Tuesday, September 18, 2018

[Editorial] Critical Juncture Aboard the Rosselló Express

By on March 9, 2018

Editor’s note: The following editorial was originally published in the March 8-14 print edition of Caribbean Business.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s delivery of the State of the State address this week came at a critical juncture just weeks prior to important decisions by the Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB), which has before it the consideration of amended Fiscal Plans—for the Commonwealth, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority—that must meet the benchmarks of austerity.

It comes as no surprise that the governor did not waste his opportunity at the bully pulpit to preach to the faithful and loyal dissidents flanking his sides with a sprinkling of hope—some might call it fairy dust—and a dash of defiance against some of the miserly tenets laid out by the fiscal control board for him to follow.

Such was the case when Rosselló veiled affirmation of his stance opposing the fiscal control board’s insistence on furloughs while touting the intent to boost salaries of teachers and members of the police force by $1,500 annually. By the way, he is for Mother’s Day too.

That brand of populism is likely to run headlong into reality since the FOMB will ultimately dictate terms and final formulas in the plans, which must be certified by the board by its self-imposed March 24 deadline. Without la juntaGood Housekeeping seal of approval, the shared pain will be handed down in the FOMB’s version of the fiscal plans.

Those are jagged pills to swallow—dealing with the harsh realities of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis amid the hardship of devastation wrought by a Category 5 hurricane thrown in for good measure. When the governor sees a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, it must be difficult not to imagine a runaway freight train—and not daybreak—approaching at breakneck speed from the other side.

Yes, it is difficult to keep chin up when some 10,000 businesses remain shuttered, more than 100,000 of your taxpayers have left for less challenging destinations and the U.S. Treasury (UST) slices in half an appropriations bill originally intended to grant the island some $4.7 billion in a Community Disaster Loan (CDL).

Despite those incredible odds, the governor believes he can fight his way out of that corner; for now, he is using combative discourse—throwing a jab here and there and hoping to land a haymaker when he singled out the U.S. Treasury as onerous for slashing, by more than half, the CDL funds, which have taken more than five months to disburse. Rosselló’s most recent missive to congressional leadership, denouncing the U.S. Treasury for the onerous conditions tied to the loan, is bound for the shelf.

The governor is also quick to point out that Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States and deserve to be treated equally. Sadly, many members of the GOP in U.S. Congress—particularly those who do not have Puerto Rican constituents—do not believe Puerto Rico should be treated the same as one of the U.S. states.

In the hallowed halls of U.S. Congress, they are quick to point out that because Puerto Rico affairs are governed under the territorial clause, it will not be treated the same as a state. Those members of the GOP are quick to point out that Rosselló is a Title IV governor from a territory, not a Title X governor from one of the United States.

Those same members of the GOP see Rosselló’s as disingenuous rhetoric. For one, members of U.S. Congress unequivocally assert that the appropriations bill, originally granting Puerto Rico access to a $4.7 billion CDL, is not an obligation by the U.S. Treasury to dole out the funds.

And, it did not help the Rosselló administration’s case that Puerto Rico’s government did not close, nor was it forced to cut essential services when the federal relief funds failed to arrive in November as La Fortaleza had warned. The final driver in UST screws on Puerto Rico’s loan was cranked when some $6.87 billion strewn about in several hundred bank accounts appeared out of the blue—the number crunchers at the UST are still scratching heads as the Rosselló administration’s credibility continues to plummet in U.S. Congress.

As Rosselló faces the harsh realities on the Hill, there is, however, a slight glimmer of hope that could be more ray of light than ominous locomotive—the governor let on that Puerto Rico had received an unprecedented amount for federal disaster relief, including a recently approved $1.5 billion windfall with which his administration can commence to “build back better.” If he does nothing else, Rosselló should use the injection of federal funds for construction, services and healthcare to rebuild Puerto Rico and create desperately needed jobs in the process.

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