Washington - Congressman Raúl Grijalva promises a new vision for Puerto Rico from the leadership of the US House Committee on Natural Resources.
When the 116th session of Congress begins in January 2019, Grijalva, Democrat from Arizona, will chair the Committee with a clearly defined agenda regarding Puerto Rico: to promote reconstructionL to temper the power of the Oversight Board over the elected government, and to create a federal inspector general position to oversee the reconstruction of the power grid.
As the next chairman of the Committee with primary jurisdiction over the island´s affairs, he will be open to listen to all parties regarding the statehood debate.
But, he believes that, in the short term, it is urgent and possible to assist Puerto Rico in its reconstruction after Hurricane María.
Before calling hearings on the future of PROMESA and the Electric Power Authority (PREPA), Grijalva will organize a trip for members of its Committee to Puerto Rico, early in 2019, to hear Puerto Ricans complaints first hand.
For this, he wants to coordinate meetings not only with politicians and government officials but with non profit organizations representatives, including environmental groups and sectors of the energy industry and health service providers, among others.
Grijalva is convinced that the power of the Board – overseeing the financial decisions of the government of Puerto Rico – must be reviewed so that "there is greater respect" for the island´s elected government. That would require an amendment to PROMESA.
Although the Senate will remain under Republican control and any attempt to amend PROMESA will be uphill, Grijalva thinks there will be room for a new discussion regarding the Board, whose members appointments expire next summer.
In his opinion, it is clear that PROMESA states that President Donald Trump will have to choose six of the seven members of the Board, from a list that Congress leaders will submit.
From the minority, Grijalva questioned the austerity measures imposed by the Board, which are sometimes proposed by the island's government itself.
After the devastation that Hurricane María caused in Puerto Rico, Grijalva has demanded the Board to withhold debt payments until economic growth is achieved.
"This is a new reality," he said.
Regarding COFINA restructuring agreement, which is now before judge Laura Taylor Swain, Grijalva said that it is "a very generous agreement" for creditors and "a bad precedent to future deals for the rest of the debt".
"The priority must be the recovery of Puerto Rico, not austerity. Puerto Rico will not succeed unless young families stay on the island. Cutting out basic services, closing schools, lowering salaries, destroying the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) will not help the recovery process," said Grijalva in an interview with El Nuevo Día.
But, at the same time, the Democratic lawmaker, one of the most liberal in the House, considers it necessary to create a position similar to the inspector general who oversees federal government departments, to oversee the use of federal funds to rebuild and redesign the power grid.
"I am not talking about a trustee, but about person who can provide independent information, who has oversight power ... A person outside the Board, but with federal authority, to report to Congress. The best way to explain that is to look at the inspector general of a federal agency," said Grijalva.
For months, the outgoing chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Republican Rob Bishop (Utah), had under consideration proposals from his majority colleagues intended to federalize PREPA´s privatization -to some extent- or to remove the power of the governor over appointments in the public company and the Energy Bureau.
Grijalva proposes an easier alternative.
Congress allocated -but not released yet- $ 1,942 billion in funds of the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) that would be directed to rebuild the power grid. But, the government of Puerto Rico has estimated that these efforts require up to $ 27 billion.
"An independent coordinator in PREPA would give more confidence to Puerto Rican citizens and also to possible investors in the future. The use of money is the most important thing. I want to be sure that (the coordinator or inspector general) is part of any possible solution," said Grijalva, who acknowledges that the idea will not please Governor Ricardo Rosselló.
Grijalva said that the future of PREPA is crucial for the economic development of Puerto Rico. Grijalva is a promoter of renewable energy and insisted that PREPA should move in that direction.
He also warned that he does not promote the privatization of public companies and essential services. "That has to be clear too. I am not in favor of privatization just because of the idea of it. The protection of workers, their pensions is essential. The power grid and day-to-day employment must remain public," he added.
Although he would like to amend PROMESA to temper the power of the Board, Grijalva argued that the creation of the position of Inspector General or coordinator for PREPA may be included in an independent bill.
The visit of the members of the House Committee on Natural Resources to Puerto Rico early in 2019 would establish the bases and prepare a subsequent public hearing in Congress. His interest is also for members of the Committee to meet with people who can help them to have a historical context of the island.
"There are people here (in Congress) who think the history of Puerto Rico began (the day they discuss an issue). It is important to understand why we are in this situation and the relationship between the federal government and Puerto Rico," he said.
Grijalva said he was aware of the expressions attributed to President Trump about stopping disaster relief funds for the island.
"Personally, I think he said it. Unfortunately it is a typical reaction of this President," he said.
Congressman Grijalva also said that Democrats should seek a permanent solution that will adequately fund the Puerto Rican health system through Medicaid.
Statehood is not a priority
For Grijalva a visit to Puerto Rico will provide the members of the House Committee on Natural Resources a better idea about the political status of Puerto Rico.
The Democratic congressman warned shortly after the local plebiscite on June 11, 2017 – in which amid a boycott from opposition parties, statehood obtained 97 percent of the votes – that due to the low turnout, only 23 percent, a bill in favor of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state of the United States did not seem possible.
Last June, Bishop, his counterpart, co-sponsored Resident Commissioner Jennifer González pro-statehood bill. However, he never called a hearing on that
bill, which he has shelved and seems to be dying at the end of this Congress session.
A few days ago, Bishop recommended the government of Puerto Rico to work on a “statehood yes-or-no” referendum, certified by the US Department of Justice
When asked if that is an option, Grijalva noted that, right now, "recovery" is the most pressing issue, but he said that he is aware that statehood, Commonwealth or independence are the alternatives considered on the island.
"If we are going to seek the Puerto Ricans opinion, all options must be there," said the congressman.
Grijalva does not close the door to a debate on the status, but said that "the economy, energy, PROMESA, recovery and economic development” are the priorities.
If, at some point, the Committee on Natural Resources decided to move forward the Puerto Rican political status debate, Grijalva stated that "what we cannot do is propose (a referendum) again and do nothing. We cannot do the same" they did in the past.
Puerto Ricans in his Committee
Grijalva said he hopes to have three Democratic Puerto Ricans in the Committee, including Nydia Velázquez (New York) and Darren Soto (Florida). But, he asked Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (New York) – who is interested in environmental issues, climate change and the political situation of Puerto Rico – to consider joining his Committee. "Three Puerto Ricans as majority in the Committee would be positive," said Grijalva.
Commissioner González would also be on the Committee on Natural Resources again, but in the minority, like Bishop, who will be the Republican spokesman.
"They (the Republicans) did the agenda and decided the issues," he said. As of January, he concluded, "we will do the agenda."
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