Resident commissioner introduces bills aimed at achieving parity for PR in federal programs
By THE STAR STAFF
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón began her legislative agenda in Congress on Wednesday by introducing five bills that would give Puerto Rico parity in certain federal programs.
Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth and not a state, it receives fewer federal funds.
“Because of our colonial status, American citizens residing in Puerto Rico are excluded from some assistance programs. Unquestionably, the remedy lies in the equality that statehood provides,” the resident commissioner said. “However, we present these measures that, in addition to highlighting the unworthiness of the current status, seek to alleviate the burden on our most vulnerable populations and allow access to tools to improve the quality of life.”
The first measure, the Supplemental Security Income Equality Act, seeks to extend Supplemental Social Security (SSI) to residents of Puerto Rico. SSI is a federal financial assistance program that helps individuals with conditions that affect the family’s ability to earn a sufficient income.
People who qualify to receive SSI are those 65 years of age or older below the poverty level or with disabilities or special conditions, or minors with conditions such as cancer, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, sclerosis, among other conditions. The congresswoman has advocated for the application of SSI for Puerto Rico in different forums. She filed a friend of the court brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue and has called on President Biden to comply with his campaign promises to Puerto Rico.
The second legislation, the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Act, would seek the island’s transition from the Nutrition Assistance Program (PAN by its Spanish acronym) to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The PAN program has a fixed amount of funds that do not allow the program to adjust to changes in demand automatically. That is particularly notable after and during emergencies, such as hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic, which tend to increase participation in PAN. Similarly, the program offers lower monthly benefits compared to SNAP. The bill authorizes a 60-day period for Puerto Rico to submit an operations plan and a transition plan for SNAP to the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA). The bill would require the USDA to offer technical assistance during that period to maximize the project’s viability. The USDA then has 180 days, or six months, to evaluate the plan and determine if it complies with the SNAP requirements and regulations. If it complies, the USDA secretary has 60 days to certify to Congress that Puerto Rico complies with the requirements and can operate the program. After that, the island would be in SNAP for the first fiscal year beginning one year after certification, to allow for a budget cycle that guarantees the necessary funds. The measure authorizes a period of up to five years in which the USDA could continue the PAN program and thus protect services to beneficiaries during the transition.
The third measure, the Earned Income Tax Credit Equity for Puerto Rico Act, seeks that workers in Puerto Rico receive the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). In the law known as the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, it was possible to include a federal subsidy of $600 million per year to subsidize the local EITC program established by the Puerto Rico government. Experience has shown that because the allocation has a ceiling, the island government must cover the difference, increasing the program’s cost for the government.
In addition, the federal grant cap has resulted in a much smaller federal EITC tax credit available to state residents. With this legislation, the resident commissioner seeks to give Puerto Rico the same federal EITC program available in the States, as was already done with the Child Tax Credit. The EITC is a credit against income tax that helps eradicate poverty by encouraging employment and discouraging dependency on the state, providing relief to low- and moderate-income families. González Colón emphasized that even though Puerto Rico defines itself as a state through Title 10 and the Regulations for TRICARE, in reality it does not provide the same access.
Another bill introduced by González Colón, the Puerto Rico Data Collection Equality Act, is for the island to be included under federal statistics programs, from which it is currently excluded, and thus ensure that the needs of the residents of Puerto Rico are better served. Specifically, the measure requires the United States Interagency Statistical Policy Council to implement a plan for the collection and publication of federal statistics for Puerto Rico as is done with the states.
The resident commissioner said “the territorial status of Puerto Rico allows the island to be excluded from various data collection programs.”
“This exclusion hinders our efforts to analyze and develop informed policies so that the federal government properly addresses the needs of our people,” she said. “That also creates a feeling that American citizens residing in Puerto Rico do not count for the United States government. This unequal treatment is simply unacceptable and must be fixed.”