Legislative Control Issues Surface in Budget Hearings
SAN JUAN — While the Legislature has begun public hearings on the Puerto Rico government’s budget for the next fiscal year, questions still abound about the process, now under the effective control of the fiscal oversight board. For example, it remains unclear just how much room legislators have to modify the budget submitted by La Fortaleza and approved with modifications by the board.
Majority lawmakers are shrugging off the queries, saying the board is not “impeding” the Legislature’s work, while minority lawmakers continue to complain about the board usurping powers from the Puerto Rico government.
New Progressive Party Rep. Antonio “Tony” Soto, chairman of the House Finance Committee, was confident that if necessary, additional changes would be made by the deadlines set by the board.
“The deadlines are not a straitjacket. If [the board] has to change the [calendar], it will change it. But for us, it is not an impediment to the legislative work we are going to carry out,” said the lawmaker, who stressed it is important for the Legislature to approve a spending plan for the government before June 30.
If it fails to do so, the financial control board “has the power under the law to approve its own budget [version],” Soto later conceded.
“Be assured that we are not in a process of confrontation with the board. We are [working] within a framework of collaboration…. There is a completely open channel of communication [with the board],” Soto said, as quoted by Caribbean Business.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration has submitted a draft budget that was taken into consideration by the fiscal control board and sent back to the executive branch for modifications according to the guidelines on ensuring it is balanced.
The governor referred the budget bill to the Legislature, which has until June 19 to submit the document to the oversight board. The budget hearings were slated to begin on Wednesday and by June 10, the Treasury committees of both legislative chambers expect to have addressed government components related to education, community affairs and public safety, including the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), as reported by CB Online. Between June 12 and June 15, the Legislature expects to hear testimony from the economic development, health, family, labor, transportation, housing, sports and agriculture departments.
Following criticism of Promesa and the actions taken by the Rosselló administration on how they are handling the budget approval process, the governor pointed out that “the opposition has serious issues with identifying problems and looking for anything to criticize.”
After the oversight board certified the government’s budget, Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) Rep. Denis Márquez Lebrón denounced the “supra-legislative” duties that the federal entity’s executive director, Natalie Jaresko, will now have.
According to the legislator, “Mrs. Jaresko became the present Legislature’s de facto supra-legislator and she will be the one providing instructions, the roadmap and the guidelines of what should and shouldn’t be done with the budget, as stated in the board’s document of consent sent to the governor and legislative heads last week,” he said.
Márquez Lebrón also condemned the control board’s guidelines contained in its most recent communication to Gov. Rosselló asking that discretionary spending allocations—such as those contained in House Joint Resolution 187 for entities dealing with social issues such as access to the judicial system and various research, education, fine arts and cultural matters, among others—be modified or eliminated.
“The interference of the control board in a matter as significant and fundamental as the creation of Puerto Ricans’ budget not only confirms our colonial reality for the umpteenth time but, in addition, it should also generate total indignation among those who intend to govern a country,” the legislator said, while criticizing the board’s power over the government of Puerto Rico.
—Editor Rosario Fajardo contributed to this story.