adjust municipal debt. In this Article, we contend that, to resolve fully the distress of a substantial city, municipal bankruptcy needs to provide more than simple debt reduction. Debt adjustment alone does nothing to remedy the fragmented decision making and incentives for expanding municipal budgets that are ingrained in municipal governance structures and that often underlie municipal distress. Unless bankruptcy also addresses governance dysfunction, the city faces a return to financial distress. Indeed, this Article demonstrates that governance restructuring has long been an essential element of corporate bankruptcy and that, given the monopoly position of local governments as providers of local public goods, it is even more important in the municipal bankruptcy context.
Some might argue that reducing a city’s debt is the best that bankruptcy courts can offer, due to concerns that a more comprehensive approach would, among other things, interfere with state sovereignty and exceed the statutory authority that the Bankruptcy Code grants to courts. In our view, these concerns do not withstand scrutiny. Based on a careful analysis of the origins of the current municipal bankruptcy provisions, as well as an assessment of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence, we argue that governance reform is permitted even under existing law, and point out that minor adjustments to municipal bankruptcy law would make this conclusion even clearer. To be sure, the states themselves, rather than a bankruptcy court, ideally should be the ones to effect municipal governance reform. But political factors and the imperatives of the immediate fiscal crisis make state intervention unlikely, thus underscoring the need for a more comprehensive approach to municipal bankruptcy.