New Legislature to oversee gov’t agencies’ work and focus on budget
By The Star Staff
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia on Monday urged the Puerto Rico Legislature, which is controlled by the leading opposition party and several minority parties, to work with him to bring about his agenda, including the economy’s reconstruction, the eradication of the COVID-19 virus and the resolution of the U.S. territory’s debate over its political status.
On Monday was the inaugural session of the new Legislative Assembly. Over the next four years, Pierluisi must work with a Legislature controlled by the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PDP) and the smaller minority parties that include two Puerto Rican Independence Party lawmakers, two from the Citizen Victory Movement (CVM) and one from the conservative Dignity Project.
Pierluisi, a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP), said he will be “demanding” from the U.S. Congress parity in federal funds to improve the island’s health infrastructure, fight poverty and achieve a sustainable economy. He vowed to be open to legislative initiatives and to differ with respect.
“We have to find what unites us and not what divides us,” he said.
Acknowledging that the subject of political status is divisive, he said he has to follow through with results of the Nov. 3 status plebiscite, in which most who cast ballots voted in favor of becoming a state. While Pierluisi is from the NPP, the Legislature is controlled by the pro-commonwealth PDP, which supports the current territorial status.
Pierluisi started his four-year term in a year in which he also expects to get Puerto Rico out of bankruptcy. The former two-term resident commissioner has also said he would like to audit the commonwealth debt.
In that regard, Sen. José Luis Dalmau, who was ratified as Senate president with a majority vote, said he was going to work with Pierluisi, who had called him a friend. However, Dalmau warned that the Senate will demand action from agencies, noting that there are still 30,000 homes that have yet to be repaired from damages stemming from Hurricane Maria and some 250,000 people without medical coverage.
He said the Senate will strengthen the University of Puerto Rico, promote the fast disbursement of federal recovery funds and protect retirees from cuts to pensions.
“This Senate will be the eyes, ears and the voice of the people before the Financial Oversight and Management Board [FOMB],” he said.
Dalmau announced he will meet with the oversight board as soon as possible to discuss the budget as well as the auditing and restructuring of the debt.
The Senate will also focus on seeking parity in Medicare funds in the U.S. Congress, and on locking in Supplemental Social Security eligibility for the island, as well as convincing U.S. lawmakers to allow Puerto Rico to provide tax incentives under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code to attract pharmaceutical and drug manufacturers.
“We will ensure President Joe Biden fulfills the 42 promises he made to Puerto Rico,” Dalmau said.
He said he will provide his status proposal at a later time.
Dalmau was elected Senate president and PDP Sen. Marially González was elected vice president. PDP Sen. Javier Aponte Dalmau became majority leader and NPP Sen. Thomas Rivera Schatz, the former Senate president, is the minority leader. PIP Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago will be her party’s spokeswoman and the CVM will be represented by Sens. Ana Irma Rivera Lassén and Rafael Bernabe. Dalmau said he will be open to the approval of bills from minority parties.
In the House of Representatives, PDP Rep. Rafael Hernández Montañez was elected speaker and PDP Rep. José Varela was elected vice speaker. PDP Rep. Ángel Matos became the majority leader. His first act was to consolidate some of the administrative offices with the Senate. He also declared a fiscal emergency and signed an order promoting the transparency of all documents. Meanwhile, all lobbyists will have to register in the lower chamber.
“I expect the executive branch to align itself with what we do,” Matos said.
Hernández Montañez, for his part, said he will be working with Pierluisi on issues such as easing the permitting process and “reconciling our differences to work against the anti-democratic FOMB,” and jumpstarting the economy. He said he will introduce the proposed legislation rejected by the federal oversight board that allows for the retirement of police, firemen and emergency personnel.
“We will help the governor set boundaries with the FOMB” regarding the constitutional prerogatives of the governor and the Legislature, Hernández Montañez said.