Less than three weeks before primary elections in Puerto Rico, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced called the Legislative Assembly to an extraordinary session to address nearly a dozen bills whose viability and motivations were questioned yesterday by experts consulted by El Nuevo Dia.
One of the bills to be debated in the Senate and the House starting at 1 p.m. today, proposes to hold a referendum on the day of the general elections to evaluate the possibility of giving public employees pensions constitutional rank.
Another measure seeks to expedite claims that health care providers filed before insurance companies. During her State of the Commonwealth address some weeks ago, Vázquez Garced had already anticipated she would introduce legislation to that end.
"We understood that this was the right moment, and they were introduced now," Vázquez Garced said yesterday when this newspaper asked her about the reasons for introducing these measures just three weeks before the local primary and three weeks after the end of the last ordinary session of this term, on June 30.
In the opinion of lawyers Carlos Ramos, Rolando Emmanuelli, and Carlos Díaz Olivo, the governor's move is motivated by electoral interests and not public policy.
"To do this separated from other very important amendments that have been proposed to the Constitution, obviously – and although with the support from many people - the purpose is not necessarily to amend the Constitution to resolve an alleged urgency," said Ramos, a constitutionalist lawyer.
"The governor said she is going to do is put the weight of being a candidate on her shoulders, and she has decided to propose an amendment to the Constitution that, in my opinion, has mainly an electoral purpose," he said.
During the press conference yesterday morning, the governor denied that her proposals were seeking an advantage in the primary race against former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi. "This is not a campaign program because I don't seek to win or lose votes with this," she said.
Measures without consequences
Ramos, Emmanuelli, and Díaz Olivo agreed separately that the governor with the support of the New Progressive Party majority in the House and Senate, could approve a concurrent resolution that would give way to the referendum, but they made it clear that the people's endorsement to that effect could come to nothing before the comprehensive powers of the federal government, represented in the Oversight Board.
"Even if it is in the Constitution, as long as we are in a colonial relationship, where PROMESA prevails, its value is not that much," Emmanuelli said.
"The governor's goal, I support it. It is very important. Pensions must be protected at all costs, but it would only be a political and primary focused effort if there is no strategy if the governor does not tell the Island how she is going to defend this legislation because the Board, as soon as the bill comes out, is going to write to her saying that this is inconsistent with the fiscal plan and with PROMESA," the lawyer added.
According to Emmanuelli and Ramos, an example of the importance PROMESA, which created the Board, is that the Commonwealth Constitution provides that the Legislature - with the endorsement of the governor in office - is responsible for approving the island's budget. However, the Board has already prepared and certified the government's operational budget on four occasions.
"Any amendment to the Constitution, especially amendments of that nature, such as the one proposed by the governor, must be seen in the light of what is established in PROMESA," Ramos said.
"The PROMESA law, de facto - not de jure - eliminated or set aside several provisions of the Puerto Rico Constitution, particularly those related to the budget approval process and, above all and most importantly, that the laws approved by our own governing bodies are not final until the Board evaluates whether they can be enforced," he added.
Vázquez Garced, however, rejected that the measures she included require the endorsement of the entity overseeing the island´s public finances. In the case of the referendum, she did not specify where the funds would come from. "We will work with the costs it may represent... if the funds have to be identified, it will be done," she answered.
On the bill to amend the Insurance Code seeking to eliminate requirements to provide medical services or to speed up claim payments, Emmanuelli said insurers "have a lot of power to influence," which could derail the bill. "That is why they have dominated even above medical criteria and in responses to authorizing treatments beneficial patients," he said.
Díaz Olivo said this is a measure that gains "sympathy" for the governor because she looks like an advocate for patients and doctors, who for years have questioned the intervention of insurance companies.
Díaz Olivo and Emanuelli stressed that it is necessary to know what the governor´s amendment proposes specifically so that it does not violate contractual agreements with insurance companies.
Therefore, they concluded that both the amendment to the Insurance Code and the constitutional referendum should be prospective measures.
"They are populist or electoral measures whose intention is to capture some kind of sympathy from here to the primary process because the effect it may have will come after the primary election. She is trying to capitalize on the impression she makes now," said political analyst Díaz Olivo.
The governor, on the other hand, said pensioners “have nothing right now,” and added it would be “different” if their pensions were guaranteed by the Constitution.
“The judge (Laura Taylor Swain) would have to look at the fact that after the debt (of Puerto Rico), pension payments are going to be a priority,” she said.