Puerto Rico gov delivers his 3rd State of the Commonwealth address
Promises access to education to those who can’t afford it; warns Trump about treatment of island
SAN JUAN – Acknowledging that he has made mistakes along the way and is self-evaluating those actions to make improvements, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló delivered his third State of the Commonwealth Address Wednesday in San Juan from the Capitol’s House of Representatives.
Speaking before lawmakers, cabinet members, island mayors and agency heads, the governor’s televised address kicked off shortly after 5 p.m.
“There are some who, when faced with difficulties and challenges found on the way, are led to despair and lose motivation to continue forward,” Rosselló said at the beginning of his address. “The people of Puerto Rico have shown the contrary. After a deep economic recession and being impacted by two catastrophic hurricanes, we didn’t just get up, but we are determined to fight for a better tomorrow for every child of this land.”
He thanked the people for “the privilege of serving them.”
“We are working tirelessly to live up to our responsibility,” he said. “Like every human being, I have made and will make mistakes, which I have to acknowledge and self-assess.”
The governor highlighted several of his administration’s recent accomplishments. He spoke about the shortcomings that for years plagued the Maritime Transportation Authority (ATM by its Spanish initials) ferry system serving the island-municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.
“Fortunately, with the new leadership of [ATM Director] Mara Pérez, there are new, positive changes in this direction, without distracting from the goal of changing an obsolete system, into a modern and efficient one,” the governor said.
He touched upon ongoing issues at the Forensics Sciences Bureau, where families have to wait weeks or longer before and autopsy is carried before they can hold a service for their deceased. The governor explained that under the new leadership of Beatriz Zayas, changes have been made and the number of corpses to be processed has been reduced.
Saying that the cut to the Río Piedras Medical Center seen in the draft budget summary was a mistake, the governor said that cut will no longer be reflected.
“In the consolidated budget, there was an increase of $3 million,” the governor said. “I have given instructions to work on this issue and that Medical Center doesn’t suffer a budget cut.”
Acknowledging that the process of arriving at a death toll in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was “not adequate,” he said he learned from those mistakes and recently met with the 9/20 Commission, which is named after the day the historic storm struck, to improve protocols for before and after natural disasters.
As the governor delivered his message, some of his supporters inside the Capitol chanted, “Four more years, four more years.”
Rosselló thanked all the sectors of the island that have contributed so that, “today, for the first time in two decades, the economic activity indexes” are positive.
The governor went on to speak about some if his administration’s accomplishments, among them energy reform, educational vouchers, charter schools and a tax reform that will lower taxes and increase the labor force.
“The solution to the problems is facilitated to the extent that we seek to work together and achieve areas of consensus, where common sense and the main objective is Puerto Rico and not an individual interest,” he said. “Although political-partisan dynamics make it more difficult to achieve what should be a noble purpose, I am optimistic and believe in Puerto Ricans: in our ability to excel and understand.”
The governor promised a mechanism for students who are unable to access a college education due to monetary, time, distance or work constraints, to be able to do so online. He also announced an executive order creating a multisectoral working group to implement the “right to free access” to the university to those who qualify for their merits. The working group must issue a report on how to design and implement the cost-free access to education within 120 days.
The governor then presented what he said should be the “Agenda for Puerto Rico,” which focuses on five main principles: a Puerto Rico that is open for business; becoming a connector of the Americas; positioning the island in innovation; reverting the outmigration of Puerto Ricans who have left the island and moved stateside, and creating an “Enabling State,” which he defines as “a government that establishes in its public policy the fundamental principle of the freedom of citizens and the offering of opportunities.”
As an enabling government, the “state provides possibilities to all: the access to education, to life; universal access to health services, to any necessary element for the optimum development of the human being,” he said.
Rosselló assured he will fight for mothers who are heads of the household so they have more opportunities. Veterans and the elderly will receive equal treatment and access to quality health services and accessible medicine at reasonable prices.
He reiterated that he will protect the pensions of public workers as he has promised since his first State of the Commonwealth Address in 2017.
Another mentioned accomplishment: the “unemployment rate is at 8.8 percent.” There are 873,300 salaried jobs, or 18,100 more than last year, he stressed.
An important aspect for Puerto Rico to become an investment destination that is open for business is “transparency,” he noted.
“We are offering clarity in a new public policy that defines an Incentives Code that is currently under the Legislative Assembly’s consideration” he said, adding that it will spur new investment while small and midsize businesses and other sectors of the island benefit as well.
The recently introduced sports betting legislation will also help the island’s stagnant economy, the governor said.
“We have two studies that have been carried out on the impact that this industry would have in Puerto Rico, estimating revenues to the government at $29 million for 2020 and reaching $87 million for the year 2024,” the governor said. “These projections are based on authorizing sports betting in casinos, racetracks, and online gaming.”
Rosselló also touched on his recently signed public energy policy, which requires the progressive elimination of fossil fuels as a source of power generation.
The new law, which establishes as a mere “aspiration” that energy rates be less than 20 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), was enacted only weeks before a basic rate comes in effect May 1. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has not said the amount of the new rate that will replace the provisional one implemented in 2016 and that led to 1.29 cents per kWh higher utility bill.
The new law establishes a timeline for the implementation of renewable energy on the island: the elimination of 20 percent of the fossil fuel use by 2022; 40 percent by 2025; and 60 percent by 2040. By 2050, the island should be using only renewable energy source.
Regarding crime, Rosselló said the government will continue assigning more resources to keep residents safe, and that he will continue to do “do justice for our police, defending their retirement, adding Social Security [benefits] and looking for housing finance programs for active police officers.”
Rosselló said that one of the challenges his administration has faced is that for the past 13 months, Puerto Rico has received “unequal treatment” with regard to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds after the 2017 hurricanes.
“When all the states have had the power of [receiving] their disbursement, Puerto Rico did not,” he said. “We sat down at the table and after a lot of work two weeks ago…we will have the disbursements in critical areas such as housing and education.”
Of the $19 billion allocated to the island in Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding, some $9.7 billion in action plans have been accepted, he said.
In relation to taxes, the governor stressed that taxpayers have received more than $1.2 billion in reimbursements, while revenue has risen by $400 million. He also reminded listeners that tax reform will lower the sales and use tax (IVU by its Spanish acronym) on prepared foods, from 11.5 percent to 7 percent.
He then mentioned the obstacles faced due to “the imposition of the Financial Oversight and Management Board,” saying its members must serve as facilitators.
“It is time for the board members to understand that instead of hindering the delivery of essential services to the people, they should facilitate both the island’s financial and economic recovery.”
Rosselló then moved on to the “discrimination” Puerto Rico has faced by the U.S. government, speaking to the president directly.
“I would now like to address President Donald Trump and remind him that, by rejecting statehood, he is discriminating against over 3 million American citizens in Puerto Rico, whose friends and family residing in the continental states—almost 6 million—are paying close attention to how this U.S. territory is being treated by our federal government,” Rosselló said.
“In the upcoming 2020 presidential campaign, Puerto Rico’s treatment by the federal government and our unequal relationship with the United States will be a key civil rights issue at the national level. I will be delivering this message to all 50 states so that our voice is heard.”
The governor urged the presidential candidates to espouse “equality for all Americans, take a stance in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico, and express themselves strongly in this regard.”
“As Americans, Puerto Ricans deserve a swift recovery from Hurricane Maria,” Rosselló said. “Over two years after the catastrophic event, we are still waiting for the disbursement of most of the funds already allocated by Congress. Alongside our Resident Commissioner [Jenniffer] González, we will continue to defend the interests of Puerto Rico before the U.S. Congress and the executive branch, without ruling out any legal action to ensure these resources are available for the reconstruction of our island.”
Rosselló ended his message saying that if “you believe in the ‘Agenda for Puerto Rico,’” and those who believe in Puerto Ricans’ capacity to overcome challenges, “join me on the road toward a complete recovery.”
Meanwhile, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín, of the minority Popular Democratic Party (PDP), tweeted: “If you want to see a Puerto Rico where respect prevails, Mr. Governor, respect begins by allowing all voices to be heard, not just of those who think like you,” adding, “Remember when the governor celebrated that the Oversight Board had approved 95 percent of what was contained in his Plan for Puerto Rico. He celebrated that and now he complains.”
Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia also took to social media, tweeting earlier that both Rosselló and the island’s fiscal oversight board are ignoring court cases related to access to public information: “a) Bhatia v. Rosselló-Nevares, 2017 TSPR 173 (2017)” and “b) Centro de Periodismo Investigativo v. Fin. Oversight & Mgmt. Bd for PR, No. CV 17-1743 (JAG), 2018 WL 2094375 (DPR May 4, 2018).”
–CB reporter Agustín Criollo Oquero contributed to this report.
The full text of the governor’s speech follows:
Brothers and sisters of Puerto Rico,
There are some who, when faced with difficulties and challenges on the road, are driven to despair and lose the motivation to continue. The people of Puerto Rico have demonstrated the opposite. After a deep economic crisis, and after receiving the impact of two catastrophic hurricanes, we not only rise: we are determined to fight for a better tomorrow for each child of this island.
I wish to begin my speech by thanking our people for the privilege of serving them as governor. We are working tirelessly to fulfill our responsibility. Like every human being, I have made and will make mistakes, which I have to acknowledge and self-evaluate.
For decades, residents of the municipality islands have had to endure deficiencies in the sea transportation service. It is unacceptable that recently in Vieques and Culebra, residents have been days without access to a cargo vessel. Fortunately, with the new leadership of Mara Pérez, there are new positive changes in this direction, without losing sight of the objective of changing an obsolete system for a modern and efficient one.
It hurts me to see how family members have to wait too long for the bodies of their loved ones. Although it has been a chronic problem, I assume responsibility and am committed to solving that problem. Under the direction of the new commissioner, Dr. Zayas, changes have already been made, reducing the number of corpses that await the corresponding procedure.
The decrease in the budget allocated to Centro Médico in the original draft was an error. In the consolidated budget there was an increase of $3 million. I have given instructions to work on this issue and that Centro Médico does not undergo a budget decrease.
We all remember that the accounting process for deaths caused by Hurricane Maria was not adequate. I assume responsibility for it. Likewise, the energy recovery with the Corps of Engineers was slow and without urgency. In both cases—and learning from mistakes—we have already implemented important changes for the benefit of the people.
As recently as last Monday, I had a meeting with part of the 9/20 Commission to improve emergency protocols and we are on track to have substantial improvements in the preparation and response to an upcoming threat from nature.
But it must also be acknowledged that we have brought about important transformations, with great successes in our management. This is the case of the changes that had been discussed for decades, but were not implemented, such as energy transformation, the education reform with educational vouchers and school partnerships; the new tourism and investment promotion model in Puerto Rico; a tax reform that will lower your taxes and increase our workforce; a reform for the insured, so that our people are not run over by the insurers and get answers and protection to their fair claims.
We are making these big changes a reality, as well as developing less complex initiatives, which nonetheless are changing the way the government operates in services to the citizens. As an example, we can highlight Cesco Digital; the access to electronic ticket purchases via porferry.com, the speed in tax return reimbursements and Christmas bonus payments; in addition to the cancellation of fines for the unacceptable work of the operator of the tolls; and the creation of 20 integrated service centers, among other initiatives to facilitate services to the people.
In my job, the most important thing is the motivation and commitment to serve Puerto Rico with absolute honesty, producing the best possible results.
I thank all the sectors of our society that have contributed so that today, for the first time in almost two decades, indexes of positive economic activity are reflected in our island.
To achieve this sign of economic recovery, we have worked very hard, alongside you in the Legislative Assembly, alongside the municipal governments and, above all, alongside our people, listening to their feelings.
The solution to problems is facilitated as we seek to work together and achieve areas of consensus, where common sense and the main objective is Puerto Rico and not an individual interest. Although political-partisan dynamics make harder to achieve what should be a noble purpose, I am optimistic and believe in Puerto Ricans: In our ability to excel and understand.
Today I will present to you what the Agenda of Puerto Rico should be to continue forward, towards the future, and not back down to the past.
For that, I want to define the five main objectives that crystallize our aspirations for Puerto Rico:
Firstly, a Puerto Rico that is Open for Business, where we facilitate the creation of jobs, developing a new economy and giving a frontal battle to bureaucracy.
The second objective is to achieve the aspiration of being the Connector of the Americas. Our geographic position, our human resource, our relationship with the United States, our shared culture with Latin America, our tourism offer, and our exporting competitiveness position us as the ideal meeting place in the Americas.
That brings me to the third objective: to achieve that we position ourselves as an Island of Innovation, where we maximize our human resources to provide solutions that add value to Puerto Rico before the world. To achieve this, our people are key. Therefore, a main objective has to be to reverse the migration that has manifested in the last 70 years and turn our island into what we call the Center of the Human Cloud. We will create the conditions that will allow us to stop the exodus, but also invite those who have left, to return home.
The last and potentially the most important objective is what we have termed the Enabling State. It is a government that establishes in its public policy the fundamental principle of the freedom of citizens and the offering of opportunities. The state provides possibilities to all: access to lifelong education, universal access to health services, to all elements necessary for the optimal development of the human being. The citizen uses his freedom to determine what to do with these opportunities. The power is in their hands.
Through the enabling state, inequality is directly attacked, facilitating mobility as well as economic and social development. Therefore, you will never be limited or discriminated against by your gender, economic condition, sexual orientation, or where you were born; by your race, or by your religion. This will create a fairer, empowered society, and a more productive economy with more jobs and alternatives for all.
To achieve this, we need an agenda that looks firmly into the future.
An agenda to avoid going back to the times when there was no accountability for the use of public resources, with erroneous financial decisions that led to the bankruptcy of the Government.
We must bear in mind that the daily struggles of our people are also our struggles.
The challenges that face mothers who are heads of families to provide a safe roof for their children is our struggle to facilitate conditions that allow them to move forward in a society of opportunities.
Achieving a fairer Puerto Rico, where our elderly and veterans have decent treatment and access to quality health services and medicines at affordable prices, is also my struggle.
To promote greater opportunities for young people who leave our universities in search of jobs and for those who choose to start their own businesses; that is also my struggle.
As is also my struggle to protect the income of our pensioners, something we have done since the first day we took office.
My struggle is to eliminate inequality and discrimination on our island; to achieve a safer and better-educated Puerto Rico. My struggle is to consolidate a health system that guarantees access to quality services for all. That health is a right, and not a privilege according to their economic capacity. That is my struggle.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature: Those struggles of the people are ours and to overcome them we must unite in the Agenda of Puerto Rico.
I am convinced that the mechanism of dialogue is the correct way to find solutions for many of the problems and controversies we have in our island. One example is the consensus that we achieved yesterday with religious leaders and the LGBTT community, which I trust facilitates the approval of a project that prohibits the so-called “conversion therapies,” and establishes guidelines for religious liberties.
They are issues on which there will be no unanimity in our society, but on which we can achieve solutions that are beneficial for the different parties, advancing the way without having to obstruct the other. We can try to reach a consensus and show that understanding is possible among Puerto Ricans.
I have to admit that I have been inspired by the work of a Puerto Rican woman, who works daily for the people in need.
Beatriz: On behalf of our people, I acknowledge you for all the work you carry on daily for the most vulnerable sectors of Puerto Rico. Thank you.
Today we can state that, in economic matters, we are making the change a reality. We are positioning Puerto Rico to be open for business and we will keep going.
The main indicators that are used to measure the behavior of the economy, both state and federal, have confirmed:
The unemployment rate stands at 8.8 percent; compared to the existing 12 percent at the time our administration took office.
By March of this year, 873,300 salaried positions were measured on the island. This represents 18,100 additional jobs compared to the same month of the previous year. It is important to note that this increase in jobs has occurred completely in the private sector.
During the last 12 months, bankruptcies in Puerto Rico have decreased by 4 percent.
For October 2018, retail sales increased by 18.4 percent compared to the previous year.
For February 2019, house sales increased by 19.6 percent compared to February 2018.
Foreclosures are at the lowest numbers that have been registered in nine years, with a decrease of 35 percent compared to 2017.
Meanwhile, for March 2019 the sale of automobiles increased by 16 percent, in comparison to the same month of 2018.
Tourism continues to grow, establishing new agreements with airlines, and we expect record numbers of visitors on cruises for this next fiscal year.
For the first time in 12 years, the economic activity index in Puerto Rico increased by 3 percent. This shows that there is confidence in the recovery of our island. All this has been achieved without having received most of the recovery funds for Puerto Rico. That shows that we are making the change a reality and we will keep going.
Transparency is an important part of making Puerto Rico a destination that is open for business. We make this transformation clear with the new public policy that defines a Incentives Code that is before the consideration of this Legislative Assembly.
This Incentives Code will measure the return on investment and give certainty to the market. Additionally, small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) and the agro-industry will benefit; commitment to farmers, cinema, culture, and tourism is reaffirmed; and opportunities for our young people are promoted. Programs for Third Age adults are also included in the new Incentives Code.
Among multiple measures, the Student Savings Plan or Mi Futuro Account program is included in the Incentives Code, where the Government will establish a bank account and make a contribution of $1,000 to each kindergarten student in the public system, which will be invested in a trust. Added contributions from relatives, non-profit organizations, and metal prizes, which children cannot obtain, can be added to these accounts. The funds will be invested for the benefit of the student and the flow will then be available to support postsecondary studies, occupational studies, or the opening of their own business. This initiative has been shown to reduce social inequality, as well as increase academic performance and school retention. These accounts are an investment in our future: our children.
I must also point out that the Code extends the incentives for the stay in Puerto Rico of medical specialists until 2020. This law has already had its results, recently seeing an increase in medical specialists on the island for the first time in many years.
Joining us today is 14-year-old Alexandra Franco, the youngest student to be admitted to the School of Medicine of the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico.
That talent of Alexandra, born and educated in our island, is the kind of talent we have to make sure we keep in Puerto Rico.
For those graduate doctors who make a commitment to provide their services in Puerto Rico for a minimum term of seven years, the Incentives Code will provide a mechanism to forgive their student debt.
Like all medical students, Alexandra will have an additional incentive to remain working in Puerto Rico once she completes her studies, serving as a doctor to her people, here on our island.
Another way to demonstrate that we are open for business and connecting with the rest of the world is establishing new markets in Puerto Rico. It is a great way to add value to our economy. Our administration has already done it with medicinal cannabis and hemp; we included crypto currency and block chain in the Incentives Code; we have taken steps to promote sharing economy such as AirBnB and Uber, and we have a legislative measure for these purposes. All these industries will bring hundreds of millions of dollars more to our economy and create thousands of new jobs.
Another opportunity is presented with a case decided last year by the Supreme Court of the United States, which opens the door for states to regulate sports betting and E-Gaming.
Two studies have been presented on the impact that this industry would have in Puerto Rico, estimating income for the Government in $29 million for the year 2020, until reaching $87 million for the year 2024. These projections are based on the authorization of sports bets in casinos, horse racing venues, equestrian agencies, and Internet games. Additionally, it allows for cockfighting venues to serve as betting centers, guaranteeing economic sustainability, in face of the threat that we will continue fighting from the federal Farm Bill to this industry.
But the great opportunity that I see is eSports. These are multi-player competitions in electronic games, organized in professional leagues. They fill stadiums in their events and they are the second most watched sport in the whole world. It has been estimated that, for this year, over 430 million people across the world will be watching these events through streaming videos, most of them between the ages of 18 through 35. Can you imagine that we can turn Puerto Rico into an important venue for these events? The opportunities are there, and we will go for them.
Energy represents a fundamental change in the way we operate. While it is true that it helps us economically, there are countless other values that are very important. The supply of energy must be a fundamental right. Production must not only offer purchase options, but production options as well. The consumer must be at the center of the new model, promoting renewable energy and distributed generation to improve the impact on the environment.
This is another difficult area where we have been able to work in consensus and in teams, integrating legislators from all parties into this effort.
We have passed two laws that lead the transformation and establish public policy. Purely and simply, we are leaving behind the expensive model—which is harmful to the environment, unreliable, old, poorly maintained, and highly vulnerable—to build a new model of Energy 2.0, that is at the forefront and that serves our people. In energy, we will be the Island of Innovation.
Now we are going for a new energy model, with the collaboration of various sectors, to achieve the objective of 40 percent renewable energy between the years 2023-2025 and 100 percent in 2050. We will eliminate coal burning by 2020. This will be a key element of our commitment to Puerto Rico to combat climate change.
The supply of accessible energy as a fundamental right is part of the enabling state.
It is important for me to give you an account of our road improvement project and Abriendo Caminos (Opening Roads) program.
In the Highway and Transportation Authority (ACT, for its Spanish acronym) we have managed to start with the most aggressive permanent works program in the past decades; this is without considering the emergency works related to Hurricane Maria.
During 2018, a total of $306 million were contracted for Abriendo Caminos, Alivio de Congestión (Traffic Relief), and other federal projects. This hiring performed in a single year exceeds by 27 percent the investment contracted in the four years of the previous administration.
Abriendo Caminos is benefiting our citizens on the PR-2 roads in the west, north and south; the Luis A. Ferré Expressway between San Juan and Ponce, the PR-1, the De Diego Avenue, the Kennedy Expressway, the PR-200 in Vieques, and roads PR-250 and 251 in Culebra, among many other important routes.
During the four years of our administration, ACT contemplates executing permanent works for more than $1.5 billion, which is equivalent to an increase of more than 400 percent over the work begun by the previous government. We have deposited more than 140,000 tons of asphalt. At the end of the four-year term, we will have impacted roads throughout Puerto Rico.
Of the $652 million of Abriendo Caminos, we will have 70 percent completed by the end of 2019; by 2020, 100 percent of the program will be reached.
Among the most important decisions stands out the cancellation of the system administration contract of Autoexpreso. Fines were eliminated and no new fines will be issued until improvements are made to the system. We are in the process of requesting proposals for the operation and improvements to the Autoexpreso system. The contract with the new operator should become effective by the end of the third quarter of this year.
Safety is a priority. We will continue to allocate more resources to effectively fight crime, make our streets safe, and implement the friendly hand strategy for long-term.
We have had a marked decrease in crimes and murders in recent years, but we will keep going. We cannot allow crime to occupy our streets.
We recently watched a video on social networks where a policeman had to face a group of criminals who impacted his patrol with an all-terrain vehicle. The law enforcement officer kept control at that difficult time, where his life was threatened. Subsequently, the police managed to carry out the arrests related to the incident with his partner.
Joining us today here is the police officer from that video, and who worthily represents the courage and commitment of our policemen and women. My deep gratitude goes to Agent José Santiago and all our police force.
We will continue working to do justice to our police, defending their retirement, adding social security, and searching for programs that finance housing for active police officers.
In addition to investing in wage increases for our officers, this year we have allocated resources to have more than 200 new patrols, 130 motorcycles, firearms, among other equipment. May criminals be aware that our police force will be equipped with the best technology for their defense and for the protection of the people of Puerto Rico.
Recently, the university institutions interested in competing for the transformation of the Police Academy were chosen. We hope to start a new academy during the next trimester of 2019. Our commitment is to achieve the best possible training for our police.
We recently held a security summit with participation from all sectors: police, communities, non-profit organizations, government agencies, municipalities, and the Legislative Assembly, among others. During the summit, Aníbal Santana spoke to us: he gave us testimony of someone who had committed murders and explained his rehabilitation process. I invite you to learn about this testimony. Personally, it changed my perspective. The summit was an example of how we can achieve collaboration to address complex problems, such as crime, more effectively.
Under the new leadership of Captain Elmer Román, we will continue to implement initiatives to integrate the Department of Public Safety (DSP); to establish the fusion center that facilitates distribution, collaboration, and intelligence access to combat crime, while we also work to identify new federal resources to fight drug traffic and organized crime. My appreciation also goes to the commissioner of the Police, Henry Escalera, and to all the commissioners of the DSP.
Health systems in Puerto Rico have undergone changes. The Arbona model gave health access to people without resources but, over time, it became two systems: one for the rich and one for the poor.
Health reform in the 1990 dramatically changed that, proposing the largest social justice initiative of past decades, guaranteeing access to a single system for all the people of Puerto Rico.
However, we also had to modernize this system and change it. We had to leave behind the regional monopoly of insurers and provide free access to the people of Puerto Rico to choose services throughout the island.
This change is achieved with the new Salud Vital (Vital Health) model. Now, it is a single region. Now, all patients will have the power to choose their insurer and provider, without geographical barrier limitations; and they will be able to change if they are not satisfied with their service. That is power in their hands. That is the enabling state.
We have stopped the trend in the exodus of medical specialists, we inaugurated the Centro Comprensivo de Cáncer operations, and units were created for fraud detection and for having a more effective system. I reiterate that we will continue to allocate the necessary resources so that Centro Médico continues to serve the large population they care for.
As part of our commitment to achieve greater access to quality health services, we must also seek access to medicines at reasonable prices.
Over the years, the cost of medicines has become an economic burden for a large part of the population. This is unacceptable. Therefore, I propose to add the following to Act 7 of 2019, which orders the publication of prices of the most used drugs in a portal:
- Regulate the pharmacy benefit managers (PBM), which can be the cause of the excessive increase in drug prices, by retaining what should have been the so-called rebate for insurers or clients that hire PBMs. Given this situation, we are requesting that the Legislative Assembly approve Senate Bill 218, which aims to regulate the link in the distribution chain, as we committed ourselves to in the Plan for Puerto Rico.
- I am submitting legislation to require manufacturers and distributors to notify and justify the Government before adopting a price increase of more than 16 percent. Similarly, they will be required to provide annual data reports on the price structure of generic drugs; and the intervention of pertinent agencies—such as the departments of Health and Consumer Affairs—will be guaranteed to protect and control, for the benefit of patients.
We are creating an enabling state, where access to medicines is not the privilege of some, but accessible to all. In the health field, we are also making change a reality and we will keep going.
In education, the most comprehensive transformation in the history of the public system is underway. A true reform for our children, a reform for our future.
They said that we could not have school alliances; that we could not give education vouchers to our people; that we could not professionalize, and that we could not establish earlier education with Transitional Kindergarten. Said and done: we are doing it and we will keep going.
There are teachers who for decades have been working on the uncertainty that comes with being a transitory teacher. Today, Professor Rebeca Rivera from the municipality of Gurabo joins us; she has been teaching English as a transitory teacher for five years. Like her, there are thousands of committed teachers in the public system, who deserve to work with greater employment security.
Before you, I am pleased to highlight the executive action that grants permanence to over 1,500 transitory teachers in our education system. Likewise, I announce the hiring of more than 100 school psychologists, fundamental resources that were not previously present in schools, to address the various problems that may affect our students.
The Educational Vouchers Program will begin next school year 2019-2020 and will impact students between second and twelfth grades who have completed at least two years in the public education system, giving priority to the most vulnerable.
With the transformation of the education system, starting next semester, students from kindergarten to third grade will have access to a tablet device during class sessions, according to the plan established by their teachers.
Meanwhile, fourth through twelfth grade students will have access to laptops to be used according to the plan established by their teachers.
The plan to install Wi-Fi networks in all schools is already in execution, maintaining 100 percent coverage in all classrooms and school facilities. The goal during the next school year will be to achieve an increase in bandwidth in all schools, reaching 750 megabytes. In school technology matters, we are also making the change a reality and we will keep going.
Change and transformation must also reach higher education, recognizing it as a fundamental right for our people.
Like other public policy initiatives or disruptive technology, the approach begins with those who do not have access to higher education at this time. The idea is based on the concept of opening doors to those who today are denied the opportunity.
That is, it entails building a mechanism for those who cannot or have not been able to access a university education for money, time, distance, or work reasons. To them, we offer a mechanism to do so. Technology allows us to do so today.
It is important to note that the mechanism I am proposing would not imply an initial change in the current university model, but would add options for everyone. It represents an action of the government itself. Current technology allows us to access certified courses at the highest global level in countless areas of knowledge.
We now have the extraordinary opportunity to position ourselves at the forefront of this issue, consistent with our public policy model of the enabling state. Therefore, I have signed an executive order creating the multi-sector working group to implement the right of free access to university for those who qualify for their merits and credentials. The group will have to report on how to design and implement this right to free university education within the next 120 days.
There is no greater satisfaction and pride than being the governor of a people that has demonstrated heart, resilience, character, and commitment to overcome, shining through the world.
Today we are joined by the members of the basketball team that represented us in the Special Olympics, obtaining the gold medal for Puerto Rico by beating the Emirates in that world competition final.
For each one of you and your parents, I extend the recognition of our people, for showing to the world that there is no obstacle that we cannot overcome, until reaching the peak of the great goals. You are Puerto Rico!
I have expressed the need to analyze and consider a new model of regional and municipal organization in Puerto Rico. I do not intend to achieve unanimity in such a complex matter; but what I understand we can most agree on, is that the current model does not meet the expectations.
Together—mayors, legislators and mainly citizens—we can define a new organization model that will better serve the people.
To this end, four working groups have been created to evaluate and study issues such as the governance and structure of the regions; the composition of said regions; the services that the counties of the municipalities will assume and those that will descend from the central Government to the counties; in addition to the fiscal model and the sources of income.
The important thing is that we start to consider a new governance model, where there is a potential for savings of over $800 million per year, but, more importantly, where you will have better quality and greater access to services.
It is important to note that this change is not and will not be overnight. It will take years and, in the process, I have committed myself to the mayors to seek transitional measures in order to help settle the municipalities. We will be announcing these measures soon.
We are only weeks away from the beginning of a new hurricane season. The trauma that represented the impact of two catastrophic cyclones is still present. Next May 10 we will be holding an inter-agency summit, with the participation of the private and civic sectors, to review contingency plans in the event of an emergency during the new season.
Climate change is directly linked to this issue. As a scientist, I see that this is the most relevant issue of this generation and the next. There is no doubt that there have been significant changes in weather patterns that are affecting the entire world.
Various studies have positioned our island as one of the most affected jurisdictions worldwide. That is why we have to make a commitment to effectively address climate change, a Pledge for Puerto Rico, which includes:
Proceed towards renewables (40 percent between the years 2023-2025, 100 percent in 2050).
Reduce carbon footprint by 50 percent in 5 to 7 years.
Invest 100 percent of capital expenditures in resilience.
Aggressive reforestation, and the protection of coasts, aquifers, beaches, and dunes.
Educational curriculum aimed at resiliency, mitigation, preparation, and adaptation.
Invest our recovery money in resilience.
The project is before the consideration of this body. Approving it is an important step to begin welcoming together this very important cause. It is the maximum legacy we can leave to our planet.
I want to take a moment and talk about the recovery and the federal funds.
Since day one we have been working to build the most transparent and effective system; with unprecedented controls to ensure that resources reach Puerto Rico. Even with the inequality and lack of power, we managed to secure the largest contribution of federal funds in the history of Puerto Rico, thanks to the teamwork with our resident commissioner.
However, there has always been unequal treatment. In FEMA funds, while all the states have had the power of disbursement, Puerto Rico did not. We fought this for 13 months.
We sat at the table and after a lot of work for a few weeks —although not yet in all sectors—we will have the power of disbursement in critical areas such as housing and education, among others.
Of the $19.9 billion allocated to Puerto Rico in CDBG-DR funds, action plans for $9.7 billion have already been accepted. These typically arrive later in disasters. In Puerto Rico, we are on time or advanced at this point.
What can we expect from now towards the next months? For the month of July we will have several of the programs running, including investments for mixed housing projects, revolving loans for commercial and construction loans, and financing for small businesses. The largest program for reconstruction, relocation, and home repair will also begin. The latter is expected to start operating by the end of August.
Likewise, projects to grant land titles will begin in August.
Another important program is cost share, which allows us to use CDBG funds to pay for the local portion of FEMA projects. This will significantly boost the projects that can be carried out.
The signature of the HUD secretary is what is left in order to direct other programs consisting of $8.2 billion. We hope to obtain a resolution in the coming month. That will add additional capital to the aforementioned programs, and it will open the space for larger infrastructure projects that we will start before the end of 2019, such as the extension of roads PR-10, PR-2, and PR-5.
I know it has taken time, and that this has also been a great source of frustration. But we have made progress with FEMA, and with the CDBG funds we are in the right direction. These funds will reach Puerto Rico and will be a great part of the success and opportunity for an unprecedented reconstruction of the island, thus facilitating the development of a robust economy.
One of the achievements of our administration has been the granting of title deeds to families, who, for decades, have been waiting for justice. Today we are joined by the family of Osvaldo Rosa Viera and Damary Marrero, in representation of 428 families who, under our government, have received the title to their homes.
The Department of the Treasury is a fundamental agency for obtaining the resources that the state needs to serve Puerto Rico. I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary performance of Secretary Raúl Maldonado and his entire team.
Today Puerto Rico has a government that complies with the people. From 2017 through this date, taxpayers have been reimbursed over $1.2 billion in tax returns, while collections have increased by $400 million over what was estimated. Thanks to this efficiency, the Government maintains a stable operation and Puerto Ricans demonstrate their confidence in the Department of the Treasury, receiving this year about 40 thousand additional payrolls compared to last year.
I remind you that effective in October and as part of the recently approved tax reform, our people will benefit from a decrease in the Sales and Use Tax (IVU, for its Spanish acronym) for prepared foods, from the current 11.5 percent, to 7 percent. In tax matters, we are also making the change a reality and we will keep going.
The people of Puerto Rico have been a people historically committed to the defense of human rights and democracy. It is part of our idiosyncrasy. It is part of our struggle to break the chains of colonialism.
That is why we cannot overlook nor ignore the misfortune lived by a country 500 miles south of our coasts. I have denounced and will continue to denounce, in solidarity with the people of Venezuela, the criminal dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro in that country. It represents the opposite of an enabling state.
It is a matter of principles that defines the political thought of those who intend to govern. You have to assume clear positions. Dictatorships are called by their name and condemned publicly. The opposite would be to make common cause with a criminal regime that abuses its people, as is happening in Venezuela.
Our struggles are preceded by centuries of colonialism, which have evolved with the change of sovereignty since 1898. Since then, there have been political changes that have allowed us a partial development, but without achieving the equal treatment that American citizens who reside in the states have.
There have been many obstacles that we have had to overcome along the way; recently, the imposition of a Financial Oversight and Management Board, which has sought to go beyond the powers conferred by PROMESA.
I reiterate that I recognize the jurisdiction of the Financial Oversight and Management Board over Puerto Rico, as defined by the law that creates said body, which has never granted it power to determine public policy that corresponds to the government elected by the people. It is time for the members of that board to understand it and—instead of hindering the provision of essential services to the people—facilitate both the financial recovery of the state and the economic recovery in Puerto Rico.
The members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board have the same responsibility of accountability on the use of public funds that the Government of Puerto Rico has. So far, that has not been their way of proceeding, so I encourage the United States Congress to pass judgment on the administrative operations of the Financial Oversight and Management Board.
Another obstacle that we have encountered along the way has been a hostile attitude from some components of the federal government towards Puerto Rico.
That is the reality that we live today in our relationship with the current administration in Washington. No state with representation in the United States Congress and Senate would be imposed such adverse conditions to achieve the disbursement of allocated funds, as those being imposed on Puerto Rico.
I reiterate to President Trump that he is discriminating against 3 million American citizens who reside in Puerto Rico, whose relatives living in the continental states—and who add up to almost 6 million—are paying attention to the treatment given to our island.
During the next presidential campaign in the United States, I will deliver the message with the claim of equal civil rights for our people to each of the 50 states. Let it be known in the nation that there is discrimination against 3 million American citizens under the flag of the United States. That each of the candidates for the presidency have to express themselves on this regard.
Together with our Resident Commissioner Jennifer González, we will defend the interests of Puerto Rico in Congress, in the Senate and before the Executive—fundamentally because we are right—without ruling out judicial means to enforce our claims.
The strength of our people is unstoppable in their claim to equality. To that end, we will lead the carrying out of a Yes or No Statehood referendum as part of the mechanism to definitely resolve the colonial problem of Puerto Rico.
I would now like to address President Donald Trump and remind him that, by rejecting statehood, he is discriminating against over 3 million American citizens in Puerto Rico, whose friends and family residing in the continental states—almost 6 million—are paying close attention to how this U.S. territory is being treated by our federal Government.
In the upcoming 2020 presidential campaign, Puerto Rico’s treatment by the federal Government and our unequal relationship with the United States will be a key civil rights issue at the national level. I will be delivering this message to all 50 states so that our voice is heard.
Let it be known across the nation that over 3 million American citizens do not have equal representation in their government. I call upon all presidential candidates to take a clear stance in favor of equality for all Americans, take a stance in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico, and express themselves strongly in this regard.
This process has already begun, and I am grateful for the support that has been expressed in favor of equality for Puerto Rico by several Democratic presidential candidates: Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Yang, John Delaney, Jay Inslee, Wayne Messam, and Marianne Williamson.
As Americans, Puerto Ricans deserve a swift recovery from Hurricane Maria. Over two years after the catastrophic event, we are still waiting for the disbursement of most of the funds already allocated by Congress. Alongside our Resident Commissioner González, we will continue to defend the interests of Puerto Rico before the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch, without ruling out any legal action to ensure these resources are available for the reconstruction of our island.
Brothers and sisters of Puerto Rico,
What should we strive to achieve in order to consolidate Puerto Rico as a modern, safe, and progressive society? The answer to that question must be constituted in the Agenda of Puerto Rico.
There is a common denominator which limits that we can achieve these objectives with the haste that our people claim and deserve. Let us talk up front and clear. The current colonial condition of Puerto Rico—based on the inequality as American citizens—limits that we can have the best possible health system, the best possible education system, and the resources to maintain the highest-level infrastructure worldwide.
If as a society we aspire to achieve that better quality of life for our families, let us see the solution to that problem as a claim of civil rights equality for our people, and not as a political-partisan issue.
Why waste time in small controversies between political parties on the island, when we have the opportunity to unite and claim equality for Puerto Rico in Washington?
Never before had so much awareness been created in the American people about the problem of colonial discrimination in Puerto Rico. Around 75 percent of American citizens favor the admission of Puerto Rico as the 51st State. So, what are we waiting to demand the fullness of our rights?
The future of our children and our grandchildren, and the present of all the families of Puerto Rico are more important than political parties. Let us confront the federal Government with the claim of a single people that demands equality. Let us raise before the world the claim of dignity of a noble and courageous people, who seeks the legitimate right to be treated on equal terms with the citizens of the 50 states.
That is the Agenda of Puerto Rico; and that is the path to follow.
If you believe in the Agenda of Puerto Rico, if you have confidence in the overcoming ability of Puerto Ricans, join me on the road to the total recovery of our country.
If you long to have all the opportunities that allow you to achieve your maximum possible development here, in Puerto Rico, join me on the road to build a more dignified, fair, and productive society.
If you want to live in a Puerto Rico where respect for the dignity of the human being prevails—leaving in the past all kinds of discrimination—join me on the path of unity and understanding among all Puerto Ricans.
Let us walk together towards the new Puerto Rico!
Thank you very much.