Puerto Rico governor skips House hearing on island’s electric utility

Puerto Rico governor skips House hearing on island’s electric utility
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Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló declined an invitation to testify at a Wednesday House hearing on the island’s electric utility, dismissing it as a “political exercise.”

The House Natural Resources Committee, led by Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopOne year later: Puerto Rico battles with bureaucracy after Maria Land and Water Conservation Fund is good for business Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands MORE (R-Utah), is hosting the hearing through its energy and mineral resources subpanel. It is meant to examine dysfunction, management problems and allegations of corruption at the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), whose new CEO, Rafael Díaz Granados, left this month after one day on the job.

Bishop invited Rosselló to the hearing last week, writing, “undoubtedly, the recovery and revitalization of Puerto Rico in the near and long term is unattainable without the depoliticization of PREPA.”

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Rosselló, in a letter to Bishop hours before the hearing, blasted the GOP’s handling of the PREPA dysfunction and tried to reassure lawmakers that the situation is being handled appropriately.

“I do not plan to attend the hearing because my attendance would legitimize a political exercise that was organized for the sole purpose of promoting flawed legislation that would severely hamper our reconstruction,” he wrote, referring to potential legislation to overhaul PREPA oversight, including pushing to privatize it, which Rosselló said has already begun.

“As the Committee is well aware, I took office during an unprecedented fiscal and economic crisis that jeopardized the future of Puerto Rico, including two catastrophic hurricanes that left the island without power, water or communication,” he said. “Our recovery has been complicated by the layers of bureaucracy imposed on us by Congress and federal emergency management personnel.”

Puerto Rico is still recovering from the devastating hurricanes Irma and Maria that hit last fall, crippling the island and likely killing thousands. PREPA’s generation and transmission infrastructure were already among the worst in the United States, but the hurricanes all but wiped out the electric grid.

Rosselló's absence is a sign of the increasingly strained relationship with Bishop. After the invitation last week, the Natural Resources Committee tweeted that Rosselló should “call your office,” but deleted the tweet after the governor objected.

Bishop has blamed Rosselló, at least in part, for PREPA’s problems. The power authority has had five CEOs in the past year, and has faced allegations of unchecked theft by managers and accusations of rampant political interference.

Rosselló, meanwhile, has heaped some blame on Bishop and his colleagues. In a written statement for Wednesday’s hearing, Rosselló implied that the committee’s actions are standing in the way of a successful, locally driven recovery for PREPA, including partial privatization and a move away from the oil-dependent, subpar electric grid of the past.

“It is my belief that critical policy choices that will impact the future of Puerto Rico for many generations should rightly be the decisions of the Government of Puerto Rico and residents rather than any other stakeholder, federal or otherwise, who may unfairly influence the process,” he wrote. “State governments are closest to the people and thus significantly better equipped to address the issues and challenges at the local level. I know the leadership of this Committee shares that political value.”

As chairman of the panel, Bishop has leading oversight over Puerto Rico’s recovery under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, the 2016 law that allowed the territory to restructure its billions of dollars of crippling debt.

He has pushed for the federal oversight board created by law to give higher priority to the wishes of PREPA’s debtors in restructuring negotiations, against the wishes of both the oversight board and Rosselló.

Rafael Bernal contributed.