Passed substitute bill would give Puerto Rico towns $1 million each to recover from hurricanes
SAN JUAN — Without major debate, the House of Representatives passed Monday a substitute bill, authored by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, that assigns $1 million to each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities to cover operational and administrative expenses after the impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The Substitute for Senate Bill 822, which was sent to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for enactment, creates the Municipal Emergency Assistance Fund to “address the revenue decline as a result of the passage of the hurricanes.”
The Rosselló administration’s original proposal established a $100 million fund to grant loans of up to $5 million to every municipality. With Rivera Schatz’s substitute bill, towns won’t have to pay back the amount.
According to the bill’s introduction, the towns with the greatest municipal debt are San Juan ($81.1 million); Carolina; ($37.4 million); Guaynabo ($29.2 million); Bayamón ($24.5 million); and Caguas ($22.9 million).
The spokesperson for the Puerto Rican Independence Party, Rep. Denis Márquez, was the only representative to vote against the bill. His counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Juan Dalmau, also opposed the bill.
“This fund shall be capitalized from the Treasury Single Account of the Treasury Department for the amount of $78 million. The director of the Office of Management & Budget will have to identify the corresponding budget account to comply with the capitalization of this fund,” the bill reads.
The legislation provides that the government may provide Municipal Emergency Aid until June 30. It is unknown whether Rosselló will sign the bill.
Public Order Code strengthened
The Senate also passed a bill to centralize within the Police Bureau the adaptation of the Public Order Codes and to allow state and municipal police to issue fines for violations of these ordinances.
Senate Bill 848 states that the Public Order Codes “are regulatory frameworks aimed at improving the quality of life of our citizens, which in turn is of the utmost priority to this Legislative Assembly.”
The bill transfers to the Public Safety Department the ordinances in each municipality to the new Public Order Codes Unit, which will be ascribed to the Police Bureau.
“This is an extremely important bill for the times we are living in Puerto Rico,” Sen. Henry Neumann said, alluding to the rise in criminal activity across the island. “This is an emergency measure, as with everything that has to do with public safety.”
The bill was introduced in response to the elimination of the Municipal Affairs Commissioner’s Office, which was tasked with the administering the codes. Neumann said this left the implementation of the program in the air.
Sixty-three of the island’s 78 towns employ the program. With the bill, funds from the issued fines will be exclusively for implementing the program.
“The total of the administrative fines will be paid and entered into the coffers of the corresponding municipality in a separate account; whose use of funds will be strictly for the operation of the Public Order Code program,” the legislation reads.
Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority leader, presented an amendment to allow towns to use these funds as they see fit because “the municipalities are bankrupt,” he said.
“I think it is limiting the power of the Municipal Assembly to use these funds,” Bhatia argued. However, after a discussion with the majority, he decided to withdraw the amendment, as municipalities need a secured source of funds to implement the program.