• The Star Staff

Resident commissioner commits new term in U.S. Congress to lifting ‘children and families out of pov

Will file pro-statehood bill to ‘guarantee access to federal aid programs’

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

Health, equality and economic development remain top priorities for Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón as she begins her second four-year term in the U.S. Capitol.

In an interview with the STAR, González Colón said after being sworn in for her third two-year term in the 117th Congress on Sunday that, as part of her commitment to fighting poverty on the island, she has filed bipartisan measures to boost local economic development.

Among the bills González Colón has filed to date in Congress is the Child Tax Credit Equity for Puerto Rico Act of 2019, which modifies the rules for the refundable portion of the child tax credit to allow Puerto Rico resident to claim the refundable portion of the child tax credit on the same basis as U.S. taxpayers, and let residents with one or two children claim the refundable portion of the credit on the same basis as residents with three or more children.

“This is an issue that goes directly into people’s pockets,” the resident commissioner said. “It is an economic development goal, but, more than that, it is a measure to get children and families out of poverty, so we filed that bill in a bipartisan manner with Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.).”

Another bill filed by González Colón was the Earned Income Tax Credit Act, which she said is “another benefit that goes straight to the taxpayer’s pocket” as it guarantees “income from the work credit the person has, rather than the person who is not working.”

The resident commissioner noted that since Puerto Rico does not receive that credit, its approval would imply “a measure of economic development and [would] lift families out of poverty.”

Other bills that González Colón will introduce in Congress include one to change the Nutritional Assistance Program (known in Puerto Rico as PAN, by its Spanish acronym) on the island to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, widely known as SNAP, which is the assistance program the states have, the resident commissioner said.

“The [PAN] formula is different as we receive much less [funding for nutritional aid],” she said.

The legislation will also seek to include islanders in the Supplemental Security Income Program, which is a federal program designed to help the elderly and people with disabilities who have little or no income, and provides cash to meet basic needs.

González Colón said that through bipartisan effort “[w]e are going to be establishing a bill of equality, a statehood bill based on the November electoral mandate, where the absolute majority of the island voted in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico,” to “guarantee access to federal programs and assure the right to vote” in the presidential elections.

When the STAR asked the resident commissioner how she expects to persuade Congress with the recent statehood plebiscite, given that it had only 54% of voter participation, González Colón replied that the reduction in electoral participation had much to do with around 200,000 to 300,000 prospective voters moving out of Puerto Rico after hurricanes Irma and Maria, the earthquakes that struck the southern part of the island and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In American politics, what counts are the voters who went to the polling stations, not the ones who stayed in their homes,” she said.

“Numbers are always made based on how many people voted, not based on what could have been or what did not,” the resident commissioner added. “Yes for statehood had more votes than any political party, than any political candidate, and that’s the greatest consensus, which means that people who were not NPP [from the pro-statehood New Progressive Party], who did not vote for [Gov. Pedro] Pierluisi and yet voted for statehood, who did not vote for me, but they voted for statehood; this should be a source of reflection and respect for the people’s will that this is the road that people want to follow.”

According to the State Elections Commission, Yes for Statehood obtained 655,505 votes in the November general elections, which adds up to 52.52%.

Meanwhile, the STAR asked if the events that took place last Wednesday, when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol spurred on by President Donald Trump’s repeated insistence that the presidential elections were rigged, would affect the NPP’s statehood agenda, González Colón said that “the ruling for statehood is much larger than the NPP, it is an island ruling, and it is what was reflected at the polling stations.”

“Yesterday [Wednesday] was a coup [attempt], an insurrection that tried to take power by hand, by force,” she said. “I condemn that and I hope that the people who were involved in this will be charged. Thankfully, Vice President Mike Pence behaved like a statesman as he recognized the election results and closed that chapter with the certification of Joe Biden’s victory as president-elect. It would have been nefarious if it had been the other way around, but this also teaches us how vulnerable institutions can be if we don’t protect them with the vote, if we don’t protect them from people who want to take over.”

Regarding economic development legislation, González Colón said she will be filing tax incentive measures for manufacturers and pharmaceuticals, which she referred to as “vital at a time when we must ensure the supply of medical products, and research and development for these products nationwide, and that Puerto Rico is inserted into this discussion.”

Under such a bill the island would receive “credit per employee, credit per product, a credit for the depreciation and amortization of property, and goods and services,” she said.

Meanwhile, other bills the resident commissioner says she intends to file involve making Puerto Rico’s rum rebate permanent, creating an enduring air cargo hub, including the island in Medicaid programs based on socioeconomic indicators and formulas used in the mainland United States, providing access to broadband internet, and the In-Time Exchange Act, which González Colón said would be an amendment to the federal Internal Revenue Code to allow credits for real estate sold in other states.

“Instead of paying taxes, it is possible to invest in a property, whether it is residential, industrial, or commercial,” she said.

“In the [previous] four-year team, we fulfilled the acquisition of the largest sum of federal funds in Puerto Rico’s history, but we can’t stop here,” she added. “I will always put Puerto Rico first.”

As for president-elect Joe Biden and the current Congress, where the Senate will be under a Democratic Party majority following Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff’s victories in the Georgia run-off elections, González Colón said she was already in conversations with Biden’s transition committee on the island’s economic affairs.

“I will work hand-in-hand with the new administration because what matters here is Puerto Rico, and I will always put Puerto Rico first,” she said.

As for the chances for another stimulus package amid resurging coronavirus infections, González Colón told the STAR that chances were high as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is poised to become the new majority leader, is advancing legislation to augment the payment of $600 to $2,000.

As for other measures, the resident commissioner announced that Puerto Rico will receive $183,823,862 to support efforts in the administration of COVID-19 tests and $28,857,749 for vaccinations, for a total of $212,681,611 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

She said she had anticipated that, within the coronavirus assistance package passed by Congress and converted to the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act in December, “there were funds for the purchase and distribution of vaccines, as well as for assisting states with coronavirus testing.”

Meanwhile, González Colón said, the island will also receive $125 million from the federal Department of Education to help both public and private schools open campuses and create the conditions to begin safe on-site classes.

The funds are allocated to the governor’s office in each state, and not to the Department of Education, under the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER Fund). The fund has two components, a line item of $21,829,617 that will go directly to GEER, while the remaining $104,161,180 will be for private school assistance.

The allocation is intended to assist with activities related to the safe reopening of schools, continuing instruction, and treatment of learning loss. The activities include cleaning educational facilities, obtaining personal protective equipment, improving ventilation systems, and training and professional development to assist educators in implementing new safety practices.

Funding is provided under the 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

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