Thursday, February 21, 2019

[Editorial] Undertow Politics

By on February 8, 2019

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Feb. 7 -13, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Sen. Rick Scott arrived in Puerto Rico early this week, brought downstream from Capitol Hill to the island by political undercurrents that were set in motion well before midterm elections that saw him win a Senate seat by a razor-thin margin.

At face value, Sen. Scott’s visit was repayment—political quid pro quo—of a favor to Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Jenniffer González, who was instrumental in rallying support of Puerto Rican voters who helped elect the former Florida governor. He feels her endorsement was important because more than 1 million Puerto Ricans now live along the I-4 corridor in Orlando, often referred to as Puerto Rico’s 79th municipality.

Although Sen. Scott held several meetings—including one at the P.R. State Department hosted by Secretary Luis G. Rivera Marín, which was attended by leaders of the island’s private sector—his visit helped show that Resident Commissioner González had access to power.

Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member in the U.S. Congress is attempting to get out in front of “a little engine that could,” named Carmen Yulín Cruz, who rose to national prominence as the mayor of San Juan by taking on the administration of President Donald Trump for a pusillanimous response in helping Puerto Rico recover in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. If Carmen Yulín decides to throw her hat into the ring, she has a billionaire trifecta—former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and George Soros, who reportedly would back her.

Two sources on the Hill with knowledge of the San Juan mayor’s potential run have seen Rep. Nydia Velázquez taking Carmen Yulín on door-to-door visits to members of Congress. Most of those who have spoken to the San Juan mayor agree that her English is very good.

If the resident commissioner’s post were decided on Capitol Hill, the mayor would seem a formidable candidate—but the votes are cast in Puerto Rico. And her performance as mayor on the ground in San Juan is a different story—her less-than-stellar job in the aftermath of the hurricane has drawn its share of criticism from San Juan residents. What we don’t know is how voters throughout the rest of the island perceive her.

So, González is praying mightily that Scott and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will help rally bipartisan support for important initiatives that the resident commissioner is pushing on Capitol Hill. To the resident commissioner’s credit, she scored one for Puerto Rico in helping to secure language in HR 268, which adds some $600 million in disaster-relief funds for Puerto Rico.

González also recently introduced a measure for local residents to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which would help bring equal funding to the island’s aged, blind and disabled people who have little or no income, and provides cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter.

On the tax front, the resident commissioner’s work could bring equal treatment to the island if the Earned Income Tax Credit Equity for Puerto Rico Act of 2019 makes it out of the House and is passed by the Senate. Tough sledding. As it stands right now, families across the United States are eligible for the credit upon the birth of their first and second child; in Puerto Rico, families are only eligible when they have three children or more.

In the realm of healthcare, González is pushing the Puerto Rico Integrity in Medicare Advantage Act. HR 6809 would, among other changes, stabilize Medicare Advantage rates paid to Puerto Rico through 2021, a funding windfall of some $3 billion. More importantly, provisions included in the measure stipulate that no less than 50 percent of those funds would go to healthcare providers.

That measure has people on the Hill, particularly those in the Republican Party to which González belongs, scratching their heads because they cannot understand why she is positioning Medicare as a handout, when Puerto Rico’s workforce pays full Social Security taxes, which should cover full rates for the island. Still, Puerto Rico receives only 43 percent of the national average.

González is fighting mightily to push through measures that would benefit Puerto Rico, but it will take a Republican Senate to see those initiatives pass.

Whether Scott is truly “the self-proclaimed Senator for Puerto Rico,” as the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration’s Carlos Mercader told this newspaper, is yet to be seen. Scott’s support for President Trump’s option to call a state of national emergency if he fails to secure $5.7 billion for his border wall monolith is reason for concern, because it would allow the president to secure unseized military funds, which includes disaster-relief money for jurisdictions that were savaged by nature in 2017.

This newspaper was told by a high-level source with ties to the Trump administration that Scott is extremely smart, “he knows that if things are done that can create economic activity for Puerto Rico, it is important for the federal Treasury because it would be very difficult for Republicans to explain potential future actions if those had to be taken. Democrats who believe in identity politics would be happy to write a big check for Puerto Rico; Republicans would not.”

González will have to work both sides of the aisle, but Puerto Rico should not be counting on Congress. We have to figure our own way out of these treacherous waters; it is a tough swim with sharks on the Hill.

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