November 17, 2017
Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider, again, some of the governance and federalism challenges in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Maria impact on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project
Governor Ricardo Rosselló this week asked Congress to reject the requests of the PROMESA Oversight Board to be granted greater authority over the government of Puerto Rico in the wake of the slow process of recovery and reconstruction after Hurricane Maria. In his written statement to the House Natural Resources Committee, Governor Rosselló specifically requested that the efforts by the Board to control emergency assistance funds, public corporations, and be granted the authority to veto government legislation be dismissed, noting: “The Government and the Fiscal Oversight Board must be able to resolve any differences,” and that “collaboration, not control, is the key to a successful future for Puerto Rico.” The Governor’s views came as U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain dismissed the motion of the PROMESA Board to appoint engineer Noel Zamot as trustee of the AEE, under the title of principal Transformation official.
In addition, Puerto Rico is seeking $94 billion from Congress to help in the recovery efforts that devastated the U.S. territory in September, leaving much of the island still without power and worsening a fiscal crisis. The bulk of the funds the Gov. has requested, some $31 billion, would be focused on rebuilding homes, with another $18 billion requested for PREPA: in his epistle to President Trump, Gov. Rossello wrote: “The scale and scope of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria knows no historic precedent…We are calling upon your administration to request an emergency supplemental appropriation bill that addresses our unique unmet needs with strength and expediency.” Natalie Jaresko, the PROMESA Board’s Executive Director, said that $13 billion to $21 billion was needed over the next two years just for Puerto Rico to keep the government running, given the toll the storm has taken on the economy and anticipated tax collections. (Two months after the storm, much of Puerto Rico remains without power, further eroding the government’s already precarious finances. Prior to the hurricane, the government had put together a fiscal plan to cut back spending severely and finance only a fraction of the debt payments due over the next decade—but, like the island’s physical situation, the storm also devastated its fiscal plight. Puerto Rico’s long-term economic recovery will depend not just on an equitable response by Congress and the White House, comparable to the aid provided to Houston and Florida, but also whether its citizens who fled to the mainland will return—or make their moves permanent. According to the PROMESA Board, about 100,000 residents have fled since the storm. The Board did not break down the data of those who had left; however, it seems likely that those who left were both younger—and better able to afford to depart. The Governor also warned that calls for him to raise taxes could further undermine the precarious state of the territory’s economy: “If Congress does not consider Puerto Rico in tax reform, it would lead to the exodus of companies that currently generate 42 percent of Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product, the loss of jobs on the island and exacerbate the outward migration of island residents moving to the mainland.” statement from the governor’s office accompanying the letter said.
In Congress, however, there appears to be growing skepticism with regard to the Governor’s ability to manage federal emergency assistance funds, as House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) warned: “There are serious concerns of committee members, and Congress in general, about the ability and the capacity of the current local government to adequately handle the massive amounts of dollars in federal assistance that has begun to be sent,” with the Chairman’s comments coming in the wake of the discovery of documents provided by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) about the contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings, which has become the symbol of Congressional apprehensions with regard to the administration of federal funds: the documents appear to 1) demonstrate that the Puerto Rican authority ignored recommendations of the Greenburg Traurig law firm to protect the public corporation in the contract, 2) raise complaints about the high cost of the fees requested by Whitefish, and 3) disclose a personal offer made by the president of the energy company, Andrew Techmanski to the head of the Supply Division of the public corporation, Ramón Caldas Pagán, to take supplies (generators, water or food), as part of the mobilization to Puerto Rico. Chairman Bishop noted: “Confidence in the ability of the public corporation to administer contracts and infrastructure work in response to the disaster, which is very sensitive in terms of time, disappeared a long time ago.” Adding to the Congressional apprehension, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ca.), the Chair of the Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, pointed out that the contract with Whitefish underscored the need for the Board to have higher responsibilities over the government of Puerto Rico: “It is obvious that PREPA did not know how to draft a contract that complied with FEMA, nor did PREPA officials follow the advice of their own lawyers on how to comply with it. This is precisely the reason why the Board should be given more authority.”
The Congressional concerns came in the wake of U.S. Judge Laura Swain, at the beginning of the week, rejecting a motion by the PROMESA Board to impose engineer Noel Zamot as a trustee or Chief of Transformation of PREPA. Mr. Zamot has been the Revitalization official of the financial authority imposed on the government of Puerto Rico through the Promesa Law. Chairman Bishop, has defended the claims of the Board in favor of new powers to control emergency funds and to direct the work of PREPA. However, in the wake of Judge Swain’s decision, the Chairman said he wants to see the written opinion prior to deciding on a next course of action. In the hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the executive director of the PROMESA Board, Natalie Jaresko, said that the judge’s decision had been “a setback,” but also preferred to wait to see the decision in writing before commenting publicly on the steps to follow—adding it was unrealistic to think that the federal government will provide new emergency funds without proper supervision.
Governor Rosselló, in his testimony, told Chairman Bishop that during the past 10 months the U.S. territory has collaborated much more than it has struggled, and alluded to the approval of the fiscal plan that now will have to be revised due to the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Maria. In response, Chairman Bishop noted: “There has to be an increase in collaboration, for the sake of Puerto Rico.” At the session, the Governor affirmed that the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office of Puerto Rico, which he established by executive order, has been seeking to establish controls on the use of funds, an issue that is also under discussion with the White House and the Office of Management and Budget, regarding Puerto Rico’s request for some $94.4 billion in emergency assistance; moreover, in addition, the Governor told Chairman Bishop that any collaboration cannot be at the expense of “the sovereign powers” of the people of Puerto Rico and “the democratically elected government,” with his comments appearing to raise the specter of a governance challenge between the oversight PROMESA Board created by Congress and the Governor: last week, when she appeared before the Committee on Natural Resources, the oversight Board Chair Jaresko requested that, if necessary, Congress should modify federal legislation in order to “clarify” that the Board has the power to appoint a trustee in PREPA or, she even suggested, that any new federal assistance to Puerto Rico be conditioned. During the hearing, other Members of the Committee queried why Governor Rossello did not consult with the PROMESA Board with regard to the decision to exempt small and medium-sized companies from the Sales and Use Tax during the period from January 20 to December 31, at a time when the government had a serious liquidity crisis that has forced it to request a credit line of up to $4.7 billion from the federal government. Interestingly, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) noted that “Puerto Rico would not have the problems it has if it were a state.” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) asked the Governor what he should say to one of his voters if questioned, in the wake of the PROMESA enactment, whether the law constituted a financial bailout at a time when its citizens do not pay federal income taxes—in response to which, the Governor replied that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, who have faced a historical catastrophe that keeps the Island in an emergency situation and that it is not an issued related to “the strange territorial arrangement that we have.”