Méndez takes over House Speakership, promises transparency
SAN JUAN – House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez said one of his priorities will be to redistribute the $3 billion a year budget of the “calamitous” Department of Education that is entangled in red tape and doesn’t reach schools.
He plans to advance the search for alternatives to the harsh reality that awaits Puerto Rico when the $5.4 billion in federal funds from the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, or Obamacare, that were supposed to last until 2019 are depleted over the next few months.
Under the “Vision and Progress” motto, the House of Representatives held its inaugural session in which 50 representatives elected Méndez as its speaker in a majority vote.
Former New Progressive Party (NPP) Secretary and current Rep. José “Pichy” Torres Zamora was elected vice president of the House, while Rep. Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló was ratified as majority leader and Rep. Urayoán Hernández as alternate majority leader. Elizabeth Stuart Villanueva was sworn in as the lower chamber’s secretary and Henry Taboada as its sergeant of arms.
Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Rep. José Varela introduced Rep. Rafael Hernández as minority leader and Rep. Ramón Cruz was chosen alternate minority leader.
After a recess, the House had planned Monday to approve new House regulations to select a second vice president, a position that was going to go to Rep. María de Lourdes Ramos. Méndez said he was expected to select committee chairs and refer legislation to the various House panels, including the proposed labor reform.
The House was also expected to confirm Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín.
The session began at 3:10 p.m. with a two-hour delay. It was announced that NPP Rep. José Luis Rivera Guerra and PDP Rep. Luis Raúl Torres, who failed to be sworn in Jan. 2, had completed the swearing in process.
Former House Speaker José Aponte nominated Méndez as House leader, adding it was the first time a former speaker nominates a successor.
The PDP delegation broke with past tradition and joined the majority in electing Méndez. Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) Rep. Denis Márquez abstained from the vote, but expressed his appreciation for the new speaker.
Subsequently, Méndez was escorted to the podium to head the House session. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló delivered a speech to the new representatives in which he announced bills to initiate the island’s economic recovery.
The measures included a bill that would implement the single employer concept, one that would ensure equal pay for women, another that seeks to retain Puerto Rican professionals and one that provides tax incentives to doctors.
“I want to inform you that in the administrative area, we have already identified areas in government where we can achieve savings in excess of $225 million a year and we issued executive orders to that end,” he said. The governor also said the budget deficit is at $7 billion.
Méndez also promised to behave with transparency and honor so fellow legislators can be proud to be in public service. During the previous administration, former House Speaker Jaime Perelló was forced to resign after being linked to a PDP fundraiser who was accused of corruption.
Méndez announced he intends to create the Office of the Inspector General of Puerto Rico. The new inspector will oversee legislative operations. He also said he plans to find ways to give the Government Ethics Office jurisdiction over the Legislature.
The new speaker said he intends to reshape the island’s educational system through a redistribution of its more than $3 billion in funds, of which only $15,000 goes to each school.
While Méndez wrote to the federally established Financial Management and Oversight Board indicating that the House will take all needed measures to bring Puerto Rico out of its economic crisis, he also said he doesn’t want Puerto Ricans to have to make more sacrifices.
On the other hand, he said that the Commission on Political Status Affairs will become operational, but not to advance a particular ideology. “Of course, when the time comes for a status vote, I will be the first in line to support Puerto Rico’s admission as the 51st state of the federal Union,” Méndez said.
Hernández, on the other hand, said he will work for Puerto Rico and that he expected the majority to respect the minority. PIP Rep. Márquez said the Legislature has particular challenges that should include broadening the rights of workers and strengthening natural resources. “You cannot discriminate by creating a category of employees without any job rights. All employees should have the same protections,” he said.
In an aside, Márquez denounced that the proposed labor reform introduced by the governor would cut severance pay as part of the Wrongful Dismissal Act, negatively impact independent contractors and extend the probationary period for new workers to 18 months from the current three months. The governor also proposed the repeal of the Closing Law and implementation of flexitime, a measure that was rejected by his father, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló in the 1990s.