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Justice secretary: New Puerto Rico Government Act does not violate Constitution

By on November 15, 2017

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez said that an amended version of the so-called New Government Act does not violate the Constitution because it guarantees a fair balance between executive and legislative branch powers.

“We refer to the checks and balances that jurisprudence has defined as those related to there being no undue interference of one constitutional branch on another,” she said at a public hearing held by the Joint Commission on Federal, Political and Economic Relations of the Senate and the Special Commission of the House of Representatives for the Reconstruction and Reorganization of Puerto Rico after hurricanes Irma and María.

Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez (Courtesy photo)

In its original version, the New Puerto Rico Government Act sought to grant the governor and the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (Aafaf by its Spanish acronym) the power, for a period of 10 years, to restructure and redefine the executive branch, which brings together the agencies and instrumentalities of the government.

The measure was harshly criticized because, under it, the Legislature would renounce its constitutional power to legislate, evaluate and pass laws that make the restructuring of agencies viable and leave it to Aafaf and the governor to “reorganize, modify, suppress, transfer [and] consolidate and outsource agencies, departments, services and programs” via an executive order to comply with the objectives of the 10-year fiscal plan and ensure services.

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After the governor and the presidents of the legislative chambers reach agreements, the measure will undergo several amendments to allow its approval. In procedural terms, the governor will evaluate the reorganization of the agencies and draft a reorganization plan to arrange for the consolidation or transfer of work, including whether they can be delegated to a nonprofit organization.

The plan will be submitted to the Legislature, which will have 30 days to approve it through concurrent resolution.

Once that term has passed, if there is no consensus, an additional 15 days will be granted to approve the resolution. If there is no expression by the legislative bodies, it will be understood that the plan was tacitly approved.

Although Vázquez said the government is based on the doctrine of separation of powers, whereby each branch has its function and serves as a counterweight to the other two, the Supreme Court has said this separation is not absolute, but is one in which each branch accepts and respects the authority of the others.

“This implies that although each constitutional branch has clearly defined purposes and functions, in some…instances coordination and cooperation between them will be required,” she said.

The secretary said the measure does not encroach on the powers of the Legislature to evaluate and approve laws, but rather recognizes its faculty to study the Reorganization Plan and either approve it or not. Only in the case the Legislature does not express itself, would the plan be tacitly approved.

Similar plans have been approved in states such as New Jersey.

Labor Secretary Carlos Saavedra, on right, also endorsed the measure. (Courtesy)

The objective of the reorganization plan would be to reduce the spending of the 119 agencies , which costs the Treasury $21 billion. The Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor’s Panel, the Electoral Comptroller and the University of Puerto Rico would not be affected. Neither would the Labor, State, Justice, Treasury, Education, Transportation & Public Works, Economic Development & Commerce, Health and Agriculture departments.

According to the measure, the reorganization plan would describe the new government structure and detail the internal operations of the agency.

Regarding how federal funds would be impacted, Vázquez said a “reorganization that in any way…jeopardizes federal funds will not be considered.” She also said the measure is consistent with the Promesa federal law.

The measure was backed by Labor Secretary Carlos Saavedra, but independent Sen. Juan Dalmau said that in times of crisis the executive is always tempted to usurp powers of the other constitutional branches.

“The Constitution provides that the authority to create, suppress, consolidate agencies is the Legislative Assembly’s,” he said. The measure was also criticized by the Popular Democratic Party minority Sen. José Nadal Power, who also called it unconstitutional.

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