Monday, April 24, 2017

From Jenniffer With Love

By on February 23, 2017

Resident Commissioner on a Mission: Including Puerto Rico in Trump’s Political Agenda

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González ran for the post, insisting she aspired to be the last resident commissioner of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Now in office, her plan to become the last commissioner in Puerto Rico’s history seems to hinge on being able to include Puerto Rico in President Donald Trump’s political agenda.

To achieve her goal, González, who is a Republican in national politics, has opted for the straightforward approach: submitting specific legislation to eliminate differences between Puerto Rico and the States, as well as forging strategic alliances.

For the freshman class congresswoman, Puerto Rico is stepping into Congress after Gov. Alejandro García Padilla “created an economic crisis” that landed the island under the jurisdiction of a fiscal control board, with no one specifically knowing the effects it would have on the island’s finances, but many anticipating the impact as detrimental. Based on that scenario, González hit the ground running and introduced three bills in early January, the day after she was sworn as resident commissioner.

True to her pro-statehood New Progressive Party ideology, González’s first bill, House Resolution 260, was an admission act to make Puerto Rico part of the United States as the 51st state by 2024, based on the results of the November 2012 plebiscite, when 61.5% of voters opted for statehood.

“This bill is different from other efforts because this is the first time a resident commissioner introduces an admission act, a formal request from the people of Puerto Rico asking to be part of the U.S. It also acknowledges the results of the 2012 plebiscite and states that the vote must be ratified in another plebiscite in compliance with Promesa [Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act], which allocated $2.5 million for a plebiscite with nonterritorial and noncolonial status alternatives,” González explained.

The last plebiscite is tied in with a new one already approved by the Puerto Rico Legislature, with the same status alternatives included in the 2012 plebiscite, slated for June 11, 2017.

Puerto Rico’s admission bill would allow, should the people vote in favor of statehood, for the automatic approval of the necessary amendments to all federal laws impacting Puerto Rico’s admission into the Union. The bill also makes provisions for electing senators and members of Congress for the next electoral cycle in 2024.

González’s second bill, House Resolution 259, is geared toward avoiding a so-called medical cliff , so that regardless of what program is finally approved by Trump and Congress to substitute the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), funds would be allocated to guarantee health services in the territories, particularly Puerto Rico.

Bills on Medicare, child income tax credit

A third bill, House Resolution 261, was introduced to include Puerto Rico in Medicare’s Part B, which would allow local residents to be automatically included in the benefit, instead of having to opt in. In the U.S., people benefit automatically, but if for any reason someone does not want Part B coverage, he or she can opt out.

In Puerto Rico, the situation is the complete opposite. People interested in opting in have a three-month opportunity window to do so, otherwise they would have to pay a penalty for life, which keeps increasing the longer they take to decide to opt in. According to some estimates, people in Puerto Rico have had to pay some $1.9 billion in penalties coming from their own pockets.

“There is no reason for this to be happening. We are the only jurisdiction, among the States, having to do this [opt in],” González said.

The island’s inclusion in Medicare’s Part B is one of the bipartisan recommendations made by the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico last December.

More recently, González also introduced legislation to include parity for Puerto Rico in Part D of the Medicare program, which would give residents access to this medication fund. Currently, the people of Puerto Rico do not have full access to this medication fund. Access to the fund is based on a 55% appropriation from the U.S. government and the other 45% from the commonwealth government.

“Because we didn’t have enough money to pay for the corresponding 45%—we only paid 30%—we received less. It is our people who are not accessing those funds.” González said, criticizing the García Padilla administration.

In her view, this situation has been repeating itself year after year, for several years now.

Another legislation that González filed is to include Puerto Rico in the Child Income Tax Credit, which is another measure that would provide families with some funds that could promote economic development. Currently, Puerto Rican families are eligible for this benefit only from their third child on.

According to the resident commissioner, no other commissioner had a bipartisan task-force report detailing which measures should be approved for the island. González admitted that while the contents of the Task Force’s December report is not an instruction book, it does point to the general direction in which actions must take place. It is her task then, to articulate the specifics for such actions and move them successfully through Congress.

González considers that no other resident commissioner has had a clearer “blueprint” for action in Congress, due to the island’s ongoing economic and fiscal crisis.

“From day one…even before being sworn in, we have been moving our agenda. That is why we were able to introduce [the bills] the day after being sworn in. I’m convinced that moments of crisis need to be turned into moments of opportunity,” she said.

However, some key players in Washington, D.C.’s political arena do not seem to share González’s enthusiasm about the real possibilities of inserting Puerto Rico into the Trump administration’s agenda.

“I think that anything that is special, different, unique…anything that puts Puerto Rico in a position that doesn’t look like any of the other states is a nonstarter. That is my view. The senior leadership in some of the incoming administration understands that this is an important issue,” a Capitol Hill source with ties to the GOP told Caribbean Business.

Meetings and alliances

González has been meeting with the chairs of the committees relevant to Puerto Rico’s affairs (Energy & Commerce; Health, Ways & Means; Budget; and Finance in the Senate) to discuss the island’s needs. She has also met with the secretary of Health & Human Services, Tom Price, at least three times, to discuss how Puerto Rico is going to be included in the Republicans’ plans to substitute Obamacare, which she considers to be “Puerto Rico’s first and most significant subject” in Washington.

González believes it is important to push Puerto Rico’s agenda in both legislative chambers of Congress. But since Puerto Rico has no representation in the U.S. Senate, she met with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to discuss how he could help her move her bills in the Senate.

After the meeting, González announced Rubio had agreed to introduce all the measures on Puerto Rico recommended in the task force report. The resident commissioner also said former task force chair Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) will co-author the bills.

She admitted that so far, she had been introducing her bills without co-sponsors.

“I’m not going to stop introducing the bills I consider need to be introduced just because I don’t have a co-sponsor, but of course, it’s not the same when they are sponsored as a package by majority members, something that would make me very happy and I’d be looking forward to,” she said.

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

González anticipated she would soon be introducing another bill to extend Section 199 of the Internal Revenue Code to domestic companies in Puerto Rico. “It’s not just a matter of creating new jobs, but also keeping the ones that we already have,” she said.

Section 199 provides a tax break for businesses that perform domestic manufacturing and certain other production activities.

As part of her busy schedule, González has also met with Vice President Mike Pence, who she identified as an ally of Puerto Rican causes in Congress, to ask for help in moving Puerto Rico’s agenda from his office. She said Pence was receptive to her request and expects to soon have a formal meeting on some specific matters. The meeting seems to be pending the confirmation of some Cabinet members.

González argued that postponing that meeting “has delayed, in a sense, how matters [regarding Puerto Rico] are being process in each agency.” The resident commissioner explained that some elements of her plan for Puerto Rico can be attended to legislatively, while others can be attended to administratively. She offered as an example opening an in-transit lounge at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport for transferring passengers can be done through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

“To achieve that, you need the TSA chief not to be an acting director, but the confirmed director. Right now, no one is making those kind of decisions until the director is confirmed. So, we have to wait until all those secretaries and directors take office to move those policies forward,” she said.

A similar situation is happening with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), among others.

González assured that veterans in Puerto Rico could be benefiting from several health services, currently unavailable to them, with just the stroke of a pen, because no act of Congress is required.

“That matter falls under the DoD budget, specifically in the healthcare services allocation,” she said.

Obamacare

Late in January, González and congressional majority members participated in the Congress of Tomorrow: House & Senate Republican Retreat with Trump to discuss the administration’s legislative agenda.

As part of the Republicans’ agenda, there are going to be multiple bills to amend the Affordable Care Act. Most worries around Obamacare have been in terms of it being repealed without any alternative program to replace it, but González is confident there will be a “substitution” of the program and anticipated that several bills would be presented.

In fact, the substitution process has already begun, according to her, with the executive orders signed by Trump that will be in effect until May. She anticipated that everything related to Obamacare should be taken care of between February and March.

The budget reconciliation part would be handled between March and April, until August.

González recalled that the Senate majority would have to work around some filibustering that is expected from Democrats when the debate is held on the amendments to Obamacare. She anticipated there would some measures that would require at least 60 of the 100 Senate votes.

The Senate rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish, and on any topic they choose, unless “three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn in” (usually 60 out of 100) bring the debate to a close by invoking cloture under Senate Rule XXII. The only bills that cannot be filibustered are those few considered under provisions of the law that limit time for debating them.

Therefore, anything that could not be passed legislatively would then be passed via a budget reconciliation.

The Resident Commissioner’s Top Hit List

HR 259: To prevent the territories of the U.S. from losing Medicaid funding

HR 260: Puerto Rico Admission Act to make the island part of the United States as the 51st state by 2024 based on the results of the November 2012 plebiscite

HR 261:Puerto Rico Medicare Part B Equality Act would allow local residents to be automatically included in the benefit, instead of having to opt in

HR 797: To amend Title XIX of the Social Security Act to remove the matching requirement for a territory to use specially allocated federal funds for Medicare-covered part D drugs for low-income individuals

HR 798: Child Tax Credit Equity for Puerto Rico of 2017

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