Pro-statehood lawyer to fiscal board: Real cause of fiscal woes is status

By The Star Staff

Pro-statehood attorney Gregorio Igartúa warned the federal Financial Oversight and Management Board in a recent letter that fixing Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges would be a futile exercise unless it acknowledges that the real cause of the island’s fiscal woes is the “unequal treatment” of the U.S. territory, and works with the U.S. Congress and the president to resolve the status problem.

“The Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico you are presiding over is working hard and in good faith, in attempting to restructure and improve Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges as ordered by Congress. Notwithstanding, in my view, its fiscal exercise will be a futile one unless it acknowledges the real cause of the economic problems it is attempting to solve,” Igartúa wrote to David Skeel, chairman of the oversight board. “Within this context, the real cause is the unequal and discriminatory treatment given to the American citizen residents of Puerto Rico by the three branches of the federal government.”

“Moreover, if one considers we are under the servitude of the federal government without our consent,” Igartúa added. “Notwithstanding, within the Board’s work perspective, there is no way Puerto Rico’s fiscal problems will ever be solved under a federalist structure in which it is at a disadvantage by being treated unequally through a lower transfer of payments in economic aid as compared to those to states. These are the source of the serious problems with Puerto Rico’s fiscal structure, budget execution, public administration, and tax structure. There is no way you can restructure economic policies to solve our financial crisis under the unequal treatment scenario to which we are submitted, and/or under such an economic labyrinth.”

“I believe it is long overdue for the Board to demonstrate it is working with Puerto Rico’s financial crisis within the correct perspective, that it is aware of this reality, and to inform the President, Congress, and the Governor of Puerto Rico, about it,” the attorney wrote. “Equal treatment of Puerto Rico under equal footing as that given to those in the states is the only road to the solution of the fiscal crisis. If you deem it pertinent, I am willing to appear personally before the Board to explain and support my analysis and proposition with evidence.”

An immediate reaction from the oversight board could not be obtained.

Igartúa, who has taken several cases to U.S. courts challenging Puerto Rico’s unequal treatment under the law, also publicly urged the U.S. Justice Department not to go through with its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a lower court ruling that declared that Congress’ decision not to extend the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program to Puerto Rico violates the Equal Protection Clause in the case United States vs Vaello Madero.

In November, the U.S. Justice Department urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case United States vs Jose Luis Vaello Madero because, it said, the respondent did not provide evidence to overrule precedents that support unequal treatment of Puerto Rico in the allocation of certain federal funds. Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall argued that a brief filed by Vaello Madero on Nov. 9 confirmed that the Supreme Court should review the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision holding that Congress violated the U.S. Constitution by establishing the SSI program in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, but declining to extend the program to Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Supreme Court has postponed a decision on whether it would take up the case four times since Nov. 24, 2020. Igartúa, who is one of the lawyers in the case, did not know the reasons for the top court’s delay in deciding whether or not to take up the case. Others, such as John Mudd, a bankruptcy lawyer, have said that it appears the Supreme Court wants to give the Justice Department time to decide what to do.

The Vaello Madero decision involves an SSI disability recipient who continued to receive the payments after he moved back to Puerto Rico from New York in 2013. The U.S. government sought to claw back the $28,081 in payments received over a three-year period after he returned to Puerto Rico, arguing he was no longer entitled to the benefits after moving to the commonwealth.

Both the U.S. District Court and the First Circuit ruled that the exclusion of residents of Puerto Rico from the SSI program is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest.

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