• The Star Staff

Governor signs 3 retirement payment bills days before primaries

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced on Monday signed three bills from the Senate that will ensure public employees, teachers, police officers, firefighters, custody officers and paramedics are paid once their retirement is confirmed.

The enactment of the legislation comes days ahead of Sunday’s primary elections, where New Progressive Party (NPP) voters will choose between the governor and former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi to determine who will be the ruling party’s candidate for governor in November.

During a press conference that seemed more like a political rally, Vázquez announced her approval of Senate bills 1616, 1623 and 1432, describing each piece of legislation to applause and cheers from the audience.

The first law, the governor said, will establish a program by which eligible employees can, voluntarily, separate in an encouraging way from their employment before their retirement age and dispose of quoted requirements for years of service to qualify under this new program. The second will bring back lifelong pensions to police officers who served for 30 or more years while those who are 55 years or older will be able to retire with up to 55 percent of their salary. The third helps participants in the Teachers’ Retirement System direct the balance or excess of their sick leave to their retirement plan as time worked after using all their vacation hours.

When a member of the press asked if signing the bills was an opportunity to promote her bid for the NPP gubernatorial candidacy, she said it was her job to evaluate and sign any bills that arrive at La Fortaleza, not to keep an eye on a deadline.

“My work as a governor is continuous and I am not on the lookout for any dates. In particular, these bills were approved by the House and the Senate during a legislative session and signing these bills comes before they get to La Fortaleza to be analyzed,” Vázquez said. “We are not waiting [whether] the primary elections [are coming] or not; since I arrived on August 7, 2019, I have said that I wanted to protect pensioners, and every bill that would bring back their rights that have been revoked since 2013, we were going to work for it.”

Vázquez said further that although she signed the bills, she was still aware of the proposal that would amend the Constitution to elevate retirement payments to a higher level. However, she said Sunday that the referendum will determine if retirement payments will be on the same level as government obligations. When The Star asked if the proposal addresses pensioners’ needs, as various organizations consider it a “hoax” and an “electoral move” because they believe it does not guarantee that pensions won’t be axed, she said the proposal was necessary because it would obligate future governments to address pensions along with the public debt.

“Probably, I don’t know if they [opponents of the proposal] had access to the bill, but, as of now, they have no guarantee,” the governor said. “Why are there budget cuts on pensions? Because there is no guarantee under the Constitution as the bill only establishes public debts, government obligations, and other bonds.

“As their [pension system] debt is not guaranteed by the Constitution, we don’t have the power to defend or negotiate this [system’s] bankruptcy. What we propose is that pensions have constitutional standing, where the government pays both its debts and pensions.”

When a member of the press asked why the NPP struggled during Saturday’s early vote for the primary elections, NPP President Thomas Rivera Schatz said that due to Tropical Storm Isaias and its effects on the island on Wednesday and Thursday, the State Elections Commission (SEC) had to shut down operations, causing delays during the event on Saturday.

“The delay of the arrival of ballots to the municipalities was due to a shutdown that went into effect on Wednesday and Thursday before the early vote on Saturday. Instead of having a vehicle going out on Friday [to deliver the ballots], they went out on Saturday morning,” Rivera Schatz said. “Instead of having one vehicle per precinct or municipality, we had several, which provoked the delay.”

The Senate president added that SEC President Juan Ernesto Dávila, along with NPP Electoral Commissioner María Dolores “Lolín” Santiago, have determined that voters who were left out of early voting will be able to cast their vote on Sunday by preferential vote. Rivera Schatz said around 1,370 voting centers will be available for the aforementioned process and will be separated from the centers assigned for the main election that day.

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