Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced began an intense round of meetings in Washington D.C. this week, in what represents a much-needed effort to restore the confidence of federal authorities in the Puerto Rican government.
Dialogue with U.S. high-ranking officials looks like a well-coordinated effort to draw attention to critical health, education and other key issues related to the release of federal funds.
Good receptivity to the first meetings in which the governor presented her promise of a new style of governance –including responsible and transparent management of federal funds, an essential issue to move forward Puerto Rico´s recovery- is a good sign.
Beyond presenting the island’s budgetary needs, the delegation has the challenge of demonstrating administrative capacity, as well as the commitment to adopt fiscal discipline measures and work on government restructuring.
The proposal to entrust the Oversight Board with the management of federal funds allocated to the Department of Education, instead of appointing a fiduciary agent or trustee, reflects a conciliatory and open position with the federal entity, contrary to the former governor's position. It also reflects a pragmatic attitude, since the island government would avoid expenses and further delays in access to funds for the public education system.
It has also been important that legislative leaders participated in this mission in Washington and that the effort included minority senators and legislators. This is not the first time that lobbying efforts in Washington include bipartisan participation, as well as delegates from the private sector and community organizations. When advocating for Puerto Rico’s well being, it is crucial to have unity of purpose.
The agenda in Washington includes meetings with Assistant Secretary of the Office of Electricity Bruce Walker, who has influence and decision-making power over investments for the transformation of the power grid; and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, with a key role in tax issues and the Opportunity Zones program. Also, U.S. Secretary of Housing Ben Carson, who is in charge of funds for housing and community projects, would meet with the governor and cabinet members, along with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González and the new Executive Director at Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, Jenifer Storipan.
Congressional approval of a $ 12 billion package for the Medicaid program -to prevent the collapse of the state health plan, which needs those funds to benefit 1.1 million people- is also relevant in this conversation scenario.
Another crucial effort is aimed at the release of the $ 20 billion in reconstruction funds through CDBG-DR, that municipalities need for housing and public works projects,among others. Of that total, only $ 1.5 billion has arrived.
However, the initiative takes place amid a critical scenario, after shameful acts of fraud and embezzlement of public funds involving former high-ranking Puerto Rican officials, as a result of an intolerable dynamic of corruption.
Therefore, opening a clear path to overcome deficiencies that have tarnished the government of Puerto Rico and that undermine its credibility in times of high vulnerability and fiscal insolvency represents a major challenge for the governor and her team in Washington. The right steps achieved today will be decisive to move forward to the reconstruction that Puerto Rico deserves.