Puerto Rico House speaker: Legislature to consider gov’s not board’s budget
Gov. Rosselló to break protocol and won’t deliver budget speech in Capitol next week
SAN JUAN — Anthony Maceira, the Public Affairs secretary of the Puerto Rico governor’s office, La Fortaleza, said Wednesday that “there are different ways” in which lawmakers can block the budget they received by the island’s fiscal oversight board and work on the governor’s version.
“The details of how it will be done, we will see in the coming weeks,” Maceira said.
Last week, the governor submitted a $9.53 billion budget for fiscal year 2020, which the fiscal board rejected and sent its own version to the legislature, of $9.05 billion.
“The budget that will go through the corresponding Legislative Assembly’s process and that we hope will be passed will be the governor’s,” Maceira added, noting that although some budget items could be agreed upon with the board, “when it comes to public policy issues, the governor and lawmakers are the ones who determine public policy.”
Education, public workers’ pensions and healthcare issues in the budget will not be negotiated further with the board, Maceira stressed.
“The board’s budget will not be passed…they do not determine Puerto Rico’s public policy,” he reiterated.
Earlier Wednesday, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló insisted that the budget he submitted to the fiscal board last week will be the one the Legislative Assembly addresses.
At the news conference in Bayamón Police headquarters, where some 55 motorcycles were made available to officers, Rosselló said his version of the budget is the one based on his administration’s priorities.
The governor said he sent the board a several-page explanatory note explaining and justifying every item in the budget.
The governor further noted that he had spoken with the board about adding resources for the Education Department; nevertheless, the fiscal panel cut $262 million from the agency.
Rosselló said his administration’s public policy is based on improving the island’s public schools, in areas such as the STEM program, which require investments.
“STEM education is not free, a bilingual education is not free, the infrastructure improvements are not free, transportation and modernizing education is not free, the increases in teacher’s salaries are not free,” he said, listing reasons why he felt the department needed more funds.
The governor stressed that the board announced in less than 24 hours that the budget presented was not in compliance with its fiscal plan.
“What justifies the insistence on these reductions?” he questioned. “This not a company or a nonprofit entity,” Rosselló stressed. “This is money that should be invested to improve the quality of life of the people.”
He reiterated that public workers’ pensions will not be cut and that investment in the Education Department was necessary.
Earlier, House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez said lawmakers would work on the budget submitted to the board by the governor as the cuts to Education and pensions were “unacceptable.”
“The legislative leaders are going to make sure the government’s public policy is complied with,” the governor said. “I will be formally presenting the budget we submitted for the Legislative Assembly’s evaluation to be able to achieve and justify the different items and our administration priorities. I am meeting with lawmakers today to discuss the steps to follow but the legislative leaders’ commitment and that of all lawmakers is that the administration’s public policy is complied with.”
Rosselló did not give a specific date on when he would formally present the government budget to the legislature or when he would be delivering his annual budget address, the event for which will not take place at the House of Representatives’ chamber in the Puerto Rico Capitol, but rather an undisclosed location, Speaker Méndez announced Wednesday after meeting with majority lawmakers at La Fortaleza.
“We have just culminated the legislative conference with the governor and lawmakers where we discussed various issues, including the budget address and the presentation of the budget to the country,” Méndez said at a brief news conference. “We have agreed that the day of the budget address will be announced next week and the budget’s presentation will not be at the Capitol.”
Méndez said the Capitol’s lower chamber suffered damage during Hurricane Maria and is being repaired.
“We wish and have the intention of presenting the budget to the country in another place that will be announced at a later time, at a place that is closer to the people,” while making the budget presentation “much more accessible,” the speaker added.
Méndez said the meeting was productive and that lawmakers will be passing a number of bills before June 25.
Secretary Maceira said that among the measures that should be passed is one related to access to information and government transparency.
“Also discussed were sports betting, sports booking legislation, a bill on amending the Inspector General’s Office that would give it more fiscal, operational and administrative autonomy so it can serve as an oversight office in the permit-granting process,” Maceira said.
The secretary also said the 2020 budget was “discussed extensively,” and that the “governor will be submitting his budget and the address will be next week,” Maceira said.
When asked by reporters why the address will not be delivered at the Capitol, given that public hearings continue to be held in the building despite the infrastructure damage, Maceira said the roof was still being repaired.
“But this represents an opportunity to do something different and for the first time in history deliver the budget address outside the Capitol, at a place closer to the people,” he said, adding that the Constitution does not require the address be given at the Capitol, but rather before the Legislative Assembly.
While at the press conference in Bayamón, Rosselló also distributed supplemental health insurance cards to police officers and firefighters that will cover any deductibles when receiving medical services in state hospitals. With these, the governor said, the first responders and their family will not have to pay a deductible even if they have a private or government health insurance.