Puerto Rico gov: We collaborate with the board, but not at the expense of democratic powers
SAN JUAN – The chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said the intention of Congress is to give Puerto Rico the federal funds it needs to rebuild after Hurricane María; however, the government must collaborate with the fiscal control board.
“We will collaborate with the board…but not at the expense of the democratic powers [of Puerto Rico],” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares warned Tuesday, once again urging Congress not to broaden the powers of the entity created by Promesa.
During a hearing of the committee in charge of legislation related to the island, the governor assured he would administrate, with complete transparency, the federal funds Puerto Rico receives for long-term recovery efforts after María’s impact. Preliminarily, the government estimates it will need $94 billion for the reconstruction process.
“That’s a lot of money,” Bishop said. Although willing to help getting the necessary funds, the committee chairman said changes would be needed in government and the collaboration between the Rosselló Nevares administration and the fiscal board.
For the governor, that collaboration is born with each side recognizing its role. In the case of the board, its role is limited to balancing budgets, representing the government in bankruptcy cases under Title III of the Promesa federal law and efforts to return the island to capital markets, Rosselló Nevares said.
Bishop questioned whether the government actually works hand in hand with the fiscal panel, to which Rosselló Nevares replied affirmatively and recalled it was the board that decided to go to court against the government when it appointed Noel Zamot to take the reins of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa). The court rejected the board’s action this week.
“We want to collaborate together in the Title III process, in the revision of the fiscal plan, in providing the necessary transparency and information. But, again, the roles have to be very clear,” said the governor while emphatically rejecting that the board be granted new administrative powers.
Echoing his earlier statements during a Senate hearing on Puerto Rico as well, Rosselló Nevares gave a breakdown of the island’s state and recovery efforts to date, particularly those for restoring the electric grid. He also mentioned some of the corrective actions he has taken such as changes to the contracting process and efforts to reduce the size of the government.
On several occasions, he called on Congress to provide equal treatment to Puerto Ricans, emphasizing they are U.S. citizens, as well as flexibility in the use of funds approved for the island.
The Rosselló Nevares administration expects that Congress will approve a new financial aid package before the end of the year that would provide the island with the billions it needs to rebuild public infrastructure and boost the economy.
Who controls the federal funds?
In response to questions from committee members, Rosselló Nevares assured it is up to the local and federal governments—not the fiscal board—to determine and control the use of federal funds received by Puerto Rico in response to the disaster caused by María.
“The board doesn’t have that power,” the governor stressed and proceeded to speak about the new Central Recovery & Reconstruction Office (OCRR by its Spanish initials), which would have control over receiving, channeling and monitoring federal funds for Puerto Rico.
When questioned about how the OCRR would interact with the board in the handling of federal funds and possible conflicts that may exist, Rosselló Nevares said, “There is no versus,” because the board has no power under Promesa in this matter, he added.
“I think it should continue doing what it’s supposed to do,” the governor replied to a question from Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho)—a native Puerto Rican—about what the board’s role should be in response to Hurricane María.
Energy matter persists
Meanwhile, the issue of Prepa, its contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings and the future of energy on the island was also brought up in the House hearing.
For the second time that day, Rosselló Nevares said he was unaware of irregularities with the Montana firm’s contract, defended his decision not to ask for help from other states through mutual aid agreements and assured that everything possible has been done to restore electric service in the shortest possible time.
Upon the cancellation of the contract with Whitefish, the government recently gave way to mutual aid agreements that will include mobilizing repair crews from states such as New York and Florida to assist in the grid-restoration efforts.
However, the governor admitted that more than a week after making the decision, some of these agreements have not been finalized.
With regard to Energy Answers and the Arecibo incinerator, Rosselló Nevares indicated that his administration has to evaluate the environmental impact of the project before supporting it.