Washington -The visit of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources to Puerto Rico next week represents the first opportunity for the new Democratic majority to hold the Board accountable for the austerity measures they impose and for Puerto Ricans to expressed their opinion on PROMESA.
"It is important that we listen to people most affected, those that endured the hurricane, those that have endured the fiscal crisis and the austerity moves by the Oversight Board," said yesterday the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Democrat Raúl Grijalva, in a video inviting Puerto Ricans to participate in a learning session scheduled for Friday at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum.
While the learning session will be at the beginning of the four-day visit to Puerto Rico –from March 15 to 18- the meeting of the six members of the Committee with the Board –overseeing the island´s public decisions- is scheduled for Monday 18, at the end of the visit.
Grijalva reiterated that the meetings in Puerto Rico will be the prelude to a process of public hearings in Washington to, among other things, get to know "what needs to be reformed" of PROMESA. “In these coming days we will be visiting Puerto Rico for a learning session in which ordinary folk from Puerto Rico are invited people to come and give us their views, their criticisms, their recommendations, their ideas, on how to go forward. And this is a listening session in which the members of the committee are not there to exchange points of view with the audience, but to listen, and listen closely," he said.
The first face-to-face meeting between the Natural Resources Committee, under a Democratic majority, and the Board will happen at a time when the Boston First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the appointment of the members of the fiscal entity was unconstitutional. This has generated uncertainty about the continuity of the public policy decided by the Board members, whose appointments expire in August.
Edward Zayas, spokesman for the Board, said they anticipate that the budget, fiscal plans and reforms, the debt renegotiation process and the transformation of the Electric Power Authority transformation are among the issues to be discussed with the delegation.
Democratic Representative Nydia Velázquez, who will be part of the Natural Resources Committee delegation, said that it is a priority of the majority "to understand the decisions that have been made, not only in terms of debt restructuring, but also on the adoption of fiscal plans and the budget of Puerto Rico."
Velazquez said that an essential part of the debt restructuring process is to comply with fiscal obligations to get Puerto Rico out of the crisis, but without compromising resources for education, security and the investment necessary to boost the economy. The congresswoman is the main liaison with the Democratic congressional leadership on fiscal issues and those related the island's recovery after Hurricane María.
Grijalva said that the priority should be the recovery of Puerto Rico and consequently he criticized austerity measures. "Cutting basic services, closing schools, lowering salaries, destroying the University of Puerto Rico will not help the recovery process," he pointed out in December.
Grijalva also showed interest in analyzing the powers of the Board and the possibility of creating the role of the “inspector general” for PREPA´s transformation process.
The Natural Resources Committee will hold meetings in Puerto Rico 18 months after Hurricane María ravaged the island, causing nearly 3,000 deaths and more than $100,000 in damage, according to official data.
The delegation will begin their activities on Friday with a meeting with directors of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the learning session at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum. This session is intended to listen to citizens and stakeholders.
The Committee said yesterday that those wishing to attend can sign up at https://www.eventbrite.com/o/office-of-house-natural-resources-committee-chairman-raul-m-grijalva-18841868244 and added that “speakers will be acknowledged on a first-come, first- served basis.”
Six of the 42 members of the Committee will travel to Puerto Rico.
Republican minority spokesman Rob Bishop (Utah), Puerto Rican Democrat Darren Soto (Florida), Northern Mariana Islands delegate Gregorio Sablan, and Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González will also attend the meetings along with Grijalva and Velázquez.
The two Republican representatives in the group are Bishop, who chaired the committee for four years and led the PROMESA approval process, and Commissioner González. On Twitter, González announced that, yesterday, she had a meeting with Grijalva. Yesterday, González said in Twitter that she had a ”productive meeting with” with Grijalva.
As for the meeting with FEMA directors, Velázquez said they want to analyze the obstacles that Puerto Rican elected officials have been denouncing over access to funds and to be sure that those problems are not based on interpretations that clash with the intent of the law.
One of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares claims, who will meet with the delegation on Monday 18 at La Fortaleza, is for FEMA to include pre-hurricane conditions in the cost of critical facilities repair works.
Congresswoman Velázquez said that they want to have first-hand information about the progress of the reconstruction and to find out what they can do to speed up the processes.
The previous delegation
This visit of the Natural Resources Committee comes two weeks after another congressional delegation, headed by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (Mississippi), went to San Juan and Humacao to meet with FEMA officials, Governor Rosselló Nevares, and some mayors.
Democratic representative Jesús "Chuy" García, who despite not being a member of the Homeland Security Committee was part of the delegation that visited San Juan last weekend, said that he was surprised to see how slow the recovery process has been due to delays in the release of funds that municipalities (and their) mayors desperately need.
García, who is married to a Puerto Rican, visited the island on three occasions, this was his first visit as a congressman.
During a visit to the Hospital del Maestro, they were told that a part of that facility is still inoperative, and neighbors from Vieques said during a meeting in FEMA that they don´t have hospital services in that island municipality.
García said that a common strand in conversations with elected officials is that the White House Office of Budget and Management (OMB) hinders access to funds.
Congressman García – who replaced Puerto Rican Luis Gutiérrez as Chicago's 4th district representative – also expressed his solidarity with the mayors' demand to control part of reconstruction funds.
García, who forced Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to a second round in 2015, said that local officials are the ones who know about the suffering and needs of their people.
As member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, García said that the infrastructure investment plan in Congress – requested by President Donald Trump– will represent an opportunity for Puerto Rico to improve infrastructure, especially basic infrastructure like the power grid, drinking water systems and roads.