Pierluisi seeks ‘equality’ for Puerto Rico in testimony before US House panel

By The Star Staff

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia used his testimony Wednesday before a U.S. House of Representatives committee gathering information for the Build Back Better program, which seeks to enhance the infrastructure of states and territories, to promote the statehood cause and urged Congress and President Joseph Biden to grant statehood to Puerto Rico and to partner with the island government to make investments that promote economic growth, renew local infrastructure and protect essential services.

“Moving forward to a future of renewal and respect is not wholly possible without addressing the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status, which has been debated for over a century,” Pierluisi told the House Committee on Natural Resources. “Even if Puerto Rico were given state-like treatment in all federal programs, it would fall short. The American citizens of Puerto Rico deserve equal political rights as well, representation in Congress and the right to vote for our president and vice president.”

On Nov. 3, in a straightforward yes or no vote, a clear majority of Puerto Rico’s voters declared, in no uncertain terms, that they want equality “and no longer consent to being second class citizens,” the governor said.

“Fifty-two and a half percent [52.5%] out of the island’s 1.2 million voters chose statehood as the best option to solve Puerto Rico’s status issue,” Pierluisi told the committee. “To ignore the plebiscite results is undemocratic and un-American. It is time for Congress to act on the moral and political imperative conveyed by our clear message.

“A few weeks ago, on the date we commemorated 104 years of United States citizenship, our democratically elected Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón and our friend Congressman Darren Soto filed a bipartisan bill that represents the answer our people deserve. H.R. 1522 sets forth the process for Puerto Rico to become a state of the Union. This is not the time to be talking about other options and convoluted processes mandated by Congress. The American citizens of Puerto Rico already chose their preferred process for self-determination. I respect those who advocate for other status options, but the Puerto Rican people made a clear, democratic choice expressing that statehood is their preferred path forward.”

The governor noted that Puerto Rico has endured multiple natural disasters, a governance disruption, and the struggles related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which began over a year ago. All of those factors have added to an already complex environment, he said, including the creation and operation of the Financial Oversight and Management Board, as an effort to improve Puerto Rico’s fiscal and economic situation and the restructuring of its public debt.

“Even with the significant disruptions caused by all of these unprecedented events, we have made considerable progress,” Pierluisi said.

Puerto Rico has been in bankruptcy since 2017 to restructure some $72 billion in debt.

On the debt restructuring front, Pierluisi said his administration supports the financial terms of the plan presented before the Title III Court for a new plan of adjustment to restructure some $35 billion in debt, except for the oversight board’s proposed cuts to Puerto Rico’s public pensions.

“As I have repeatedly stated, there is no need or justification for those cuts, since the commonwealth’s principal pension system was comprehensively reformed and Puerto Rico’s public retirees already suffered significant cuts to their benefits before the creation of the oversight board,” he said.

“Although we recognize that more work is needed, Puerto Rico has made great strides, and our government is heading in the right direction. We have met important milestones toward fiscal responsibility, including a significant reduction of government expenses, increasing cash balances, creating a PayGo system in order to honor the government’s pension obligations, completing government agency consolidations, and increasing transparency on the use of public funds, as well as advancing in the implementation of structural reforms,” the governor added.

Before taking office, Biden promised to ensure that Puerto Rico receives the federal disaster reconstruction funding that is needed.

“We are currently working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to remove onerous restrictions imposed on Puerto Rico that limit access to federal recovery funds, including Community Development Block Grants and Disaster Relief [CDBG-DR] funding, and to accelerate approval of CDBG-MIT funds to mitigate potential future damages to our infrastructure,” Pierliuisi said.

As of September 2018, around 10 percent of federal relief and recovery spending was going to Puerto Rico businesses in the form of contracts and purchases.

A cornerstone of Biden’s economic plan is an infrastructure package that will rebuild U.S. roads and bridges, schools, utilities, ports, public transit, and other infrastructure.

“Since Puerto Rico’s infrastructure has endured years of limited investment, which harms our potential for economic growth and development, we need to work together with Congress and the [Biden] administration to ensure that Puerto Rico’s critical infrastructure and coastal habitats are rebuilt in ways that increase our capacity and resiliency to withstand any future natural disasters, in particular, promoting the transformation of our electrical grid and power generation structure,” the governor said.

While he thanked the Biden administration for expanding the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit programs to Puerto Rico, Pierluisi urged for parity in Medicaid funding and for the U.S. Justice Department to cease efforts begun under the previous administration to overturn in the Supreme Court a U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that extended supplemental security income to Puerto Rico.

“The federal government caps annual Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico and contributes to its Medicaid program at a far lower rate than if federal matching funds for Puerto Rico were determined the same way as in the states,” the governor said. “Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, Vital, caps eligibility at 85 percent of the eligible income level in the states, provides only 10 of 17 essential services, pays providers less, and spends less per enrollee. I will continue to advocate for equal treatment of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program with an FMAP [federal medical assistance percentage] based on Puerto Rico’s per capita income.

“The Build Back Better Plan includes expanding investment in community health centers and increasing the pipeline of health care providers. Community health centers are a critical part of Puerto Rico’s health care system, serving almost 360,000 patients. President Biden has promised to double the federal investment in community health centers – translating to an investment of an additional $100 million per year.”

In order to fuel the modernization and growth of Puerto Rico’s economy, the federal government must help strengthen Puerto Rico’s public education system at all levels, Pierluisi said. Too many of Puerto Rico’s public schools do not meet current building codes for earthquake safety. Biden’s infrastructure plan will provide $100 billion for school construction, including funding specifically designated for Puerto Rico, he said.

“We must also promote work-based learning opportunities to ensure that workers in Puerto Rico can access individual career services that help find a job, develop a career plan, or get other forms of career coaching,” the governor said. “This must also include investment in the University of Puerto Rico as an engine of economic growth. As part of his Plan for Education Beyond High School, President Biden promised to commit over $70 billion to Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) like the University of Puerto Rico.”

In his Build Back Better plan, Biden recognized that to assure Puerto Rico’s future, its debt must be reduced. Puerto Rico’s annual debt service is 28 percent of revenues, more than five times that of the average state.

“The Plan of Adjustment I mentioned earlier seeks to reduce our annual debt service to a more manageable 7.5 percent of revenues, which is the average of the states with significant debt burdens,” Pierluisi said. “Sustainability is key and Puerto Rico needs to be able to keep our debt level controlled so that we can have a workable government and promote economic development on the island.

Meanwhile, protecting public pensions is the right thing to do,” he added. “Since 2013, public pensioners in Puerto Rico have seen dramatic reductions in their benefits: retirement ages have been increased, employee contributions increased, cost of living increases eliminated, and pensions outright cut. We must stand together to protect Puerto Rico’s public retirees in the context of the pending debt restructuring. In light of these current conditions and the advances in fiscal responsibility and management improvements still underway, the Financial Oversight and Management Board needs a meaningful shift in approach.”

The governors of other U.S. territories also participated in the hearing.

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