Sen. Scott becomes an ally for Puerto Rico

The Senator From Florida Goes After Low-Hanging Fruit

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Feb. 7 -13, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

When freshman Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) speaks about Puerto Rico issues, he gives the impression that he is just becoming acquainted with the island’s many challenges impeding economic development—this despite his terms in office as the governor of Florida, where more than 1 million Puerto Ricans reside along the I-4 corridor. He knows a thing or two about the tremendous challenges Puerto Rico faces under the constraints of the Financial Oversight & Management Board enabled by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act (Promesa) because he had to cater to his Puerto Rican constituents to win the Senate seat he now holds.

Yet, during a meeting hosted inside the Puerto Rico State Department’s executive boardroom, hosted by Secretary of State Luis G. Marín and Puerto Rico Federal Affairs (PRFAA) Executive Director Carlos Mercader, Scott listened attentively to members of the island’s private sector as though he were unaware of the laundry list of gripes voiced in that room.

For instance, when it came to disaster-relief funding, he was not aware of the fracas between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over the conditions under which that money was to be disbursed. People in the room explained that Puerto Rico gets only half ($750) the national average in Section 8 housing vouchers; that FEMA was cutting disaster relief. “We at the AGC [Associated General Contractors of America] are very vigilant about the funding that is supposed to come for Puerto Rico’s reconstruction,” said AGC President Alejandro Abrams, in reference to the Community Development Block Grant. “We heard in today’s news that FEMA cut $1 billion from the reconstruction of schools. They had included all sorts of money for Puerto Rico’s reconstruction in their assessment and now they are changing that assessment based on the application of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which included language indicating that Puerto Rico was not going to have pre-existing conditions tied to funding. While there are general guidelines that apply, that is changing by the minute.”

“That is done through HUD?” he asked, to which he got an affirmative response, which prompted him to punctuate his remark with “just put that in writing for me and I will get it to [U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development] Secretary [Benjamin] Carson.”

Urgent, urgent—emergency?

It seems unlikely, however, that the senator’s work on Puerto Rico’s behalf will lead to swift action by HUD. Sen. Scott has been vocal in calling for President Donald J. Trump to declare a national emergency over the $5.7 billion that Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are refusing to assign for the construction of a wall along the Southern border of the United States. Caribbean Business asked the senator whether he was aware that in so doing Trump would be able to access unseized military funding originally destined for the reconstruction of jurisdictions that were impacted by the 2017 hurricanes.

“Well, here’s what I believe. First of all, I don’t believe that the government should shut down,” Scott said with a steely stare. “I also believe we should fund it properly through U.S. Congress. If you look at all of us, we are not for a government shutdown. Does anybody think that we should not have border security?— ‘No.’ So Congress should do its job. I understand the frustration on the president’s part when the things he is proposing do not happen. So, I would hope that he doesn’t have to use emergency funding. But if he does declare an emergency, I hope he does it a way that does not impact disaster relief because of what Puerto Rico has gone through. People need that relief funding, that is why I am hoping that Congress will do their job. Also, if he does obtain the funding, I think he should take care of the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] kids at the same time. They did not do anything illegal. They came here, and we helped raise them.”

Truth be told, Puerto Rico exposed itself to be treated differently early in the recovery process when it insisted on receiving other funding—Community Disaster Loan (CDL) money from the U.S. Treasury (UST) in March. That the Rosselló administration wanted the money without ties caused friction within the rank and file at the UST.

When U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin visited Puerto Rico in March 2018 for a meeting with Gov. Rosselló and members of the Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB), many local government officials were encouraged by news that the feds had increased a liquidity threshold for the release of funds tied to the CDLs. The original conditions for fund disbursement—that Puerto Rico’s Treasury Single Account had to dip below $800 million—was increased by $300 million to $1.1 billion. The loan agreement is hardly free of conditions, according to additional terms being drafted by the UST.

“The conditions tied to the loan are perhaps more complicated because of Promesa and what it calls for, which is not something other jurisdictions have to deal with,” one source on the Hill, with ties to the Trump administration, previously told Caribbean Business. “It is precisely what the governor has been trying to do [get the funds unencumbered] and the U.S. Treasury has been pushing back because this is not optional. This is the way the U.S. Congress has laid out the law. This is the way it has to be.”

The conditions were mapped out in an addendum that is particular to Puerto Rico’s case which, because of Promesa’s stipulations, sets in black and white the CDL funding uses. The doctrine underpinning this set of rules hinges on keeping monies destined far from debt servicing and payment for lobbyists and advisers.

The loan, whose purpose is to support cash needs, may be drawn upon until Oct. 31 and, after that time, no drawdowns can occur. It will be repaid twice a year, in July and January.

The money can be used to fund essential services, payroll and benefits, pensions, facilities maintenance that is not infrastructure improvements and to buy materials or pay suppliers. It cannot be used to pay debt service, refinance debt, pay for capital improvements, restore damaged facilities, provide tax refunds, pay for lobbying or pay for any Title III costs. It cannot be used to transfer funds, pay for administrative costs of federal disaster assistance or pay for disaster-related expenditures.

“The stuff that it cannot be used for seems fairly reasonable, because if you are going to obtain money from FEMA to repair things, don’t get charged against this—that is a different bucket of money and we are not going to let you do that,” the Trump source added.

Two sources with knowledge of the negotiations tied to the loan explained that because Puerto Rico is restructuring its debt through Title III of Promesa, the funds will not be granted unencumbered. “The other important thing to know is that this document is heavily predicated on the Promesa board’s approved budgets—the thing that baffles people is that the governor believes it is predicated on his budget, no matter what the board says. If that is true, he is never going to get that money.”

Where there is a will…

Decidedly there is much that could be done by U.S. Congress if there were the political will. Among the low-hanging fruit discussed at the meeting was the lack of parity in Medicare and Medicaid funding for the island. At this writing, Puerto Rico is pushing for Congress to pass the Puerto Rico Integrity in Medicare Advantage Act (Prima), which would increase the reimbursements to Medicare Advantage. The legislation also seeks to stop the exodus of medical professionals by eliminating payment disparities.

Some in the room feel Sen. Scott is all in on Puerto Rico. “There are reasons to be encouraged that we have Sen. Scott as an ally for Puerto Rico, although it is easy to be pessimistic based on past experiences,” PRFAA Executive Director Carlos Mercader told Caribbean Business in a quick aside after the roundtable with the senator. “Puerto Rico issues had never had the exposure that they have now. He has self-proclaimed that he is the senator for Puerto Rico. He has only been in his post for six weeks and he has taken Puerto Rico to heart as something very personal. Add to that the help that [U.S. Sen. Charles] Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.] has been providing. It doesn’t mean things are going to change overnight. But there is good reason to be optimistic.”

It all boils down to politics, according to the GOP source. “I think this is Jenniffer González trying to flex her muscle showing she has access and that being in the House minority doesn’t mean she won’t be able to get things done for Puerto Rico. And he gives her credit for his performance in the [midterms] with the Puerto Rican constituents. He views her help as being instrumental in Florida in general and that community in particular. So, I think those are the big-ticket items.”

Rallying support of his colleagues in the GOP—let alone bipartisan support inside a very dysfunctional Congress—is an exercise steeped in hardship. “I was only one person when I started a company and, 10 years later, we had 5,000 people working and we added 1.7 million jobs in Florida. I believe you just have to work hard at it. We all have to work together to get things done,” Scott said in reference to the dysfunction that reigns on Capitol Hill. “I have gotten things done by building relationships and having ideas that I believe in. It isn’t going to be easy. Everybody ought to work together to figure out how things can get done.”

(Screen capture of www.c-span.org)

“So, I’m optimistic that if we all go up there with the right ideas and work together, we can get things done. My experience with government is that they are like actors, they just talk, and nothing gets done,” said Scott, who knows Capitol Hill politics well from his two terms as governor of Florida. “I’ll give you the example of Florida. When I came into office, the prices of homes had dropped 50 percent and we managed to create 1.7 million jobs and home prices went up by 50 percent. Now, we actually need workers. So, if you get on a plane today, you can have a job in Florida tomorrow. That makes it difficult for Puerto Rico. So, we have to figure out Puerto Rico’s strengths and play to them and then build on them.”

If we build it, they will come

Among the strengths the senator sees for Puerto Rico is the development of the island’s tourism industry as an untapped source of job creation. “The island is a part of the United States; it has beautiful beaches, beautiful weather. So, I see an opportunity to grow tourism if the money is spent properly—it will represent a lot of jobs. When I became governor of Florida, we had 80 million tourists coming to the state. The last year I was in office, we had 125 million [visitors] and we had some 4 million jobs,” Scott told Caribbean Business. “The other opportunity Puerto Rico has is in the ports. In Florida, we had some 15 seaports. In Florida, we invested over $4 billion over eight years, and we saw more than a 300,000 increase in trade jobs.”

Added to that the senator believes the new Congress should see to it that there is a change in tax policy, so it benefits the island and is not a hindrance. “We have talked quite a bit about that; we saw what happened at the end of 2017, and we have to work on that. Those are the things long term that are going to help the island become self-sufficient,” the senator added.

Provisions in Trump’s tax policy, which aim to bring operations and jobs back to the United States from overseas locations, apply to Puerto Rico just as they would to foreign countries. In addition, a 12.5 percent tax on profits derived from intellectual property held in foreign jurisdictions also applies to the island.

González, however, is trying to equalize matters by filing legislation that would extend supplemental Social Security benefits to Puerto Rico, which are mainly available to stateside residents.

The source with ties to the Trump administration put it like this: “The senator is really smart on financial issues; [Scott] understands that Puerto Rico doesn’t have a real government and the actions are subject to review by the courts and all of this debt problem could eventually be transferred to the U.S. Treasury. Sen. Scott knows that if things are done that can create economic activity for Puerto Rico, it is important for the federal Treasury because it would be very difficult for Republicans to explain potential future actions if those had to be taken. Democrats who believe in identity politics would be happy to write a big check for Puerto Rico; Republicans would not.”




Florida gov requests presidential major disaster declaration

SAN JUAN – Following Hurricane Michael’s landfall near Mexico Beach in Bay County, Fla., at approximately 2 p.m., Gov. Rick Scott formally requested that President Donald Trump issue a Major Disaster Declaration to expedite resources and assistance for impacted communities from the federal government.

President Trump issued a pre-landfall Emergency Declaration Tuesday, which authorized the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide assistance “for required emergency measures, to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in the designated areas.”

On Oct. 7, Scott declared a state of emergency in 26 Florida counties, and expanded it to include 35 total counties on Oct. 8.

The Florida State Emergency Response Team estimated that more than 375,000 Floridians were ordered to evacuate. There were 54 shelters open with a population of nearly 6,700 people, according to a release issued by the governor’s office, which included the following details.

Prior to Michael’s impact, Scott called on local government to confirm their mutual aid agreements between investor-owned utilities, municipals and co-ops so there is no delay in power restoration.

The agreements allow municipal utilities to receive aid from investor-owned utilities and co-ops as they work to restore power to customers. More than 19,000 power restoration personnel were pre-positioned. Some 388,160 people lost power.

The Florida National Guard activated 3,500 soldiers and airmen for pre-landfall coordination and planning, with an emphasis on high water and search and rescue operations. It has four CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the New York and Mississippi National Guards available to augment capabilities.

The National Guard is performing a variety of missions, including staffing 12 shelters, preparing 30 Points of Distribution (PODs), running two Logistics Staging Areas (LSAs) in Tallahassee and Eglin and staffing the State Logistics Readiness Center (SLRC) in Orlando.

The National Guard has more than 1,000 high-water vehicles, 13 helicopters and 16 boats and is preparing for possible missions to include humanitarian assistance, security operations, and search and rescue.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s (FDLE) Regional law enforcement coordination teams (RLECTS) are coordinating with urban search and rescue (USAR) teams to get in affected areas as soon as safely possible following the storm.

Roads and bridges in impacted areas were closed. Visit fl511.com for the latest information. To ensure food resources are available, approximately 1.5 million meals ready to eat, about 1 million gallons of water and some 40,000 10-pound bags of ice were prepared to be distributed.

The Florida Department of Health (DOH) has 19 Ambulance Strike Teams with 90 ambulances to support search and rescue operations, health care facility evacuations, and local EMS augmentation. It issued an emergency order allowing health care professionals with a valid, unrestricted and unencumbered license in any state, territory, and/or district to render services in Florida for 30 days, unless extended.

An online tool for the public to report the location of storm debris in waterways has been deployed. Florida Park Service opened areas to dry camp for self-contained rigs – usually parking lots without utility connections – at some state parks for evacuees on a first come, first served basis with waived overnight fees.

Comcast is opening its network of more than 8,000 Xfinity WiFi hotspots throughout the Florida Panhandle, including Tallahassee, Panama City, Panama City Beach and surrounding areas and the Dothan, Alabama area, to use for free.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) encourages businesses to visit FloridaDisaster.biz  and register, while VISIT Florida activated the Expedia/VISIT Florida Hotel Accommodation Web Portal to support evacuation orders. Visit www.expedia.com/florida to find available hotel rooms.

Airbnb Open Homes is active in Alabama, Florida and Georgia with more than 150 Airbnb community members offering their homes at no cost to evacuees and first responders. Visit  www.airbnb.com/HurricaneMichael for open homes.

A team from FEMA including experts from Homeland Security, the EPA, the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, and the Army Corps of Engineers is in Florida providing federal assistance.

Florida Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier and CFO Jimmy Patronis conducted a conference call with representatives of various insurance companies that have policies in force within the regions forecasted to be impacted by Hurricane Michael to ensure those companies have resources positioned and available to respond to consumers’ needs, assess damage and pay claims quickly and report any challenges or issues as quickly as possible to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR)

Those interested in volunteering can visit www.VolunteerFlorida.org and register on the volunteer database. Volunteer Florida has activated the Florida Disaster Fund, the State of Florida’s official private fund established to assist Florida’s communities. To donate, visit, www.volunteerflorida.org/donatefdf/.

The Salvation Army is working with state and local emergency management throughout the Florida Panhandle. Its mobile feeding units can serve 500-1,500 meals per day. The Red Cross is bringing in 500 disaster relief workers to shelter and feed at sites in affected counties.

The State Assistance Information Line (SAIL) contact number is 1-800-342-3557. Visit http://www.floridadisaster.org/info to find information on shelters and road closures.




HUD approves $616 million Florida disaster recovery plan

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson (Screen capture of www.hud.gov)

SAN JUAN – U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson has approved a disaster recovery plan to help Floridians recover from Hurricane Irma. In November, HUD allocated $616 million to support long-term recovery efforts in the state.

The plan is funded through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant—Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program, which requires grantees to develop a “thoughtful recovery program informed by local residents,” according to the department’s release.

“It’s great news that we were able to secure critical funding from HUD that will directly benefit the families who were most affected by last year’s storms. This $616 million will enable communities to build new affordable housing and to replace homes lost in the wake of last year’s hurricane season. Through this program, we can continue to move forward with long-term affordable housing solutions for displaced families as well as provide grants to businesses who were impacted by the storm,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott was quoted saying in the release.

Several housing and economic development recovery needs arising from Hurricane Irma were identified, the release reads, listing the following programs designed to address them:

  • Housing Repair Program ($273.3 million) will rehabilitate housing occupied by low- and moderate-income families that was damaged by Hurricane Irma. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) will centrally manage the following activities on behalf of eligible homeowner and rental property owner applicants:
    • Repairs to, reconstruction or replacement of housing units damaged by Hurricane Irma, which may include bringing the home into code compliance and mitigation against future storm impacts, including elevation.
    • The completion of work to homes that have been partially repaired.
    • Repairs to, or replacement of, manufactured homes impacted by Hurricane Irma.
    • Temporary housing assistance based on individual household needs and their participation in the Housing Repair Program.
  • Workforce Affordable Rental New Construction Program ($100 million) will facilitate the creation of affordable rental housing though a partnership with DEO and the Florida Housing Finance Corporation by leveraging CDBG-DR funds with low-income housing tax credits as well using CDBG-DR funds for zero-interest loans for smaller developments.
  • Land Acquisition for Affordable Workforce Housing ($20 million) provides funding for the purchase of land for development into affordable housing, especially in areas of the state where the scarcity of developable land makes it difficult to construct properties that can be rented at an affordable rate for the community’s workforce.
  • Voluntary Home Buyout Program ($75 million) encourages risk reduction through the voluntary purchase of residential properties in high flood-risk areas. Communities that participate in this program are encouraged to develop plans for the reuse of the acquired land to further reduce flood risk and/or serve as a recreational space for the public.
  • Recovery Workforce Training Program ($20 million) will bolster workforce training throughout the state with the goal of growing the skilled labor force needed to support the long-term recovery, primarily in the housing construction field.
  • Business Recovery Grant Program ($60 million) provides funding for eligible business owners who are seeking reimbursement for the cost of replacing equipment and inventory damaged by Hurricane Irma.
  • Business Assistance to new Floridians from Puerto Rico ($6 million) provides business plan guidance, accounting services, licensing information and other resources to support assistance in assimilating to the business climate in the State of Florida.

In April, HUD also allocated an additional $791 million of CDBG-DR funding to Florida for unmet needs, infrastructure and mitigation purposes. The department said it will “shortly issue requirements governing those funds, and Florida, along with other states, will be required to submit plans addressing their use.”




Florida students take on NRA, set eyes on midterm elections

In the week since 17 of David Hogg’s classmates and teachers were gunned down in Florida, he and his fellow high schoolers have launched a movement that reshaped the gun control debate almost overnight and may influence the U.S. midterm elections.

Staring boldly into TV cameras, Hogg and other students who survived the Feb. 14 Parkland school massacre, have demanded lawmakers restrict gun sales and are targeting politicians funded by the pro-gun National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby.

They have taken to social media to urge peers to hold a National School Walkout on March 14 and converge on Washington 10 days later for the “March For Our Lives.”

Plunging into a debate that has long polarized the United States between those defending gun ownership as a constitutional right and those demanding measures to stop mass shootings, the students are now focusing on the November elections.

“We get out there and make sure everybody knows how much money their politician took from the NRA,” Hogg said.

They want to influence not only those casting their first ballot this year, but all voters, to make choices along gun-rights lines.

The students seem to have made more progress in a few days than years of anti-gun advocacy that has stumbled on opposition from congressional Republicans who fiercely defend their constitutional rights to own guns.

The students’ movement is forcing donors to cut funding to the NRA and pressuring lawmakers to stop taking money from the politically influential gun rights group.

The teenage activists themselves are collecting millions of dollars from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney, enjoy pro-bono advertising from people in Hollywood and organizational know-how from groups including the Women’s March.

What may be different about the Parkland students is their almost instantaneous mobilization and the power of social media, where their passionate speeches have gone viral, experts said.

“It’s this perfect storm of young people whose authority to speak cannot be denied because their friends were just murdered, have control of social media, the ability to speak to mass media, have celebrity support and organizational infrastructure,” said Sasha Costanza-Chock, an associate professor of civic media at MIT.

Democrats have rushed to support the teenagers, hoping the movement can help them in the midterm elections by boosting historically-low turnout among young Democratic voters.

“We need to embrace this movement,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau. “It very well may be that the solution to gun violence in this country is a generational solution instead of a partisan one. This might be the generation that finally breaks through on this issue.”

Republicans, on the other hand, warned that it was unclear whether the students would gain momentum beyond Florida, where they pushed Republican Governor Rick Scott to propose tighter gun laws on Friday.

“I would be cautious to recognize any national trend based on one week in which passions have been high,” said Republican strategist Rory Cooper.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. In recent days, NRA officials have lashed out at gun control advocates, arguing that Democratic elites are politicizing the Parkland rampage to erode gun rights.

Showing their support for the students, dozens of U.S. colleges and universities – including at least three Ivy League schools – have said their application processes will not consider disciplinary action taken against high schoolers who protest last week’s killings in Florida.

Hogg took to Twitter on Saturday to urge vacationing students to boycott Florida during their upcoming spring breaks and instead visit Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from a devastating hurricane in September.

The U.S. Caribbean territory is “a beautiful place with amazing people. They could really use the economic support that the government has failed to provide,” Hogg wrote.

T-shirts hang on a fence near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

To gun rights groups, Hogg and his friends are being used by gun-control organizations to seek the same gun ban proposals that failed after mass shootings including the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Dave Workman, senior editor of The Gunmag.com, said he suspected the high schoolers had support from gun-control groups based on their increasingly polished arguments.

“That may be more of a problem with credibility than an asset,” said Workman, whose magazine is the publication of gun rights group The Second Amendment Foundation.

The students themselves say they do not need anyone’s approval and refuse to align with any political party, pointing out that both Republicans and Democrats take NRA money.

“Honestly both sides are pretty corrupt and I’m not willing to take a side unless I know the person,” said Hogg. “These politicians need to be afraid.”

Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest U.S. gun control advocacy group, formed a youth branch this week after receiving thousands of enquiries from students around the country and is opening chapters in four states.

Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, praised the Parkland students for bringing an end to years of inaction.

“These teenagers have done the impossible,” said Wolf, a member of the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “And all it took was a group of angry children with the right message to slap some sense into somebody.”

(Reporting By Andrew Hay; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Dan Trotta and Zach Fagenson; Editing by Daniel Wallis)




Florida gov announces $1 million to connect Hurricane Maria Evacuees with Jobs

SAN JUAN – At a town hall in Kissimmee, Fla., Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced a $1 million investment in 12 of the state’s workforce development boards to assist families displaced by Hurricane Maria who are seeking employment.

According to a release by the Florida governor’s office, following Scott’s request to the federal government, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will now provide case management services for families displaced by Maria now in Florida; “and
at the Governor’s direction, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) today sent letters to local housing authority officials and community leaders to identify local and federal resources so there is better coordination in the joint local, state and federal response to housing needs for Puerto Rican families in Florida.”

“To date, the CareerSource Florida network helped more than 7,600 Puerto Ricans find jobs in Florida and this investment will connect even more individuals with great jobs,” Scott said.

Florida governor speaks with FEMA on recovery for Puerto Rico

Rep. David Santiago is quoted in the release saying, “With over 254,000 job openings across the state, Florida is full of opportunities for evacuees to find a job to help support their families.”

The funds are designated for employment services to assist evacuees in the five counties served by CareerSource Central Florida: Orange, Osceola, Lake, Sumter and Seminole counties. CareerSource’s North Central Florida, Citrus Levy Marion, Flagler Volusia, Brevard, Tampa Bay, Pinellas, Research Coast, Palm Beach County, Broward, South Florida and Southwest Florida also received funds to provide career assistance to evacuees.

The nonprofit professional placement network says more than 7,600 people displaced by Maria have sought its services, “primarily in the Orlando area, Miami and Fort Lauderdale.”

The types of services for individuals displaced by Maria that will be provided by the 12 local workforce development boards through this additional funding may include some or all of the following, according to Friday’s release:

  • Individual career consulting services
  • The creation of a Specialized Job Development Team
  • Extended hours at our Career Services Centers
  • Increase access to English for Speakers of Other Language services
  • Hiring events
  • Increased partnerships with community-based organizations
  • Surveys to assess employment needs
  • Social media and/or direct email and/or texting and/or paid outreach



Florida governor speaks with FEMA on recovery for Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN – Florida Gov. Rick Scott spoke Thursday with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long regarding the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program and “the importance of continued communication between federal, state and local partners as families continue to recover from Hurricane Maria,” according to a release from his office.

Following a decision by Puerto Rican officials working with FEMA, the statement reads, the Florida Division of Emergency Management (DEM) was notified that enrollment in the federal TSA program will be limited to individuals whose homes in Puerto Rico have not yet been determined by FEMA to be restored to “safe and livable conditions and have power.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, left, listens to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló during a press conference on Sept. 28, 2017, in Puerto Rico. (CB photo)

The  release cites Scott as saying: “We have worked non-stop to ensure families from Puerto Rico coming to Florida are offered every available state resource and the assistance they need to get back on their feet following Hurricane Maria. Our top priority is to ensure that every family displaced by Hurricane Maria gets the resources they need and that federal, state and local partners continue to work together to ensure a full recovery for these individuals.

“During my call with Administrator Long, we discussed the importance of ongoing federal, state and local support in the delivery of services to Puerto Rican families. I expressed to them the importance of making sure that all families from Puerto Rico in Florida know exactly what federal resources are available to them. I also asked FEMA what federal resources were available to help families return to Puerto Rico once it has been determined it is safe for them to do so. Florida is the most welcoming state in the nation and we invite every family from Puerto Rico to visit our Disaster Recovery Centers to receive information and assistance.”

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After Puerto Rico visit, Florida Sen. Nelson and Rep. Soto say funding parity needed




Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association concerned about impact of US tax reform

SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association will intensify its lobbying this week to “demand,” not ask, that Puerto Rico be treated fairly and that controlled foreign corporations on the island be excluded, be it partially, from the U.S. tax reform.

PRMA President Rodrigo Masses admitted that the association failed in having changes that would be favorable for the island introduced before the House and Senate approved their respective bills, but was confident that amendments to the legislation would be made while it is consolidated in conference committee in the next 10 days.

“They haven’t taken us into consideration” so far, he stressed.

On right, PRMA President Rodrigo Masses (CB file photo)

Masses acknowledged, however, that the PRMA is worried because it has “friends” in the House but not in the Senate. He indicated that asked Sen. Marco Rubio to help Puerto Rico to prevent the expected economic meltdown if the legislation is enacted as is from exacerbating the current pace of outmigration, as his Florida district already has more than two million Puerto Ricans.

“The only thing Puerto Rico has left after [Hurricane] María is the industrial sector,” Masses said. “Manufacturing jobs are the only thing that can support the economy.” The sector generates about 73,000 direct and 250,000 indirect jobs.

US Senate passes tax reform legislation in a 51-49 vote

Former Resident Commissioner Antonio Colorado said Puerto Rico has two options. The first is for the island to be exclude from the taxes that would “annihilate” the economy, such as the 20% on imports found in the House’s bill, and the 12.5% on intangible assets, or intellectual property and patents, in the Senate’s measure.

The second alternative hoped for would be an amendment that all industries in the U.S. Customs Zone be exempt from taxes. Puerto Rico is already part of that customs zone, Colorado said, and has to pay U.S. ships and incur other expenses.

“What we are saying is you can’t compare a CFC [controlled foreign corporation] in Puerto Rico with a CFC in another part of the world. What we are asking for is fairness,” Colorado added.

Puerto Rico CPA Society says proposed US tax code amendments don’t resemble section 936

Meanwhile, Masses said the latest information he has is that Congress will most likely work on the Senate’s version, which would eliminate the 20% import tax.

“All the attention is focused on the 12.5% that would affect intellectual property,” Masses said.

In addition to an exclusion, the official position of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration is that the final bill provide Puerto Rico with an “empowerment zone,” a federal initiative to create jobs in economically distressed areas through tax incentives and grants.

“We’re all headed there; although we may have different voices, the reality is we are all” shooting for that, Masses said.

However, last week the governor, along with the PRMA and other private sector organizations, said they would lobby for Puerto Rico to be treated as a domestic jurisdiction, or like a state. Masses insisted, though, that what is requested aligns with what the governor is asking for.

“What we’re talking about is that for 100 years Puerto Rico has been under the customs code, which is domestic for imports and customs purposes, and is defined within U.S. territory. On the other hand, Puerto Rico is in the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, and there they treat us as a non-domestic jurisdiction. Therefore, it’s not difficult to talk about the two contexts because both apply,” Masses explained.

Regarding the options left for the island and what is Plan B if the current stipulations were enacted, Masses said, “We have to achieve that these amendments or changes occur within the next few days.”

The president of the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, CPA Kenneth Rivera, said that would consist of a clause that reads, “except Puerto Rico” or “except those in Customs Zones.”

Masses reiterated that companies in Puerto Rico are in U.S. territory and therefore deserve different treatment than those in Uruguay, China, Ireland or Singapore.

“[We want] companies under section 931 of the Internal Revenue Code, which are therefore CFCs, to be excluded from that imposed tax in order to eventually survive, if any survive this bill,” Masses said.

Proposed US tax reform ‘devastating’ for Puerto Rico

In the House, there are at least 10 representatives who have raised their voices in favor of Puerto Rico, but that type of relationship does not exist in the upper chamber despite Sen. Orin Hatch having presided over the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico established by the Promesa law. This is because congressional Democrats are not participating in the process as part of their opposing the measure.

Despite this, Masses said the PRMA will request assistance from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer to advocate for the island, as well as continue to ask for Rubio’s support, given he represents Florida and its large Puerto Rican population, and “must rise” to the occasion and “bravely defend Puerto Rico.”

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González has already said there is no potential for approval of anything similar to the phased-out section 936 of the U.S. tax code, which gave stateside companies an exemption from taxes on income earned in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico fiscal board urged to engage in federal tax reform process

If the tax legislation is signed without new Puerto Rico provisions, Masses said a way out would have to be evaluated. When section 936 was eliminated, the textile, electronics and other industries left the island, but many pharmaceutical companies reinvented themselves as CFCs. “It’s possible that what it looks like [now] isn’t so bad if I can vary the business model,” he said. “A bad law can have a way out.”

In addition to sending letters and lobbying, CofC’s Rivera was heading Monday with PRMA members to Washington, D.C. Masses said he will join them at the end of the week.

Also on their way to personally lobby Capitol Hill are Puerto Rico’s House speaker, Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, and Senate president, Thomas Rivera Schatz. Last week, the Legislative Assembly passed a resolution to have Puerto Rico considered a domestic jurisdiction in the tax reform.

Puerto Rico House Speaker wants Congress to consider island a domestic jurisdiction




In Florida, all eyes on Puerto Rican voters after Maria


In this photo taken Wednesday, Nov. 8 2017, Javier Gonzalez talks to a reporter in Hialeah, Fla. Gonzalez has joined the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to Florida after Hurricane Maria, grateful for a place to start over but not without resentment over how his island was treated in the disaster.

MIAMI — Javier Gonzalez has joined a human tide of more than 130,000 U.S. citizens arriving in Florida since Hurricane Maria wrecked Puerto Rico, grateful for a place to start over but resenting how their island has been treated since the disaster.

More than a million Puerto Ricans — about 5 percent of Florida’s population — already call the state home, and given the outrage many feel over President Donald Trump’s handling of the storm, political observers say this voting bloc could loosen the Republican Party’s hold on this battleground state.

Gonzalez, 38, saw the storm destroy the restaurant he opened with his father five years ago. Without power or reliable water, he became violently ill from food poisoning for three weeks. Finally, he packed his bags, determined to make his future in Miami instead.

“There is resentment, and we feel abandoned compared to Texas and Florida,” Gonzalez said. “We were desperate for help.”

Like any Puerto Rican, Gonzalez can vote in all elections now that he’s moved to the mainland. He doesn’t plan to register for any party, but he follows the news and understands their platforms. He’s aware of Trump’s tweets.

Javier Gonzalez is among the more than 130,000 U.S. citizens arriving in Florida since Hurricane Maria.

“It’s not right that we’ve fought from World War I, to Vietnam and Afghanistan and that the first thing the president says is: ‘You have a large debt, big problems and have cost us millions,’” Gonzalez added.

Puerto Ricans are not the gift to the Republican Party that the anti-Castro Cuban diaspora has been historically. They’ve tended to favor Democrats, given their support for public education and social services. Around 70 percent of Florida’s non-Cuban Latinos voted for Hillary Clinton.

Both parties are courting the new arrivals to Florida, which Trump won last year by just 112,000 votes out of 9.6 million cast.

“There is resentment, and we feel abandoned compared to Texas and Florida.” – Javier Gonzalez

“There is an intent to grab those who are coming,” said Rep. Robert Asencio, a Democrat of Puerto Rican descent who represents Miami in the Florida House and leads the Miami-Dade Committee for Hurricane Maria Relief.

“A lot of my colleagues say they are not politicizing this, but there is an effort to bring people either to the Democratic or the Republican side,” Asencio said.

Newcomers must register by next July 30 to vote in 2018 for a new governor to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott and choose Florida’s congressional delegation, now 11 Democrats and 16 Republicans. Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson also defends his seat next year, and Scott, who has been applauded for helping evacuees, is expected to challenge him in what could be a close race.

Scott set up three disaster relief centers to help arrivals with driver’s licenses, job searches, and disaster aid applications. Scott also asked education officials to waive public school enrollment rules for evacuated islanders, and to give college-bound evacuees the same tuition breaks state residents get.

Asencio calls Scott’s actions “damage control,” given the multimillionaire governor’s close relationship with Trump, who offended Puerto Ricans by tweeting they wanted “everything to be done for them” rather than taking responsibility for their own recovery. They also resent Trump’s rating of his own disaster response as a “10 out of 10,” blaming his administration for delays that exposed their families to illness and misery.

The island still faces a lengthy and painful recovery after the storm took down the entire electrical grid, leaving hospitals in the dark and closing schools for several weeks. Initial projections that 95 percent of the people will have power restored by year’s end now look optimistic.

Maria’s evacuees are following waves of people frustrated by Puerto Rico’s unemployment and debt crisis who settled in Central Florida, shifting from New York, the favored destination of previous generations. Of the more than 140,000 islanders estimated to have left since the storm, more than 130,000 went to Florida, where Puerto Ricans may soon displace Cubans as the largest Latino group.

State Rep. Rene Plasencia, a Republican from Orlando, predicts that Scott’s warm welcome will leave a bigger impression on the newcomers than any Trump tweets.

“For whatever people think of the president, you have to take into consideration the actions of Governor Scott,” said Plasencia, whose mother and wife are from Puerto Rico. “People aren’t making decisions out of a sequence of tweets … It makes good news, but it doesn’t make political shifts.”

Billionaires Charles and David Koch also are involved, funding the Libre Initiative, which welcomed hundreds of evacuees on the first cruise ship to arrive from San Juan.

Cesar Grajales, who lobbies for Libre, says they’re helping evacuees learn English and connect with community and business leaders.

Democrats hope Colombian-American Annette Taddeo’s recent underdog state Senate victory against a well-funded Republican in South Florida shows her anti-Trump message will keep resonating.

“It is a strong indication that voters are paying attention, and they are angry,” said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project. “We wouldn’t have the devastation and abandonment of Puerto Rico without Donald Trump. People will look at that.”

On the island, Puerto Rico’s lack of statehood means they can’t vote in general presidential elections, and can only send a non-voting representative to Congress. On the mainland, they’ll have more power.

“I know for a fact that we are well educated and we are going to come here to work,” Gonzalez said. “And yes, we are going to make a voice. We are going to make a bigger voice than before.”




Texas to receive nearly $58 million in federal housing funds 

AUSTIN, Texas – The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is allocating to Texas $57.8 million in additional funds for clearing housing from areas flooded by Hurricane Harvey.

Neal Rackleff is HUD’s assistant secretary for community planning and development. He said in a conference call Friday that the funds could be used to help buy out homeowners living in 100-year flood zones and help others rebuild.

Rescue boats fill a flooded street as flood victims are evacuated as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

HUD hopes Texas can begin meeting unmet housing needs in 13 Harvey-affected counties by mid-December. The state’s plans must pass a citizen review before being submitted to HUD for approval.

Rackleff says the federal agency is still trying to decide where to spend an additional $7.4 billion allocated by Congress in September for storm recovery efforts in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.




US hiring fell 33,000 in September, depressed by hurricanes


Phil Wiggett, right, a recruiter with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, looks at a resume during a job fair in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. shed 33,000 jobs in September because of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which closed thousands of businesses in Texas and Florida and forced widespread evacuations. It marked the first monthly hiring decline in nearly seven years.

The unemployment rate fell to 4.2 percent from 4.4 percent, the Labor Department said Friday, the lowest level since February 2001 and a sign that the job market remains fundamentally solid. Hiring is expected to rebound in the coming months as businesses in the area reopen and construction companies ramp up repair and renovation work.

Last month’s drop was driven by huge losses in restaurants and bars, which shed 105,000 jobs, a sign of the damage to Florida’s tourism industry. Roughly 1.5 million people were unable to work last month because of the weather, the government said, the most in 20 years.

Hourly workers who couldn’t work and missed a paycheck would have been counted as not working, thereby lowering September’s job total. That’s true even if those employees returned to work after the storm passed or will return.

The unemployment rate fell because it is calculated with a separate survey of households. That survey counted people as employed even if they were temporarily off work because of the storms. In fact, the proportion of adults who have jobs rose to 60.4 percent, the highest since January 2009.

Average hourly wages rose a healthy 2.9 percent from 12 months earlier. Still, the government said that figure was artificially inflated by the loss of so many lower-paid workers in hurricane-hit areas. The result was that higher-paid workers disproportionately boosted the wage figure.

More than 11 million people had been employed in the 87 counties in Texas and Florida that were declared disaster areas, the government says. That’s equal to about 7.7 percent of the nation’s workforce.

Other recent indicators point to a solid economy and job market. This week, a survey of services firms — covering restaurants, construction companies, retail stores, banks and others — found that they expanded in September at their fastest monthly pace since 2005. That followed a survey of manufacturers, which found an equally strong gain. Factory activity expanded at the fastest pace in more than 13 years.

Some signs suggest that a rebound from the hurricanes is already boosting the economy. Auto sales, which had been lackluster this year, jumped 6.1 percent to more than 1.5 million in September from a year ago, according to Autodata Corp., as Americans began to replace cars destroyed by the storms. That increase in purchases should soon lead automakers to step up production.

Harvey caused about $76 billion to $87 billion in economic losses, according to Moody’s Analytics, an economic consulting firm. The estimate includes damage to homes and businesses as well as lost business and economic output. That calculation would make Harvey the second-worst U.S. natural disaster, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Irma will likely end up having caused $58 billion to $83 billion in economic losses, Moody’s forecasts. Maria, which hammered Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, could cost $45 billion to $95 billion, though that is a preliminary estimate.