Monday, May 21, 2018

[Editorial] The Sad Truth … ‘Entre Broma y Broma’

By on May 11, 2018

Editor’s note: The following editorial originally appeared in the May 10-18, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

There is a saying in Spanish, “Entre Broma y Broma, la Verdad se Asoma”—a more dire version of “Much Truth is Said in Jest”—that literally means “Through Joke and Joke, the Truth Rears its Head”—that would make a fitting title to hearings on the languid recovery and decrepit state of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), which took place in the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee.

The most recent Congressional Inquisition featured interesting moments, such as the contradictory testimonies of Fiscal Agency & Financial Authority Chairman Christian Sobrino, who is also Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s nonvoting representative on the Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB), and Charles Alexander, the Director of Contingency Operations & Homeland Security for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The crux of their little fracas came when the panelists were asked why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked to spearhead the power grid’s reconstruction when other avenues of help were available. In Sobrino’s version of the truth as best he knows it: “The mission document was signed because they put it in front of the governor and asked him to sign it, so we could have energy in 40 days.”

Alexander doubted Sobrino saying it was the first time he heard “that our chief of engineers would say Puerto Rico would have electricity within 40 days.” Thus, under oath, Sobrino and Alexander called each other liars—someone will have some explaining to do.

Two sources with ties to the GOP on Capitol Hill told Caribbean Business that two senators on the dais were disinclined to believe Mr. Sobrino because of the Rosselló administration’s track record on the recovery effort after the storm, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers typically moves at a glacial pace. There was even clubhouse talk that the lawmakers were considering a bipartisan referral of Mr. Sobrino to Main Justice for his loose acquaintance with the facts. Time will tell.

That is just a little drama in a game that is in the early innings. In fact, the hearings are but a visit by the manager to the mound as he buys time for a troubled pitcher as the reliever tosses in the bullpen.

In this case, the skipper is Rep. Rob Bishop, who told this newspaper that the House Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs, will do some steering of draft legislation authored by Sen. Don Young (R-Alaska) that would federalize the privatization of Prepa.

Although the Puerto Rico Electricity Modernization & Reform Act of 2018 is yet to drop, the provisions in the Bill, reported first by this newspaper on April 26, would put the privatization of Prepa under the purview of the U.S. Treasury Department and bring the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) into the regulatory fold.

Bishop is not yet convinced that FERC oversight is essential because he is of the view that the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act, which he helped pass, “already provides the Promesa board that sort of oversight authority; so, I don’t know if there is a necessity to have a federal entity being involved in that process. So again, we have to have a discussion and decide if that is where we want to end up at the end of the day.”

Seemingly, Bishop and his brethren on the Hill are having Yogi Berra “déjà vu all over again” moments regarding Prepa, as the Rosselló administration insists on pushing forward with local legislation to enable the privatization of Prepa.

During a recent whirlwind tour of Puerto Rico, Bishop met with members of the fiscal control board, the local Legislature, leaders of the business community and nonprofit organizations.

It is no secret that he held grave concerns over the Promesa board’s skittish response to the Rosselló administration’s challenges to the federal law’s reach.

Behind the scenes, aides in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee have made public pleas for the FOMB members to push the boundaries of the law. Instead, U.S. Congress has witnessed the Rosselló administration testing the boundaries of the law at every turn, and this is where the truth rears its head.

This is not about control over the Prepa privatization process nor resistance to the dictums of Promesa, but rather the ultimate challenge to Puerto Rico’s colonial condition. Promesa contains a provision for expeditious consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court—where some members of Rosselló’s brigades reportedly hope to ultimately make this a case about status. Entre Broma y Broma.

Draft Legislation to Privatize Puerto Rico Electric Utility Gains Traction on the Hill

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