Washington - Although President Donald Trump did not grant the meeting requested by Governor Ricardo Rosselló, Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín said yesterday that, at the White House, he questioned the perception that sectors of the federal government may have regarding Puerto Rico not having the capacity to handle reconstruction funds properly.
Rivera Marin said he addressed the issue this week in meetings at the White House, during his visit to Washington where he participated in an Inter-American Dialogue forum on the challenges that Puerto Rico faces after the catastrophe caused by hurricane María.
"The disbursement has been very slow," he said.
Although he made reference to the objections of Mick Mulvaney, acting Chief of Staff and Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to new disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico, such as an additional $ 600 package in nutrition assistance funds, Rivera Marín avoided blaming him directly.
Rivera Marín´s agenda also included advocating for a partial waiver of cabotage rules that the government of Puerto Rico requested in December, to transport natural gas between the mainland and the island in non US-owned ships.
They requested the partial waiver both to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. "It is well documented," said Rivera Marín, who yesterday had a meeting at the Pentagon. Previously, he said, they had discussed the issue with the departments of Energy, Homeland Security and the White House.
At the Inter-American Dialogue forum, Rivera Marín led a discussion on the challenges that the recovery and reconstruction of Puerto Rico is facing, and listed, among other things, the importance of the power grid transformation, ending inequities in access to Medicaid funds and delays in the disbursement of funds related to the reconstruction process, including the agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for permanent projects.
"Puerto Rico is treated as a high-risk jurisdiction, nevertheless has not been determined or ruled as a high risk jurisdiction by FEMA... The inequalities that we face because we lack representation in the Senate, because we lack representation in Congress certainly reflects many times in the treatment that we get," he said, referring to the FEMA process, without mentioning reports alleging that Trump ordered to stop new allocations to mitigate the damage caused by the hurricane.
Rivera Marín, who is participating in the winter conference of National Association of Secretaries of State in Washington, recalled that Puerto Rico´s recovery plan may need $ 139 billion for reconstruction. This Monday, the government has to submit to Congress an update of the reconstruction plan.
The Inter-American Dialogue panel included Brad Setser, Senior Fellow of the Council of Foreign Relations, Rosanna Torres, director of the Washington office of the Center for a New Economy (CNE), and Richard Campbell, Specialist in Energy Policy of the Congressional Research Service.
Setser, who worked at the Department of the Treasury during the Barack Obama administration, warned that if Judge Laura Taylor Swain ratifies the debt restructuring agreement for the Sales Tax Financing Corporation (Cofina), those obligations will reach $ 1 billion in 20 years. By then, he estimates the income of the government of Puerto Rico – including federal health funds and other subsidies – may total up to $ 15 billion.
He said that due to payments promised through this agreement and considering that new federal disaster relief funds in the next few years are "temporary," Puerto Rico cannot allow the general obligations debt restructuring (GO's) to reach anything close to Cofina's debt.
Torres, who also worked at the Department of the Treasury, said that Puerto Rico needs economic tools, such as the federal Earn Income Tax Credit (EITC), and improve access to Medicaid to find a point out of the deadlock and crisis that has marked its economy for over a 12 years
Meanwhile, Campbell considered Puerto Rico Senate bill 1121 as an "admirable first step", which would establish the island´s public energy policy. But, he warned that it will take years for the Electric Power Authority to reach efficiency levels of U.S. public energy companies.