Governor seeks middle ground with Legislature, fiscal board on island budget
Reiterates opposition to further UPR budget cuts; statehood issue remains a priority
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
In the midst of shows of support for his administration and demonstrations against the LUMA Energy-Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority public-private agreement both inside and outside the Capitol, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia on Tuesday called for seeking “convergence and consensus” with the Legislative Assembly, the federal Financial Oversight and Management Board, and the people to negotiate the fiscal year 2021-2022 budget.
“You, like me, believe in Puerto Rico and in our ability to overcome all of our challenges. Let’s come together every day to row in the same direction, every day to fight our common enemies, and every day to work hard for Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi said. “I know that the main areas addressed in this resolution are issues on which there is convergence among all of us. That is why I am confident that they will give way and join the fight to achieve the budget we need.”
During his first Commonwealth Budget Message delivered on the floor of the island House of Representatives, Pierluisi said his administration submitted a $10.345 billion budget to the oversight board, which represents $223 million more than what the board established in its own version.
“It is imperative that we have a fair and balanced budget that adequately addresses our needs and aspirations,” Pierluisi said. “It must not be tied to a fiscal inflexibility that does not respond to the changing circumstances of our daily lives.”
“It must be intertwined with today’s reality, and with the vision and responsibility of those of us who have been called, by the will of the people, to lead Puerto Rico into the future,” he added.
At the beginning of May, the government submitted to the oversight board a final draft budget for the upcoming fiscal year of $10.712 billion. The federal entity amended it to over $10.1 billion, subtracting more than $600 million.
The governor noted that the board submitted a budget that contains some of the allocations his administration requested, such as $6.8 million to combat gender violence, $11.5 million to begin a pilot project to invest in public service, $1.2 million to fight climate change, and more than $2 million for social assistance and anti-poverty programs.
The governor also included increases in needed personnel such as social workers, prosecutors, Department of Consumer Affairs inspectors, and funding adjustments to supply the pensions of government retirees.
In the case of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), which he called “a vital axis of our socioeconomic development,” Pierluisi reiterated his opposition to additional cuts, proposing instead to maintain the university’s annual allocation at $560 million.
“Additional cuts to the university may jeopardize funds appropriated in the American Recovery Plan Act, which specifies that such pandemic assistance funds are not eligible to supplant cuts,” the governor said.
“It is time to give the UPR some breathing room to adapt and adjust its operations while guaranteeing a first-rate education,” he said, adding in his speech that he remains opposed to further cuts to public pensions.
On the other hand, despite acknowledging that it is not an area of consensus with the multi-party Legislature, Pierluisi stated that a mandate for statehood was passed by the previous Legislature and endorsed by island voters in last November’s elections.
In view of this, he reiterated that “funds must be included to complement the work of the resident commissioner in Washington, Jenniffer González Colón, and the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority.”
The governor’s speech was marked by demonstrations on the House floor as Popular Democratic Party Reps. Luis Raúl Torres Cruz, Sol Higgins, José “Cheito” Rivera Madera and José “Conny” Varela raised banners with messages that said “LUMA’s contract is bad, bad, bad,” “No to LUMA,” and “Defend the municipalities, do not eliminate the transfer of funds.”
Meanwhile, Puerto Rican Independence Party and Citizens Victory Movement legislators joined protests on the south side of the Capitol, where they were chanting “there will be no peace, if LUMA doesn’t get out of here.”
At press time, a Police unit that was said to be similar to the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) division was moving to the north side of the Capitol as demonstrators arrived there.