Puerto Rico needs Congress to be bolder on disaster relief

Puerto Rico needs Congress to be bolder on disaster relief
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Congress took an important step this week as the U.S. House of Representatives proposed an emergency disaster supplemental package for Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Even though it goes beyond what the administration originally requested, it still falls short of addressing Puerto Rico’s immediate needs.

The House’s effort is a good start, though, and with House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHouse Ethics Committee informs Duncan Hunter he can no longer vote after guilty plea Duncan Hunter pleads guilty after changing plea Trump campaign steps up attacks on Biden MORE announcing his intent to attach supplemental funding to the Continuing Resolution that will keep the government funded later this week, the proposal has clearly arrived at the right time. 

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Everyone knows by now that Puerto Rico was devastated by two hurricanes in September. More than 90 days later, many Puerto Ricans still lack electricity, and other basic services are still being restored. Over 500,000 homes have been partially or totally destroyed. It will take years to rebuild. We cannot delay supplemental funding anymore. 

 

There are positive measures in the initial proposal. Ryan and his colleagues in the House were on the right track with a doubling of funding for Economic Development Administration projects that could help provide an important economic boost through recovery. However, the proposal fails to take into account other important factors, such as the looming Medicaid funding cliff that threatens the health care of more than 600,000 American citizens in Puerto Rico.

Additionally, provisions included in the emergency supplemental package treat Puerto Rico vastly different than the states by conditioning federal funds for disaster recovery to an expansion of powers of a congressionally-mandated oversight board that was specifically created to address the over a decade old fiscal crisis, not oversee the island’s recovery. Congress, federal agencies, OMB and the Government of Puerto Rico already possess multiple layers of oversight authority over the expenditure of federal funds. Any transfer of power to an oversight board is not only unnecessary but undermines the existing oversight responsibilities of the executive branch. 

With the House and Senate in Republican hands, and a Republican President in the White House, the idea that a federal government board would strip power from local government in Puerto Rico is both arbitrary and absurd. As President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE said on the day he was inaugurated, we should be transferring power from Washington to the people, not the other way around.   

Congress should not give away the recovery and long-term reconstruction of Puerto Rico to an unelected and unaccountable oversight board whose chairman admitted to local media this week that he does not represent the people. 

Instead, disaster relief should focus on its stated purpose. The Government of Puerto Rico wants to see Congress do more along the lines of what it did for Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Specifically, the supplemental package should maintain current funding levels for Medicaid and increase the statutory 55 percent federal matching rate to 100 percent for 24 months.

While the funding in the supplemental package is urgently needed, we will also continue to work with members of both political parties to ensure that the needs of the 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are met in the ongoing recovery for the long-term, in the weeks, months and years to come. We can, and we will, build a better Puerto Rico. We will be stronger and more resilient than ever. To get there, we need Congress to stand with us, as our partners. Let’s get it done.

Carlos Mercader is executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA).