House makes way for multimillion-dollar aid for Puerto Rico power utility

SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico House of Representatives followed in the footsteps Friday of its sister legislative body by approving a resolution to provide $630 million in aid to the Electric Power (Prepa) and the Aqueduct & Sewer (Prasa) authorities, to address their liquidity crisis until the end of the current fiscal year.

Joint Senate Resolution 196, approved Thursday, stipulates that public corporations’ operational expenses that may be covered under this measure are, among others, “employee payroll expenses, purchases of fuel and energy, materials” and operational equipment.

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said Thursday during discussion of the resolution that the legislation from La Fortaleza was “deficient,” with problems of a legal nature, and “did not have the transparency that should permeate all transactions” of the government.

House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez (Yoel Parrilla / CB)

According to the resolution, which will be valid until June 30, the Treasury secretary will be the official in charge of authorizing assistance to public corporations “to cover operational expenses.” The Office of Management & Budget must identify the budget items.

Regarding the period for the law’s validity, House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez stressed it is established so as to not provide a “blank check” to the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. If additional help is needed, “they have to come to the Legislative Assembly.”

Popular Democratic Party minority Rep. Luis Vega Ramos said the resolution provides “what little remains of the General Fund,” which he said was around $500 million, to “lend beyond what it has” and also recalled that the government’s payroll requires about $300 million.

“If they lend the existing $500 million, there’s no money for the payroll,” he said.

Puerto Rico Senate passes resolution to provide liquidity to water, power utilities

The spokesman of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), Rep. Denis Márquez said “the budgetary impact it is going to have on agencies and creditors” is unknown. He added that the resolution does not make clear “if the assigned funds are really going to be there.”

On Wednesday, the Senate rejected the executive branch’s bill to provide liquidity to Prepa and Prasa, which raised questions about the governor when he demanded action by the Legislature on the matter, and said that Prepa’s operations would be interrupted if it doesn’t receive a cash injection.

Currently 68% of the power utility’s customers have service, while energy generation is at 82.9%, according to government data. Prasa is providing service to 97.36% of its customers.

Municipalities closer to hiring grid-repair crews

House Bill 1380 was also passed. It proposes to amend the Autonomous Municipalities of Puerto Rico Act, to allow towns to hire Prepa and Prasa brigades during an emergency period such as the one caused by the Hurricane Maria in September.

“[Prepa] will have to certify such repairs–of the municipality evidencing that it made them in accordance with the prevailing standards in the industry or according to [Prepa] specifications–so it can benefit from those reimbursements or available aid,” the measure reads.

Authored by Speaker Méndez and Rep. José “Quiquito” Meléndez, does not force mayors to accept the proposal, but allows them to “voluntarily carry out all the relevant procedures” to restore both services in their towns.

The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration, without public hearings. PIP’s Márquez had previously mentioned to Caribbean Business the need for the measure to have public hearings, due to the impact of the changes it proposes and Prepa’s position remaining unknown.

Márquez said the bill “will not have the support of this legislator,” because “Puerto Rico’s electricity system is not divided into 78 municipalities. […] It’s a unified electrical system.” He added that a process planned jointly with Prepa is necessary.

“It’s good that [Prepa] receives help from the municipalities. But in an orderly, planned way, ensuring the health and safety of the people who work there, and cannot be with a blank letter, an open letter to the municipalities,” Márquez said on the House floor.




Legislation advances for Puerto Rico towns to hire electrical grid restoration workers

SAN JUAN – While Puerto Rico debates the future of the Electric Power Authority (Prepa), the Legislature is deliberating a measure that would allow mayors to hire private brigades to restore electric power in their jurisdictions without needing to change the agenda of the weak public corporation.

While House Bill 1380, written by House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez and Rep. José “Quiquito” Meléndez, was being announced, La Fortaleza announced it was preparing a collaboration agreement to integrate municipal assistance with Prepa’s recovery work.

Among the discrepancies with the initiatives is the role of the Federal Agency Management Agency (FEMA) when it reimburses expenses to municipalities. In HB 1380, Prepa is required to certify the municipal work to ensure it is reimbursed.

Mayors Association reiterates request to collaborate in Puerto Rico power grid repair

“[Prepa] will be left forced to certify such repairs–of the municipality showing evidence they were done in accordance with prevailing industry standards or according to [Prepa’s] specifications–to benefit from those reimbursements or available aid,” the measure reads.

However, the agreement drafted by Prepa states the municipality will be “solely responsible for payment to all its contractors” and Prepa “will not have any responsibility if FEMA does not reimburse the municipality for labor costs and materials the [municipality] incurred.”

The spokesman for the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), Rafael “Tatito” Hernández, said the differences between the two initiatives expose a gap between the New Progressive Party (NPP) majority delegation and the governor’s public policy, and stressed that the House’s legislative bill is positive.

“The reality is that [HB 1380] contrasts dramatically with the Prepa and La Fortaleza proposed agreement with the municipalities. This relatively creates a norm that contradicts what the governor tried in one way or another to propose,” the PDP leader told Caribbean Business.

Measure to provide liquidity to Puerto Rico power utility left for ‘future discussion’

Rep. Meléndez acknowledged that La Fortaleza had no knowledge that the measure would be filed in the Legislature, although he said he does not expect to receive opposition from the governor if the proposal reaches his desk. At the moment, the governor’s position on the measure is unknown.

The bill declares that municipalities that decide to avail themselves of the provisions of the law must notify Prepa–or the Aqueduct & Sewer Authority (Prasa)–about initiation of work “within a period no more than five days prior to when the work begins.”

Further adding that mayors must “notify, in writing, the pertinent public corporation, five days in advance, of the exact day on which the work being performed will end.” The change to the Autonomous Municipalities Act can only be activated if a state of emergency is decreed.

Puerto Rico legislature seeks to create public-private power generation projects

Denis Márquez, House spokesman for the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), indicated he had objections with the measure, since it does not establish “an agreement and collaboration mechanism with those who have the expertise.” He added that Prepa is responsible for the island’s electrical grid.

“One thing I have always claimed is that [the repair of] the electrical system has to be in coordination with [Prepa], as a matter of safety and quality. The way in which the legislation is written is that after the mayor does the work, Prepa certifies it. It should not be done like that,” he said.

Selling Puerto Rico’s electric power utility won’t be easy

The PIP legislator, however, gave the green light to sections of the bill that ask both utilites’ directors to prepare a report detailing the measures both corporations have taken to address future weather emergencies.

“[This] legislation cannot fall into the issue of being an emergency to be approved quickly,” he said.

Legislature in the dark on Prepa’s privatization

Regarding the possibility the recently announced intention to privatize Prepa will affect the legislation, Meléndez said, “Nobody knows for sure” how much time the process will take to complete. He also said the measure will go forward in the Legislative Assembly despite the announcement.

“I have serious concerns about Prepa’s privatization. Not because I don’t believe in the concept–I do believe in the concept–but we have not seen the bill. Until I see that bill and can be clear about the benefits for the people, I cannot give my consent,” he said.




Measure to provide liquidity to Puerto Rico power utility left for ‘future discussion’

SAN JUAN – After extensive debate Wednesday, the Senate left for “future discussion” a measure that would allow Puerto Rico’s Electric Power (Prepa) and Aqueduct & Sewer (Prasa) authorities to obtain lines of credit or loans to avoid an interruption of operations while recovering from the crisis caused by Hurricane Maria.

Senate Bill 806 establishes that “the Office of Management & Budget will determine the budget items where the capital will come from” to provide the so-called emergency assistance. The Treasury secretary will be in charge of authorizing liquidity loans.

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz (Juan J. Rodríguez / CB)

Before decreeing a two-hour recess, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz warned, “For my part, [SB 806] will undergo substantial amendments.” However, the measure was not addressed during the session and, instead, a recess was decreed until Thursday at 1 p.m.

Rivera Schatz indicated the bankruptcy-like Title III process underway for both public corporations under the federal Promesa law “imposes restrictions and controls on those corporations that we cannot ignore–we, as the Legislative Assembly or the executive. In that spirit, SB 806 is pending future discussion, to determine if we can [pass it].”

Selling Puerto Rico’s electric power utility won’t be easy

“If it were necessary to approve a joint resolution for the payment of fuel, so there are no generation problems, we have no problem coming and approving it so [Prepa] does not run out of fuel and can provide the energy service,” Rivera Schatz told the legislators.

The measure was filed by the governor’s office last week after it was announced the federal government established a cash flow policy to disburse the island the $4.7 billion loan approved by Congress to assist with recovery work after the hurricane.

According to the letter addressed to the Fiscal Agency & Financial Advisory Authority, the government must have specific cash flow to receive the loan. The letter, dated Jan. 9, stated that the cash balance was more than $1.7 billion in December. The legislation’s statement of motives indicates that it is “reasonable and necessary to authorize the Government to provide emergency assistance to certain public corporations to ensure the continuity of essential services,” even if they do not have access to federal funding or funding is delayed.

“This auxiliary measure will maintain the operation of the Government and its corporations during the emergency period while the legal structure is established with the [U.S.]l Treasury to access federal funds approved by the United States Congress,” the legislative proposal reads.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced that Prepa was forced to reduce its operations at the Aguirre and Cambalache powerplants to “save fuel,” due to the “precarious” situation the public corporation faces, and could run out of cash in February.

The situation “raises the flag on the need for this public corporation to have access, as soon as possible, to the loans we have proposed and that would give it liquidity to continue its operations,” the governor said, stressing the urgency of preventing the “operational collapse of PREPA.”




Municipalities, Puerto Rico power utility to work together to restore grid

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Chief of Staff William Villafañe announced Monday an agreement to integrate municipalities’ assistance to speed up restoration of the island’s electric-power service grid while 40% of the utility’s customers remain in the dark nearly four months after the passage of Hurricane Maria.

Before making the announcement, the governor’s office waited until a Mayors Association protest ended in front of La Fortaleza. In the demonstration, the Popular Democratic Party mayors and citizens expressed frustration, alleging the Electric Power Authority (Prepa) lacked a detailed plan to restore electricity service.

Villafañe explained that the public corporation will provide a “draft agreement” for those municipalities that wish to establish a collaboration. Last week, the head of recovery efforts, Carlos Torres, rejected mayors’ assistance for “security reasons.”

The chief of staff pointed out that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló disagreed with Torres’ decision, so he requested an additional meeting with the mayors.

“We cannot ignore the fact that we have a politically organized demonstration,” said Villafañe, who stressed that Mayors Association allegations of favoritism toward New Progressive Party municipalities are incorrect, because they have more brigades assigned. Graphics representing the party affiliation of towns and their current service percentage were sent to the media as well.

The mayor of Bayamón, Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz, indicated the agreement with Prepa will include several safety regulations that must be obeyed, such as hiring skilled personnel “who are trained to work with live lines.” Rivera Cruz had requested an agreement since Hurricane Irma’s passage on Sept. 6.

Regarding the agreement, Chief of Staff William Villafane explained it will also encourage greater communication between Prepa and the mayors, so they know where the repair brigades are located. “In terms of whether it will be possible to work in areas already designated to the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers [USACE], the intention is that it be so,” he said. (Courtesy photo)

He added that “this is going to be municipality by municipality,” so each town will receive information about the work being done by the brigades and where they are located. The extensive agreement will seek to make the electric power recovery process more expeditious and better coordinated with the mayors.

Asked about the speed with which the problem is being addressed and USACE’s pace, Villafañe ruled that “it’s not so easy” to cancel the prior agreements but reaffirmed not being pleased with the work.

While protesters were expressing their displeasure at La Fortaleza, the governor was in Bayamón participating in the opening of a Dave & Buster’s restaurant, where he assured that “Puerto Rico is rising up.” As of Monday, 62.7% of Prepa’s customers have service, according to the government.

 




Puerto Rico Statistics Institute’s exclusion in revision of storm-related deaths criticized

SAN JUAN — While uncertainty continues over the actual number of deaths that can be attributed to Hurricane Maria, the American Statistics Association (ASA) debated the exclusion of the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute (SI) from the task force in charge of reviewing the number of deaths related to the storm that hit the island in September.

In a letter addressed to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, ASA President Lisa LaVange expressed disappointment about the government’s idea that the evaluation of the number of victims doesn’t require “participation of independent experts in statistical analysis.”

“Government statistics play a powerful role in any democracy. They empower the economy, serve the health and welfare of its citizens, improve governance, and inform decisions and policies in the public and private sector, among many other vital functions,” the letter reads.

LaVange also questioned the refusal by several local officials–among them, Public Safety Secretary Héctor Pesquera–to explore the findings of various independent studies that indicate there was a rise in the average number of deaths after the storm’s onslaught.

Nearly four months after the storm, the government says the number of hurricane-related deaths totals 64, although several journalistic analyses from such media outlets as CNN, the New York Times and the Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism raise the total number of victims to an alarming 1,000 people.

Puerto Rico gov’t presents 5 reorganization plans

“Dismissing the conclusions of reports based on sound statistical analysis is akin to discrediting evidence-based policymaking and more broadly, scientific analysis,” she said, emphasizing that the studies have used reliable statistics tools.

The letter comes at a time when the administration is considering privatizing the institute as part of the government’s reorganization. Economists and legislators questioned the move, arguing that the preparation and monitoring of statistics should be directed by the government and be independent.

In that sense, LaVange deemed it imperative that statistics remain objective, precise and independent. She also reminded everyone that the 2016 Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth report recommended that the SI receive more funds “and continue protecting its independence.”

The ASA president reiterated her organization’s availability to assist the local government in the statistics field. In the letter, dated Jan. 9, she offers to hold a conference to examine the advantages of the use of evidence in the development of government public policy.

[Analysis] Statistics Institute vital for Puerto Rico

Correction: The original version of this article had a typographical error that incorrectly reflected that economists and legislators believe statistics should not be conducted by the government. It has been corrected to read that they argue statistics should be carried out by the government.




Senate president against eliminating Puerto Rico municipalities

SAN JUAN – As he promised that Puerto Rico municipalities will not be consolidated as long as he presides over the Puerto Rico Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz reaffirmed Monday his ambition to make municipal autonomy constitutional to give more power to the mayors of the island’s 78 towns.

“It has been completely evinced that the theory of eliminating municipalities has no basis whatsoever,” Rivera Schatz said, adding that if Puerto Rico hadn’t had 78 municipalities in the aftermath of Hurricane María, loss of life and property “would have been worse.”

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

The Senate president said the municipal reform that will be presented before the Legislative Assembly proposes “strengthening the structure of municipalities and offering the tools they need; not only the personnel, but also to train them so that, economically, they achieve adequate fiscal health.”

Municipal reform, which will be considered in a bill, would make way for several statutes to expand the powers of municipalities. The change to their autonomy being considered a constitutional standing will not be evaluated until 2020, “the same day of the general elections,” Rivera Schatz said.

“Elevating municipal autonomy to a constitutional rank is not creating a fourth power; it isn’t that municipalities that reach the highest level of autonomy act in an unrestricted, improper way, or without controls,” he assured during a press conference.

Rivera Schatz stressed that the goal behind providing greater municipal power is to prevent “what has been occurring for decades,” such as the Legislature’s power to demand municipal governments to make changes to already-planned budgets.

“In other words, it’s almost impossible for mayors to establish administrative and operational planning with certainty because, overnight, the state government and the Legislative Assembly change the rules of the game. That cannot and should not go on,” he said.

Regarding the red tape that has delayed federal funds, Rivera Schatz said the administration will seek to ensure that resources are distributed from the next allocations so municipalities can address problems such as waste collection, safety and healthcare.




Puerto Rico Senate passes resolution to create federal affairs office in Washington

SAN JUAN – The Senate of Puerto Rico began Monday its third ordinary session with the passage of a resolution that proposes establishing an office to keep an eye on federal legislative processes that directly affect Puerto Rico.

Resolution 554, authored by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, states that the Office of Federal, Social and Economic Affairs will be funded with the Senate’s budget, which was recently cut by $1.9 million at the request of the island’s fiscal control board.

The president of the Senate delivers the opening message of the chamber’s third ordinary session. (Courtesy)

“That office–we are going to establish it to have an area where we can operate,” the Senate leader said. It is not known how much money the establishment of the office will require. The measure allows acquiring equipment and materials, as well as “transportation vehicles” with the funds.

The legislative measure also establishes that the Senate president appoint an executive director who “will perform the duties of the office in accordance with the president’s guidelines.” The director must recommend the contracts for professional or consulting services needed, as well as propose the entity’s bylaws.

The proposal was announced by Rivera Schatz during his message at the start of the ordinary session. “This has been the most productive Senate in history,” the New Progressive Party leader said, adding that of the 1,565 measures presented in the Legislature, 793 were by the Senate.

During his speech, the Senate leader highlighted six factors that, he believes disrupted work at the Legislative Assembly, including the imposition of the fiscal control board by the U.S. Congress, having a bankrupt government, and September’s catastrophic hurricanes, Irma and María.

Public comment period for ‘critical’ Puerto Rico projects announced

“Never, ever, had a government elected by the people have to assume budgetary chaos of that magnitude. We received a government that, without a drop of rain or a gust of wind, was already a total disaster area. There was no stone left on stone, and nothing worked,” Rivera Schatz said.

As usual, Rivera Schatz derided the “colonial system” on several occasions, which, he said, impedes progress on the island. “[The members of the] fiscal control board are good-for-nothings,” he claimed during a press conference at the conclusion of his message to the body.

In reaction to message of positive performance asserted by Rivera Schatz, Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia said the upper chamber did not comply with its investigative mandate, in particular the controversial contract with Whitefish Energy to repair the electrical grid and the exodus of Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of the hurricanes.

“If these are the crises we have and none of them has been addressed by the Senate, how can we stand here and say it has been the best Senate? What Puerto Rico needs is a government that stands up and works for the problems of Puerto Ricans,” Bhatia said.

The new session was attended by several agency heads, mayors, members of the Supreme Court, representatives and former legislators. Among them were Justo González, the interim director of the Electric Power Authority (Prepa), and Secretary of State Luis G. Rivera Marín.

During the wait for Rivera Schatz’s message, which began more than an hour late, the House of Representatives made way for the first measures in the new session, among them, Senate Bill 185, for the Police to receive an annual seminar on sign language.

The second ordinary session, which lasted until Dec. 15, ended with the passage of several controversial measures, among them those seeking to amend the juvenile offenders law, which was recently vetoed by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for containing “opposing public policies.”




Undergrounding electrical cables ‘urgent’ in Old San Juan

Old San Juan, PUERTO RICO – While much of Old San Juan continues in the dark after the onslaught of Hurricane María, New Progressive Party (NPP) Rep. Eddie Charbonier assured that the priority once electricity is restored will be to bury the power lines of the tourism area.

The legislator, who is leading efforts to restore power to Old San Juan, told Caribbean Business that he will be initiating dialogue, primarily at the federal level, with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, to attract funds to bury the cabling of the walled city’s 64 blocks.

Rep. Eddie Charbonier and a Prepa crew in Old San Juan. (Courtesy)

“Once we restore Puerto Rico, in all the areas were we can bury–and Old San Juan already has three underground sections, this is no joke–we’re undergrounding. Hurricanes will continue coming; this is going to happen. Undergrounding Old San Juan is urgent,” the lawmaker said.

After assuring the quick restoration of electric service in Old San Juan, the executive director of the Electric Power Authority (Prepa), Ricardo Ramos, said at a press conference in La Fortaleza that the location of the power lines on roofs makes it difficult to get work done.

“The Authority had an undergrounding project years ago [in Old San Juan]. The permit was obtained with the Institute of Culture. It was the residents themselves who said no because the power lines over the homes and their crossings have become something folkloric,” he said.

Charbonier stressed the importance of modernizing the old town’s infrastructure to prevent economic activity from being ground to a halt again were another storm the magnitude of the Category 4 hurricane that enveloped the island last September to occur.

Having no electric power affects 750 businesses in Old San Juan

“Eventually–San Juan being the capital–the government has to start remodeling all its infrastructure,” the representative said from his office in the Capitol. “This was not damaged in four years. The time has come to evaluate other alternatives for energy production in Puerto Rico,” he added.

Charbonier explained that the process would start at the Capitol, with a resolution to establish viability. He recalled that Old San Juan is the “government’s headquarters,” home to the Capitol and La Fortaleza, the governor’s official residence and office, and therefore cannot afford another electric service collapse.

Last week, business people, employees and Old San Juan residents demanded in protest that Prepa bring the island’s tourism center back to life. The grid’s collapse has kept more than 750 businesses from operating more than six weeks of María and the direct impact to the economy could be in the millions of dollars.

Juan Fernández, spokesman for Old San Juan businesses, told CB that some 10,000 jobs are at risk on the line due to the lack of electricity. “In Old San Juan, we cannot afford that it be paralyzed,” he said.

“Since [Thursday], they began to see Electric Power Authority trucks on the streets, and just seeing the trucks produced an emotional change in all the businesses and people who are thinking of closing permanently, [now] they are thinking about it. We just hope arriving on time so it does not happen and, if it happened, that they come back,” Fernández said.

Puerto Rico power utility says 47 towns have partial service

The owner of Luma Pharmacy regretted that 100% of business stopped due to the lack of power service, with the exception of several businesses that have “an underground system that reaches Fortaleza.” Those who had generators saw no profits due to the high cost of running them.

The NPP legislator explained that “we cannot count how many employees we have already lost, who left and won’t return.” Once the service is restored in Old San Juan, the representative will ask Prepa to turn to the Condado and Miramar areas and finally, Calle Loíza.

Tourism a priority

Recently, the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. announced that San Juan was chosen by travel guide Lonely Planet as one of the cities to visit in 2018. Even though the list was compiled before the hurricane, the publication said it trusts the capital will recover from the impact.

Faced with the reality that Old San Juan is an “economic engine” for Puerto Rico, the president of the Capital City Development and Youth Affairs Committee said he would cite Tourism Executive Director José Izquierdo to discuss concrete efforts that reactivate tourism.

Charbonier stressed that “it isn’t worthwhile for tourists to arrive if there is no power,” thus he will demand from the government “whatever has to be done so people return to Old San Juan “once the town, which 47 days after María continues devoid of its usual bustle, is powered.

“You have to start not only with Old San Juan, [also] Calle Loíza, Condado. To reactivate everything that is tourism and business,” Charbonier said. “Once we have electricity, economic movement begins, the generation of jobs begins, people start moving,” he added.




Puerto Rico House seeks to block retroactive highway toll payment until December

Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, top center, and Rep. Pedro Santiago Guzmán, top right. (Yoel Parrilla / CB)

SAN JUAN – After a two-hour recess and brawling about the small quorum of representatives present, the Puerto Rico House gave way Thursday to a measure that would prevent until December the retroactive collection of AutoExpreso tolls on several of the island’s highways, which were not charged due to Hurricane Maria’s impact on the toll plazas.

House Bill 1267, filed by New Progressive Party (NPP) Rep. Pedro Santiago Guzmán, counters the government’s decision to grant a five-day “grace period” as of Sept. 20 for those who traveled on toll roads at the beginning of the emergency.

Puerto Rico gov’t briefing: Leptospirosis raises Hurricane Maria death toll

Puerto Rican Independence Party Rep. Denis Márquez objected that if these tolls are not excluded, it would lead to a “class-action lawsuit” because the measure would not benefit those who also suffered the onslaught of the hurricane in the island’s northern region Sept. 20.

“Different geographic categories are being established [for] sectors that are using an expressway that, although managed by a private company, is still a public good. It’s still a good of the Government of Puerto Rico, and [different] categories are being established,” he said.

The pro-independence legislator then presented several amendments to include the highways operated by the private company. After a recess, Márquez decided to withdraw the proposed changes so the NPP majority could submit them again and have them approved.

“Those from the north, long live the private company, which will continue to benefit at the country’s expense, but the citizens who went through the crisis of [Hurricane] María have less of a right than those who used the tolls in the west and south,” the legislator said before the amendments were approved.

Thus, if this were to be enacted by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló–after being approved by the Senate–the measure would include all highway tolls on the island, those handled by the private company and the Transportation & Public Works Department (DTOP by its Spanish acronym), until Dec. 1.

The measure was approved, despite the fact that several government officials, including DTOP Secretary Carlos Contreras, have mentioned that not collecting tolls represents a revenue decrease in the millions for the Highways & Transportation Authority (HTA), which would affect its functions.

Puerto Rico power utility says 47 towns have partial service

“We have to see this as an investment to relieve the [economic] burden on Puerto Rico,” Santiago said about the legislation he authored. However, with the amendments approved today, the monthly losses would represent more than $30 million–$20 million for private tolls and about $11 million for the HTA.

Two weeks ago, La Fortaleza Public Affairs Secretary Ramón Rosario argued that the government’s position, “from day one,” has been to charge tolls retroactively, while recalling that the HTA is under Title III bankruptcy of the Promesa law.

The House recessed until 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6.




Alleged lack of transparency in reopening of Puerto Rico’s public schools

SAN JUAN – To the rhythm of plena music under the sharp morning sun—and observed by some 10 police officers on the steps of the Puerto Rico Capitol—a group of teachers, students and parents gathered in the north wing of the building to demand the reopening of schools closed since the passage of Hurricane María a month and a half ago.

While children and teenagers enjoyed a series of workshops, the adults at the protest marched in a circle. Their signs, several made by the young people, read: “Let the schools open now!” and “Education is paying off our own debt to humanity.”

The demonstrators carried signs alluding to the opening of hundreds of schools that are still closed a little over a month and a half after Hurricane María’s disruptions. (Génesis Ibarra / CB)

With the voices of the students reading in the background, Juan José Rodríguez, a science teacher at Inés Maria Mendoza School in San Juan’s Caimito community, indicated that his campus has undergone three inspections—the first, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, three weeks ago.

“Quite a number of schools are ready; this demand is not only from us,” Rodríguez said. “We have brought the classrooms here, we have had peaceful demonstrations to demand the opening of our schools, against the bureaucracy, so we may begin[classes again].”

USACE says Puerto Rico Education Dept. responsible for opening schools

Despite having been looked at three times, the Education Department has yet to inform if the school is able to resume operations, nor has it indicated whether there is “something wrong” that needs to be fixed. “We don’t have access to the reports; what else should we do?” he asked.

“We are ready,” the teacher said, addressing Education Secretary Julia Keleher, who has assured students will not lose this semester. “The school is ready, the teachers are ready, the students are ready, the government is ready.”

‘Inadequate’ performance

During the peaceful protest, Sen. Miguel Romero, of the New Progressive Party (NPP), denounced the lack of transparency and sluggishness by the Education Department to normalize the public education system 43 days after the hurricane hit, while qualifying the agency’s performance as “inadequate.”

“There has been a lack of transparency in this, and I say this as a majority senator of this government. The reasons [for the delay in reopening schools] have not been clearly explained,” the senator said. “The secretary has a responsibility to work on [resolving] this issue immediately.”

If the reopening of the island’s 1,113 public schools is delayed further, Romero said, “we are not going back to normal.” The senator invited the head of Education to consider opening schools, even partially, to counteract the “poor work” done so far.

On Oct. 30, 119 schools opened in the San Juan and Mayagüez regions. In a written statement, Keleher asked the teaching community to remain “calm and patient,” while also affirming, since September, her commitment to transform the educational system.