Pence Promises Leadership on Puerto Rico Recovery
SAN JUAN – A workweek that started with the inauspicious visit by President Donald J. Trump concluded with yet one more exercise in administrative oversight, this time perhaps coming a step closer to action on Capitol Hill with the support of Vice President Mike Pence.
The second in command arrived in Puerto Rico, via the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Air Force Two stopped briefly prior to touching down at Muñiz Air Force Base in Isla Verde. In contrast to the visit by the commander in chief, Pence engaged in constructive conversation that could lead to relief being sought by the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
“The vice president told me that I would receive a call today from the White House informing me of the next steps as pertains to the package of measures we are seeking now,” Rosselló explained during a briefing that took place Saturday morning. The governor seeks a series of measures that will require Pence’s leadership to obtain swift approval in Congress.
Although Congress is expected to take up a $29 billion aid package intended to help in the recovery of Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and the USVI, Rosselló is pushing for separate aid on the healthcare front with parity in Medicaid worth $1 billion and some $20 billion in aid to keep the government running and to assist in the reconstruction of Puerto Rico.
Help On the Hill
As the nominal president of the Senate, Pence’s leadership could be a defining factor in helping Puerto Rico to obtain the aid it needs. “His support in U.S. Congress is the most important factor in that his word carries much weight and many of the senators have expressed their support,” Rosselló explained. “I expressed the pressing need for swift congressional action, which if lacking could collapse into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. On the other hand, were we to act now we could be looking at a new beginning for Puerto Rico.”
Pence was made aware of the dire state of a fractured power grid that still faces considerable challenges during a presentation by leaders of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The governor explained that the “consumption of energy” currently stands at 11.7 percent—the goal is to reach 25 percent by month’s end.
One of the most pressing energy challenges is on the healthcare front as only 36 of 66 hospitals have had power fully restored with the rest running on generators. The governor let on that there were electricity brigades in Puerto Rico from other states already on the island assisting in the restoration of power that were complementing the efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Pence met with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representatives, with officials from the Health and Human Services Department, the U.S. Transportation Department and Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in Washington, D.C., at the Government Command Center, which has been turned into a virtual fortress as a result of the recovery operation being run locally by Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan. Pence, who met with Rosselló and officials in his administration, received a briefing by FEMA officials and addressed concerns regarding mechanisms through which relief for Puerto Rico could be provided.
Outside of the congressional realm, Rosselló is pushing hard for a section-910 waiver that would release Puerto Rico from providing funds for the permanent jobs subsidized by FEMA. The Rosselló administration is also seeking help from the U.S. Treasury in the way of either a capital purchase agreement or the backing of a special financing fund. It is lobbying for the additional money because it realizes the congressional aid alone set against massive expenditure could be a wash.
FOMB Shifts Focus
Earlier this week, the island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) spent time on Capitol Hill meeting with Trump administration officials and members of Congress to explore options that could provide much-needed relief for and island that still has nearly 90 percent of its power grid down and 45 percent of the population without water service.
The board sent out a press release urging “the Trump administration and Congress to expedite responses to all requests for assistance from the government of Puerto Rico, increase financial assistance, lift the caps on individual programs of financial aid available to the Island, and waive the local government cost-sharing requirements across available programs, including permanent recovery work.” It also issued an urgent plea for Congress to provide funding to help rebuild critical infrastructure.
In a letter to congressional leadership in the House and Senate, the board made a reference to an estimate in a preliminary report by Moody’s Analytics that calculated the cost of María’s damages could be as high as $95 Billion. The board “urged Congress to heed the Governor’s calls for the maximum federal assistance to Puerto Rico in order to help it respond to and recover from hurricane’s Irma and Maria.”