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Lawmakers demand time to evaluate budget after agency heads rebuff them


By The Star Staff


Agencies involved with the government’s finances told the island Legislature on Wednesday to wait until after May 10 to hear their testimonies as it was too “premature” to start hearings on the fiscal state of agencies as part of the evaluation of the fiscal year (FY) 2021-2022 budget.


The House Treasury Committee, chaired by Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Rep. Jesús Santa, and PDP Sen. Juan Zaragoza, chairman of the Senate Treasury Committee, held a joint public hearing to investigate the fiscal state of the government. Transportation and Public Works Secretary Eileen Vélez was slated to testify.


Instead, Vélez asked to be excused from the hearing in writing. Along with her letter, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Juan Carlos Blanco, Treasury Secretary Francisco Parés and Omar Marrero, executive director of the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, told the lawmakers in a letter dated Feb. 26 that agency heads will not be appearing at hearings because their evaluation was premature. The officials advised the legislators to review documentation on the OMB’s web page if they had any questions on the budget and asked lawmakers to postpone the evaluation of the budget until after May 10, which is when the final version of the budget will be introduced to the Legislature.


The lawmakers described the actions of the agencies as insulting.


“It is our duty to clarify that it is never out of time [too soon] to evaluate the proper use of public funds,” Zaragoza said. “Furthermore, the constitutional mandate to evaluate the budget is a ministerial duty of the legislative branch and this assembly, unlike the previous one, will not abdicate it.”


The lawmakers accused the agency heads of interfering with the Legislature’s constitutional prerogative to examine revenues and expenditures, which has been diminished since the federal Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, commonly known as PROMESA, called for the Legislature to virtually green light with little analysis the yearly budgets designed by the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB).


Historically, the Legislature devotes 60 days on average to the public evaluation of the budget. In FY 2018 the analysis was done in just 14 days and in FY 2019 it was done in four days.


“This translates into less time for serious budget analysis, less information and fewer tools to counteract the unilateral justifications of the FOMB, but, above all, less transparency and citizen participation in one of the most core processes of a democracy,” Santa said in a reply to the agency heads.


Santa said agency heads insulted the Legislature with their suggestion that they should search the OMB’s website to obtain information on the budget to ascertain whether it complies with the May 2020 fiscal plan.


PDP Rep. Luis Raúl Torres made a request, which was accepted by the committee chairman, to bring the agency heads to hearings under threat of contempt if they do not show up.

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