Senate rejects repealing Law 80 for the third time (horizontal-x3)
Senators Margarita Nolasco and Itzamar Peña, and their colleagues Nelson Cruz and Miguel Romero, all New Progressive Party (PNP) majority, favored the measure. (Teresa Canino )

Not even 24 hours after Rosselló called for an extraordinary session, the Senate rejected, for the third time, the bill that would repeal the compensation for unjustified dismissal act (Law 80-1976), and that would have allowed the Government to comply with the agreement reached with the Oversight Board.

 The bill - which received four votes in favor and 18 against - was addressed yesterday in an expeditious manner despite the absence of 10 senators who had excused themselves for being abroad.

 Senators Margarita Nolasco and Itzamar Peña, and their colleagues Nelson Cruz and Miguel Romero, all New Progressive Party (PNP) majority, favored the measure.

The bill needed 16 votes in favor to be approved.

"We do not do symbolic acts in the Senate. In the Senate, we act according to our conscience, according to the information we receive, and every senator can vote as he or she deems correct," said Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, in addressing his colleagues.

"It's a bad agreement (the one reached with the Board). The governor is wrong, there is no economic foundation that justifies the repeal of Law 80 anywhere ..." added the senatorial leader.

 Rivera Schatz was the only one who took the floor to discuss the measure. Meanwhile, senator Juan Dalmau, Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) stated his rejection of the elimination of the statute.

 The agreement between the government and the Board consisted in the repeal of Law 80 in exchange for certain increases in funds allocations -including the financing of the Office of the Governor- and the continuity, at least temporary, of the Christmas bonus and vacation and sick leave for public sector employees. The Board seeks to repeal this law because it believes that it would create a better business climate in Puerto Rico, which would attract investment and create jobs.

 The bill defeated yesterday in the Senate, in addition to repealing Law 80, as the Board wanted, created the "Compensation Fund for Unjust Dismissal", and amended Law 100-1959 in order to establish an additional compensation for those employees who were dismissed on the grounds of discrimination provided in that statute. Senator Romero brought that proposal for consideration and it was then rejected by the majority caucus.

Governor reacts

Rosselló Nevares regretted yesterday, in written statements, the Senate procedure. "I convened an extraordinary session, expecting for the Senate to use the days that the Constitution provides for a responsible and prudent consideration of all measures on the agenda," he said.

 "The Senate president opted not to devote time to this matter, leaving our people in the uncertainty that has caused the breach of the agreement with the Board," Rosselló Nevares said.

 In contrast, the governor thanked the House for "their contribution" in the process.

The president of the House, Carlos "Johnny" Méndez, said that facing the action of the Senate, that legislative body would not address the piece on Law 80 during the extraordinary session. "It would be a sterile exercise," said Méndez.

To questions of the press, Rivera Schatz said that they addressed the issue yesterday due the urgency that, in his opinion, the governor claimed. He argued that he had anticipated the governor about the absence of several legislators, and he "still convened" the extraordinary session.

"I'm not going to go into the blackmail the Board intends. They have put Puerto Ricans against Puerto Ricans, the governor against the Legislative Assembly; the governor against the Senate; public employees against private employees; that's what the board wants. Today it is Law 80, if this desire is satisfied, they will eventually have another costly requirement," said Rivera Schatz.

He rejected that his refusal to repeal the statute responds to a power or political struggle.

 However, experts consulted by El Nuevo Día estimate that, precisely, there is a leadership struggle behind the controversy.

On one hand, the Senate president opts to confront the Board and to position himself as an ideological alternative compared to the governor, explained the public administration expert Mario Negrón Portillo.

On the other hand, the governor makes decisions according to what he understands to be the least of the political evils. According to the estimate there would be more people affected by the elimination of the Christmas bonus than those affected by the repeal of Law 80. That is why, the expert added, the governor is willing to sacrifice the statute in exchange for retaining this benefit.

"From the political point of view, I think that all this is just for the public. What they are deciding with these controversies is who has the power in the PNP," said Negrón Portillo.

Yesterday, the House limited its work to receiving the administration bills, process that allows them to be evaluated in commissions.

Budget will be challenged

Contrary to previous statements, the president of the House said yesterday that he believes it necessary for the government to "challenge" the Board in court over their decision to impose a budget that contains drastic cuts to operating expenses items and payroll.

"A group of lawyers is doing an analysis to determine whether to go to court. I am going to talk to the fellow president of the Senate, and the governor should support us on that because the Board is here to establish action parameters, but what is done within that budget, after complying with certain parameters, is the government's prerogative ", noted Méndez. In previous statements, he had not had a clear position on that issue.

 Rivera Schatz, for his part, reaffirmed that "our lawyers will address that". "At the right time, our lawyers will recommend the course to follow, either because we go to court or because the Board files a suit against us, we will defend what we understand we have to defend," he said.

 On the other hand, the spokesman for the House Popular minority Rafael "Tatito" Hernández, and along with other popular legislators, reiterated their call for the governor to implement the budget that he signed and not the one of the Board. "If he decides not to challenge it, he is a coward, and goes against all principles," Hernández said.

 On Monday, after Rosselló Nevares announced the signing of the budget approved by the Legislature, the Board´s executive director Natalie Jaresko said that they would enforce their certified version of the budget. However she did not rule out the possibility of going to court, she said she would not want to do so as it will require unnecessary economic and time resources.

 Under Consideration

Along with the bill to repeal Law 80, the governor submitted two other administration measures the Senate passed yesterday.

Senate Bill 1032 submitted by the Executive authorizes government agencies, instrumentalities and public corporations to establish payment plans with municipalities, as long as such determination does not affect their collection projections and compliance with fiscal plans.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 1034 amends the "Employment Security Act in Puerto Rico (Law 75-1956) in order to increase unemployment insurance for some workers. According to the piece, those changes would allow the maximum weekly payment to increase to $ 190 as of July 1, 2019. It will reach $240 as of 2020.

 Likewise, the governor requested the consideration of the tax reform bill during the extraordinary session. That bill is already under analysis in both but has not been addressed.

Both Méndez and the chairman of the House Finance Commission, Antonio "Tony" Soto, did not guarantee the approval of the Tax Reform during the extraordinary session that, according to constitutional mandate, runs for 20 days.

They both agreed that everything will depend on the Executive Branch submitting the information they have required to make some adjustments to the measure on time.  Among other things, the bill contemplates a reduction in rates for individuals and corporations, it sets at 7 percent the Sales and Use Tax (SUT) on prepared food, the elimination of B2B and grants credit for work.

"There is a possibility that it will be approved during the extraordinary session. We are going to make an effort so that it is approved as long as the flow of information is consistent between the Executive Branch and us. There cannot be delays like those that have occurred," Soto said.

 "My goal is to have the bill approved before July 15, as long as the Executive Branch submits the information that the Finance Commission is requesting," Méndez added.

The chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, Migdalia Padilla, warned that she will be abroad between July 14 and August 2. This was the only measure that the Senate did not attend yesterday in deference to the House, the body that generates budgetary matters, argued Rivera Schatz.

However, the senatorial leader acknowledged that although the tax reform is "good", it must be "fine-tuned".

During its next session on July 12, the Senate will address the appointments of Lersy Boria as Women´s Advocate, Isaías Sánchez as Puerto Rico Attorney General and Ottmar Chávez as administrator of the General Services Administration.

The House, for its part, is in recess until Monday, July 9 at 1:00 p.m.

Reporters Ricardo Cortés Chico and Marga Parés Arroyo collaborated with this story.

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