Latino leaders urge federal gov’t to support Puerto Rico
The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 39 of the U.S. mainland’s largest Latino advocacy organizations, held a press conference Tuesday with Congressional, Puerto Rican, and labor leaders today calling on President Obama and Congress to take action “to save Puerto Rico from economic disaster.”
As Puerto Rico continues to endure a growing economic crisis that includes a $72 billion debt, major unemployment, and population drain, Puerto Ricans and Latinos on the mainland are “growing impatient with Washington as leaders have failed to step up to assist millions of American citizens living on the island,” group representatives said.
Similar events were held in major Puerto Rican hubs across the nation including New York City and Orlando, where the Puerto Rican population has skyrocketed in recent years and has become an increasingly powerful voting bloc in the key swing state of Florida.
The U.S. is home to 8 million Puerto Ricans and 55 million Latinos, many of whom are watching closely to see how government leaders and Presidential candidates respond to the growing economic crisis on the island.
Today’s speakers presented a set of actions Congress and the Obama Administration should take to support the island during this crisis, which include investing federal funds on the island for health, energy and other needs, facilitating a fair debt repayment and relief plan, eliminating economically-handicapping policies like the well-documented, costly Jones Act shipping requirements, and granting bankruptcy protection for the island, which Puerto Rico is currently not allowed to pursue.
On July 16, NHLA sent a letter to President Obama and Congressional leadership outlining recommendations for addressing the financial crisis:
- President Obama must commit to a federal investment plan that addresses underlying fiscal issues and grows the economy with good-paying jobs including Medicaid/health care investments, clean energy development, and cleaning up Vieques and Culebra;
- Congress must eliminate federal policies that put the island at an economic disadvantage including amending the Jones Act costly shipping requirements;
- Congress must pass legislation to grant Puerto Rico a Chapter 9 Bankruptcy option;
- President Obama must convene his Working Group on Financial Markets to bring all parties to the table to negotiate a fair debt repayment and relief deal and explore a Federal Reserve loan; and,
- President Obama and Congress should oppose severe austerity and wage reduction proposals like the Krueger Plan that would hurt poor and working families.
“It is time for Congress and the President to stand up and do their duty to support our fellow Americans by giving Puerto Rico the tools to resolve its debt crisis, including the same tools available to other jurisdictions of the United States,” said NHLA chair Héctor Sánchez said.
Congressional lawmakers speak
Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., lawmakers with interests in Puerto Rico also expressed their views on the island’s situation.
“Puerto Rico’s fiscal problems are unprecedented and require bold, immediate action,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY.) “Not only are Puerto Ricans suffering from this crisis, but should the situation continue deteriorating, there could be wide-ranging consequences for the broader American economy. All Puerto Ricans are speaking with one voice in calling on the federal government to address these challenges swiftly.”
Meanwhile, Congressman José E. Serrano said “the federal government can’t afford to ignore this issue and the needs of the millions of Puerto Ricans that live on the island and the rest of the United States.”
“What we are asking for is equality for Puerto Rico so that it can have the rights, tools, and financial resources it needs to successfully address the economic crisis. Our message is simple and straightforward: Congress and the United States government has to act,” said Serrano.
Puerto Rico is facing some $72 billion in public debt, which Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla said the Commonwealth is unable to pay. At present, the island lack’s a legal mechanism to restructure its debt with creditors, as it is shut out of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code’s Chapter 9 clause.
A pair of bills have been submitted in Congress, known as the “Puerto Rico Chapter 9 Uniformity Act” to enable the government of Puerto Rico to authorize its insolvent municipalities, or its public corporations, to adjust their debts in an orderly manner under Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code.
“I am particularly grateful that the NHLA has endorsed my legislative efforts to authorize Puerto Rico to permit its public enterprises to seek relief under Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code; to provide more equitable treatment to Puerto Rico under federal health programs like Medicaid and Medicare; and to increase the number of maritime vessels that would be able to transport energy supplies, agricultural products and other bulk cargo between ports in Puerto Rico and other U.S. ports,” said Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s sole representative in Congress, who introduced the bill at the House.
The bills are currently held up at the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, where they are facing resistance from the Republican majority in both chambers.
U.S. Treasury backs Chapter 9 inclusion
Earlier this month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Orrin Hatch sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew asking for an opinion from the Obama administration on the island’s situation.
Lew responded on Tuesday, saying Congress should give Puerto Rico the legal framework to resolve its financial challenges, available under Chapter 9.
In a statement, Pierluisi said Lew was “exactly right when he notes that allowing Puerto Rico public corporations to access Chapter 9 ‘involves no federal financial assistance and is in no way a federal bailout.’”
“The Secretary is also correct when he observes that, by permitting public corporations in the U.S. territory to avail themselves of the federal bankruptcy regime, ‘Congress can help put Puerto Rico — and the millions of U.S. citizens who live there — on the best path to a sustained recovery.’ I will continue to do everything in my power, working with my allies on both sides of the aisle, to move this legislation forward in Congress on an expeditious timeline,” he said.
Lew also met with García-Padilla in Washington on Tuesday, expressing support for Puerto Rico’s development of a long-term comprehensive fiscal plan that “provides a sustainable path forward.”