Changes are Coming, Puerto Rico Gov. Pierluisi Says in State of the Commonwealth Address
Opens Covid Vaccination for All Adults; Talks About Reconstruction, LUMA Energy and Status
SAN JUAN – Gov. Pedro Pierluisi delivered his first State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday, three months after he took office. His administration began in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and at a time when the government of Puerto Rico has been allocated billions of dollars by the federal government to reconstruct the island’s infrastructure following several natural disasters including two major hurricanes and a series of earthquakes that struck the island’s southwestern region.
Although the governor’s address was scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., it ended up beginning shortly after 6:10 p.m. at a packed House of Representatives. The public was not allowed inside the Capitol to listen to the address to comply with Covid-19 safety protocols, according to a statement posted on the governor’s Facebook page earlier Wednesday.
Pierluisi’s address, which he delivered before lawmakers, mayors, several named and confirmed cabinet members, the resident commissioner and Puerto Rico Supreme Court justices, differed from those given in the recent past by pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) governors, given that the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) now makes up the Senate and House majorities.
Before the address, a short video was broadcast in which Pierluisi spoke about Covid-19 and Puerto Ricans’s resiliency. The governor then began his address by saying that when his administration started in January, he “invited [the people] to work together against our enemies,” adding that “together we have to fight” the Covid-19 pandemic and the delays in the reconstruction funds, the lack of access to an education of excellence, poverty, crime, drug trafficking, economic recession, bureaucracy, corruption, discrimination and political inequality “that we suffer under territorial status.”
“In each of these areas, and in many more, we have been working, because I, like each of us who have the joy of living in our homeland, know that Puerto Rico has great potential and that it is in our hands to make it happen,” the governor said. “I know there are some who have failed us and that we find it difficult to trust the government. Changing that, giving them safety and confidence, is what drives me to work with a great sense of urgency every day of my life.”
The address delved into the Covid-19 pandemic, advances the government has made regarding the vaccination drive, and how people still need to follow health-safety protocols such as social distancing and the use of a mask. Research into whether the virus could still be contracted after being fully vaccinated is ongoing, but cases have been documented around the world.
“Puerto Rico’s current situation is promising, we are working hard to vaccinate our people and achieve herd immunity to overcome the pandemic; we are starting to see the reconstruction process we have been waiting for, structural and social changes are coming that will make sustainable economic development feasible and we will get the government to respond to you and yours,” he assured.
The former two-term resident commissioner further noted that the hardest part of the pandemic has been losing some 2,000 lives.
“Each one has left a deep mark on our hearts, and everything we do, the restrictions imposed, the care we take [of ourselves], we do it to save lives, so that we don’t have to lose anyone else,” the governor said.
He then highlighted the the Covid-19 strategy his administration has taken has been as been comprehensive, carrying out tests throughout the island, increasing educational campaigns, making prudent changes to the restrictions of executive orders, speeding up vaccination processes, incentivizing the affected sectors of the economy and putting federal aid in an swift manner” in the hands of all who need them, including our municipalities, which are the ones closest to the people.”
“Unfortunately, as in many other jurisdictions, we are seeing a dangerous hike in Covid-19 cases that has caused a hike in hospitalizations and deaths,” he acknowledged. “I have been very cautious in allowing reopening, and I have always been willing to make the necessary adjustments to prevent contagions from increasing.”
The governor announced that a new Covid-19 executive order will take effect Friday.
“In it, the curfew will be from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and commercial establishments will close at 9 p.m.,” the governor said. “All activities or events in which crowds of people are engaged are prohibited unless there is a waiver; the requirement of the molecular PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test is maintained for any traveler who enters Puerto Rico; and the Health Department oversight resources will be increased to corroborate the compliance of traveler quarantines and all provisions of the order.”
On the other hand, he said the government has been extremely diligent in the vaccination process, and that, starting Monday, Puerto Rico residents ages 16 or older would be able to schedule their vaccination appointment.
Pierluisi also touched on the island’s reconstruction process, saying that it is fundamental “to getting our people to be able to move forward and return progress to our island.”
“I said it when I swore-in as governor and I reiterate it. This is going to be the four-year period of works. All of our people are going to see it and are going to feel it, because together we’re going to build it,” he said.
The governor pointed out that another of his recent executive orders provides that the minimum wage in federally funded reconstruction projects will be the same as that set by the federal government for its contractors and suppliers, which is currently $10.95 an hour. The order also creates a Multisector Advisory Council to achieve labor agreements that ensure “fair pay and adequate working conditions for workers working on reconstruction projects.”
He further noted that the administration’s relationship with U.S. President Joe Biden has been excellent and has helped in the disbursement of funds for the island’s reconstruction.
Backs LUMA Contract
With regard to the contract with LUMA Energy, he stressed that the public-private partnership contract was awarded and endorsed by all the relevant government instrumentalities.
“This contract entails management continuity and stability in the long-term planning of our electrical system, leaving behind the continuous changes that occur administration after administration and that have not paid off for our people. Although I have always been in the best position to amend it, if necessary, I have never been in a position to cancel it,” Pierluisi said.
Similarly, he said that he is convinced that every employee of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) who goes on to work at LUMA will receive higher salaries, and better benefits and working conditions.
He added that he will ensure that LUMA makes all the required contributions to the utility’s pension plan.
“That’s why I created the Steering Committee, also led by Secretary of State Larry Seilhamer, to audit the execution of the LUMA contract and make sure it improves our electrical system,” Pierluisi said.
With regard to the public school system, the governor touted his administration’s initiative to reopen schools to begin providing a hybrid between distance learning some days and in-person classes on others.
Meanwhile, he said his team was working to protect the resources obtained by Act 154, requesting a reasonable transition period from the U.S. Treasury Department to create an alternate tax structure that is acceptable for all parties.
“Manufacturing is certainly not the only opportunity we have. The air cabotage exemption has great potential to position ourselves competitively in the international passenger and air cargo transfer industry. Our three main airports—Isla Verde, Aguadilla and Ponce—are perfectly located to benefit from this exemption and we will take advantage of it,” he said.
The governor said that under the leadership of Secretary-Designate Manolo Cidre, the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC) was expanding its technical support services and incentives to entrepreneurs.
“Small and medium-sized enterprises in Puerto Rico are the backbone of our economy and we will continue our efforts to help them grow, to reduce their costs and facilitate the creation of new businesses,” Pierluisi said. “This economic development requires our government to exit the bankruptcy process in which we are in, and for the Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board to leave as soon as possible. To that end, we are doing the work that needs to be done to straighten out our finances, publish our financial statements, boost our income and prioritize our expenses for the benefit of our people.”
The governor further noted that some $50 million will be allocated to the restaurant and bar industry to help mitigate the revenue losses from closures and restrictions, equipment costs to prevent the spread of the virus, and other Covid-19 related expenses.
Finally, the governor ended his address by saying it was “time for all of us to recognize that there is already broad consensus to end our territorial status and put an end to the colony.”
“With that in mind, last November we held a democratic consultation in which our people were clear; a consultation resulting from a law duly passed by a legislature elected by our people,” he stressed. “Statehood was supported by the majority of voters in Puerto Rico. The statehood option got more votes than any of the candidates in the election. I respect all those who do not favor it, but I remind you that in every democracy, the majority rules.”