Washington – Last week, legislators Carmelo Ríos and Rafael 'Tatito' Hernández circulated a draft bill in Congress with their proposal to replace the federal Board -that oversees Puerto Rico's public finances- with a federal monitor with fewer powers.
They expect that the idea of federal 'monitor' to oversee the Puerto Rican government fiscal decisions could be part of any discussion regarding possible changes to PROMESA.
But, they were also warned that advancing initiatives for the Island without the support from the political leadership and the government, as they are currently doing, will be more complicated than usual.
After meeting with the Puerto Rican legislators, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (New York) said that the first thing they look at (in Congress) is whether everyone shares the same idea and if a proposal (like that of Ríos and Hernández) has the support of the island´s leaders.
Democrat Raúl Grijalva (Arizona), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, told El Nuevo Día in December that is interested in reviewing the Board´s powers. In stressing how difficult that debate could be, Velázquez noted that they would have to open the legislation to amendments and count on the Senate willing to do so too.
The draft bill that Ríos and Hernández circulated in Congress provides that the monitor will be "a senior executive officer appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury". Ríos is the spokesman for the New Progressive Party (PNP) in the Senate, and Hernández Montañez is the spokesman for the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) in the House of Representatives – with connection with the Democratic leadership of the Committee on Natural Resources –.
The draft also suggests that the governor of Puerto Rico proposes the preliminary calendar for a fiscal plan, which will be ultimately approved by the Court handling the bankruptcy process established by PROMESA and presided over by Judge Laura Taylor Swain.
The fiscal plan should ensure the funding of essential public services and provide adequate financing for the government's pension systems; eliminate structural deficits; promote economic growth; improve governance and internal controls and reach a sustainable debt restructuring.
The monitor may request the Governor to monthly or quarterly submit budgets and reports, convene hearings, request information from the government of Puerto Rico, issue subpoenas under penalty of contempt and investigate sale of bonds and conflicts of interest.
The Government of Puerto Rico will not have the power to oversee or review the monitor functions. But, if the monitor determines that any legislation violates the fiscal plan, it will be up to Court, not the Governor, to make a final decision over its validity.
Contrary to the experience with the Board, the Puerto Rican legislators indicated that the monitor they are proposing may establish the budget cap but without intervening in "public policy" or in the way funds are distributed.
They said that the draft establishes that as in Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy law and contrary to PROMESA, collective agreements with unions would not be frozen.
Both Ríos and Hernández Montañez considered that the role of the monitor is very similar to the trustee provided in Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy law for municipality cases in the U.S. According to Hernández Montañez they want to return the (local) powers to the Government of Puerto Rico, subject to the court´s jurisdiction and saving, to some extent, the expenses of the Board.
Although the expenses of the Federal Monitor office will be initially covered by the Department of the Treasury, they must be reimbursed by the Government of Puerto Rico.
Ríos said that over the last two and a half years it became clear that the Board "is not what we want for Puerto Rico." "Puerto Rico is in worse economic situation than two years ago," said the senator, stressing the lack of economic development initiatives from the Oversight Board.
Regarding changes in the Board, since according to PROMESA the term of its members expires at the end of August, the legislators considered that their proposal would allow the process of the Puerto Rican public debt restructuring to enter in a "second stage".
On Thursday, Hernández Montañez and Ríos held meetings with the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Democrat Raúl Grijalva (Arizona), as well as with Democrats Velázquez, Darren Soto (Florida), Jesus "Chuy" García (Illinois) and Debbie Murcarsel Powell (Florida).
Ríos also met with Senator Robert Menéndez (New Jersey). Meanwhile, Hernández Montañez saw Richard Neal (Massachusetts), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González; Democratic congresswoman Terri Sewell, and key officials of the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
According to the legislators, they decided not to take their proposal to their parties authorities in order to avoid delaying the debate on the initiative, which they believe is important to promote this semester.
Ríos had a meeting with Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Saturday and then he expects to have a conversation with Thomas Rivera Schatz, President of the Puerto Rico Senate, who has opposed the idea or any initiative other than "statehood." Senator Ríos did not attend the meeting between Hernández Montañez and Commissioner González, because he returned to San Juan on Friday afternoon.
Hernández Montañez said that they want to discuss the idea with different civic groups in Puerto Rico and with the diaspora, not only with their parties. They are not seeking to have the support from their parties. "I'm not looking for (PPD support). If the support comes, it would be perfect," he added.
"It was a good meeting," said Commissioner González about her meeting with the Popular representative, however, before the meeting she warned that, as a statehood supporter, it would be difficult to back a measure that maintains colonial control over the island. "Changing control for control is control," González said.
Although she acknowledges that any legislator has the authority to promote their ideas in Washington, González said that "evidently" the fact that a PNP senator pushes amendments to PROMESA without consulting makes her work more difficult but she added that everyone chooses what to present.
Attorney Manuel Rivera, spokesperson for the group Puerto Ricans United in Action (PUA), who resides in Washington D.C. and worked for sovereignty and independence groups, attended the interview with El Nuevo Día where the legislators disclosed the draft bill. "It seems a positive action," said Rivera, who recommended to take the proposal to the Junte de Mujeres group (M-18), among others.
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