Why Is the Road Still Full of Mud?

eBlog

September 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider, as Tropical Storm Florence heads west across the Caribbean, efforts in the Congress with regard to addressing Puerto Rico.

‘Twas in another lifetime one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

With Congress returning this morning, Puerto Rico’s quasi Member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, who is permitted to vote in Committee, but not in the House, is seeking to make sure that Puerto Rico’s fiscal and physical future will gain constructive input in the House Natural Resources Committee as part of Chairman Rob Bishop’s (R-Ut.) hearing on the status of Puerto Rico and its pro-security project. With fewer than 30 days left in this Congress, she is anxious that the territory be a priority. Thus, she is attempting to find a way to depoliticize the island’s electric power tussles, especially with regard to the AEE, or Governing Board of the Authority Electrica, noting: “I’m going to make a report with the recommendations to discuss it with him and the Commission’s technicians,” adding, moreover, she intends to press on the longstanding issue with regard to Puerto Rico’s political status, related to her proposed pro-identity project 6246, which proposes the creation of a Congressional working group to adopt a transition process for the territory to statehood by January of 2021. She noted she was hopeful Chairman Bishop would not only call a public hearing, but also set a vote on the legislation. For his part, the Chairman noted: “We’re going to have the public view. From there, we start.” She added that she is deferring to the Equality Commission created by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares. Nevertheless, with so few days remaining in this Congress, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) has continued to warn there are insufficient votes to push forward the statehood proposal in the Senate.

The Puerto Rico governance challenge was further conflicted and muddied by the unelected PROMESA oversight Board, which has demanded Gov. Rossello Nevares to eliminate any reference to statehood from the fiscal plan, notwithstanding, as Commissioner Gonzalez tweeted, that the PROMESA statute “establishes that the Board cannot interfere with the future political status of the island.”

A Delicate, if stormy, balancing act. Part of the political challenge for Commissioner Gonzalez is to balance efforts to obtain equitable federal storm relief funds for Puerto Rico, even as she is seeking more equitable political respect and balance for Puerto Rico. Part of that includes her efforts to gain passage in the House this month of legislation to authorize the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a study on drug trafficking and the potential for terrorism, especially in the maritime zone which surrounds Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Inequitable Arithmetic? Hurricane Maria caused at least 2,975 deaths—more than any U.S. storm in a century. Now authorities have raised the death toll to 2,975, surpassing Hurricane Katrina (1,833) and the Okeechobee hurricane in Florida, which killed 2,500 people. Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico nearly one year ago, with deadly winds gusting up to 120mph, wrought destruction across the island, cutting power, communications and drinking water to nearly every home. Yet, unlike U.S. responses to the hurricane in Houston, the FEMA response and death tolls were radically different. The government, two weeks after the devastating storm, reported the official death toll to be just 16 people. Indeed, President Donald Trump made much of the low death count when he visited San Juan on October 3rd to throw rolls of paper towels; he said: “We’ve saved a lot of lives…If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and the hundreds that died…16 versus literally thousands of people…you can be very proud.” Although the death toll rose slowly over the weeks that followed, from 16 to 64 deaths, it remained surprisingly low given the severity of the storm. But that number hardly appeared credible. Last December, the New York Times analyzed mortality reports, and estimated Maria had killed as many as 1,052 Americans in the period to October 31st. A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine last May surveyed hurricane survivors and calculated that anywhere between 793 and 8,498 people had perished.

Unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico Governor, Ricardo Rosselló Nevarez doubted that figure—a figure which mostly relied on direct deaths from flying debris and the like, overlooking deaths from power cuts and lack of water that led to medical complications. Thus, last February the Governor commissioned an independent report by epidemiologists at George Washington University to arrive at a more accurate count—a report which GW on August 28th. The new report calculated a final death toll based on the observed excess mortality over and above what might be expected in normal weather, arriving at an estimated final death toll of between 2,658 and 3,290—a number which would make Maria the worst hurricane to affect the U.S. in more than a century.

Absurd Counting. It seems impossible to comprehend how the official death toll has remained at 64 for so long. Notwithstanding the difficulty—I can hardly forget when our volunteer team from Arlington County, Virginia raced down to Biloxi, Mississippi—only to find street signs had been blown away, causeways smashed, and electricity out, so that it was a severe challenge to even found our way—and that to respond to a fierce storm where the official death count is still disputed—and where the Mayor of New Orleans had simply said the death toll would a “shock the nation.” In contrast, the drastically inaccurate number in Puerto Rico may well have lessened the urgency of relief efforts: just one third of Americans reported they made contributions in the immediate aftermath, which is low by the America’s generous standards. That miserly response, with Puerto Rico in quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy—and an economy projected to shrink 8% this year, and the Commonwealth’s young and talented leaving for the mainland in droves—not to mention the sharp, 50% reduction in tourists has, has increased the perception of disparate treatment as Puerto Rico is still waiting for as much as $80 billion of federal funds to help its recovery. Delegate Gonzalez notes the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts, adding: “The American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.”

Advertisements

Fiscal & Physical Recoveries

eBlog

July 30, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a Puerto Rican post-hurricane perspective on federalism amidst fiscal and physical challenges.

Unequal Americans? Puerto Rican statehood supporter María Meléndez, the Mayor of Ponce, told the Capitol Hill publication the Hill that officials are encountering more sympathy from Congress in the wake of the two hurricanes which devastated the U.S. territory last September. Through constant visits and lobbying efforts, Mayor Meléndez has worked to remind Congress that Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., but has not ever been given voting representation in Congress. She noted that in a visit with  House Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the Chair told her that many members of Congress had been previously unaware that Puerto Rican nationals are natural-born U.S. citizens: “Chairman Frelinghuysen told me: “You are right, you are absolutely right. I am a Republican, but why can’t you vote? We don’t get it. But we didn’t know enough about Puerto Rico until after María.’” The Mayor, as well as an increasing number of Puerto Rican elected leaders, have made a habit of visiting Senators and Representatives with large Puerto Rican constituencies to lobby for support for the territory’s reconstruction after the devastation of the hurricanes last summer—lobbying especially vital, because Puerto Rico is only represented by a resident commissioner, a four-year elected official who has access to the floor of the House of Representatives—but who may not vote. Mayor Meléndez, a member of the New Progressive Party (PNP) in Puerto Rico, said Puerto Rico’s inequitable political treatment is a civil rights issue, a position she shares with Resident Commissioner González-Colón and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. The Mayor notes that Puerto Rico’s current status has delivered scant results: “Look at the results of the Commonwealth up to now. We’ve worked for what? For whom?”

For a brief moment in time, the President, last October, had suggested eliminating Puerto Rico’s debt because of the severe impact on its municipal bond interest rates; however, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney nixed any such offer when he instead said Puerto Rico needed to “fix the errors that it’s made for the last generation on its own finances.” OMB Director Mulvaney, as the White House has accumulated the greatest national debt in the nation’s history and facing a shutdown threat at the end of September, failed to mention that the accumulation of debt and deficits under his watch make Puerto Rico’s pale in comparison.

Unsurprisingly, a key issue for Mayor Meléndez is that the PROMESA Act focused on the territory’s finances, but overlooked those of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, or muncipios, noting: “This economic crisis has forced the central government to impose more responsibilities on the municipalities,” which, she notes, rely on three revenue sources: business licenses, building permits, and property taxes. In the wake of the hurricane, Mayor Meléndez had decided to grant exemptions on building permits, adversely affecting the municipality’s budget, but taking the step as a critical action to attract new businesses and the income from property taxes and business licenses. In addition, the municipality created alliances with five neighboring municipalities, irrespective of party affiliation, to pool costs and create better bids on construction contracts. As she notes, notwithstanding the fiscal strain, Puerto Rico’s municipalities will have an outsize role in rebuilding. And, she reminds us: “Reconstruction won’t take a year; it will take several years. It took New Orleans 13 years to recover from Hurricane Katrina.” But, New Orleans, after a delay, received far more federal assistance—fiscal and physical assistance which are limited, especially when it comes to attracting investments. The cost and access to power—and the dire state of public infrastructure add to the challenge—or, as the Mayor puts it: “At 23 cents per kilowatt, no company is going to set up shop.” Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria, many families still rely on generators or simply do not have electricity available at home.