[Column] Governor Rosselló’s Choice
When Governor Ricardo Rosselló took the oath of office on January 2, 2017, he faced a situation as no other governor, the worse economic and governmental crisis in Puerto Rican history.
He took over a government that was bankrupt, that had lost its credit, its bonds degraded to junk status: an economy declining for ten years with no foreseeable prospect of growth; a population rapidly shrinking with hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, many young professionals, leaving looking for jobs.
And he took over a government that had effectively lost the ultimate power to govern. Six months earlier, on June 29, 2016, the Congress and the President had created PROMESA, which established the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, with the power to approve or disapprove the government budget.
But none of this describes the magnitude and depth of the crisis.
Rosselló took over a gigantic government—some 300,000 public employees—that is in danger of collapse. That is dysfunctional, riddled with inefficiency, waste, duplication.
The Governor and his party have to not only resolve the monumental fiscal and economic crisis, not only revive economic growth, but at the same time literally remake the Government of Puerto Rico.
As Rosselló took office, he had to make a choice.
He and the New Progressive Party (NPP) could have chosen to dedicate themselves 100 percent, exclusively, to confronting the horrific crisis.
They could have chosen to impose on themselves, on the NPP-controlled Legislature, on the mayors, absolute focus, absolute discipline; no distractions; no partisan, political games. Above all, do everything possible to unite the people of Puerto Rico.
This was not the choice they made.
Rosselló and the NPP, as all the NPP candidates since the party was formed in 1968, went to the elections promising take Puerto Rico to statehood.
Now, I don’t doubt that Rosselló and administrators are dedicating the vast majority of their time and energy to the crisis. They are under the continuous mandate of PROMESA – that is, the U.S. Government – to make huge cuts in spending and balance the budget in two years. This forces the Legislature and the administration to make changes in the government: eliminate, reorganize, consolidate agencies and programs.
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, a statehood militant, said that she is spending 90 percent of her time in Congress dealing with economic and social issues.
But the choice Rosselló and the NPP made was to dedicate themselves to both: to the crisis and to statehood.
So they went ahead with the June 11, 2017 status plebiscite. A bad mistake. It backfired badly as only 23 percent of the voters voted.
Now they have made another mistake. Following up on the campaign promise to carry out the Tennessee Plan, Rosselló is sending an “Equality for Puerto Rico Commission,” a “congressional delegation” of two “senators” and five “representatives” to Washington to lobby for statehood.
George Pataki, for one, the former New York governor and Republican presidential candidate, said that this is not a good idea. Now an adviser for a group that holds Puerto Rican bonds, he is a known supporter of statehood.
“As a practical matter,” he said, “I think it’s going to be virtually impossible to make a case [for statehood] until the financial cloud is lifted.”
I suspect that some members of Congress, learning for the first time that a Puerto Rican state would have seven members of Congress, will ask: “Just one moment. Puerto Rico has made a mess of its economy, has misspent billions of tax dollars, including federal funds, and is now saying it cannot pay its debt to thousands of Americans that invested in Puerto Rican bonds. And now it wants more representation in Congress than 19 states?”
Take Senator Orrin Hatch. Like Pataki, he may well support the idea of statehood. But on February 10, 2016 he sent a nine-page letter to then Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, asking for information regarding government spending and pension funds, that reads like a remarkable indictment of Puerto Rican mismanagement and fiscal malfeasance.
Is it true, he asks, that there are 40 percent fewer students in the public schools, but 10 percent more teachers? Is it true that government employees and pensioners receive bonuses for “recreational travel to foreign countries”?
Puerto Rico would have more representation in Congress than Hatch’s state, Utah.
Rosselló and the NPP believe that statehood is precisely the “solution” to the crisis. This will be a hard sell in Washington. In fact, it can be easily shown that precisely pro-statehood actions taken in the 1990s by a pro-statehood government ruined the economy and triggered the crisis.
History provides a lesson.
In 1940, Luis Muñoz Marín made a decision. Although he and his party leadership were independentistas, they decided to suspend the status issue in their campaign until after World War II, then raging in Europe and Asia.
Muñoz said and wrote many times that that was the most important decision in his long political life. He called it “the great decision” that made possible everything he and his generation did for Puerto Rico.
History proved that it was the right decision. It allowed them to win in 1940, and overwhelmingly until 1968, carrying out the “democratic revolution” that finally lifted the people from centuries of extreme poverty.
Rosselló and the NPP have made the wrong decision.
The right decision would have been to postpone the push for statehood, to dedicate themselves 100 percent, exclusively, to uniting the Puerto Rican people faced with the worse economic and governmental crisis in its history.
—A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist for The San Juan Star, executive editor of El Mundo, and editor and publisher of El Reportero.