Video-Lottery Regulation Declared Null in Court

SAN JUAN – Attempts by the Puerto Rico Treasury Department to install a network of video-lottery terminals throughout the island to increase tax revenue suffered a setback late last week, after a local court declared two of Treasury’s regulations on the matter null.

haciendabwIn a 30-page court document dated June 2, San Juan Superior Court Judge Gloria Maynard Salgado dismissed a request by Treasury, also known as Hacienda, for the court to rule in its favor in a suit filed by the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association (PRHTA), which groups many of the island’s hotel operators.

The PRHTA has long rallied against the continuing operation of electronic gaming machines outside of certified casinos, which have taken a significant hit in recent years. Industry players have argued that non-casino gaming, either operated illegally or with the government’s blessing, have led to several island casinos closing in recent years.

In a bid to increase tax revenue to shore up the central government’s coffers, amid a crushing fiscal crisis on the island that includes a $70 billion public debt and a $2 billion cash deficit, Hacienda approved in May 2015 two regulations that would pave the way for an islandwide video-lottery network.

The development brought Hacienda into a conflict with the PRHTA that eventually ended up in court, with Maynard Salgado ultimately ruling that Hacienda’s regulations fell outside the jurisdiction of the agency, and that legislation needs to be approved on the issue.

When Hacienda approved the regulations last year, the Puerto Rico Legislature intended to file resolutions blocking the regulations, but for some reason did not follow through on said task during the legislative session.




Energy Bill Prospects Dim in Dispute over Drilling, Drought

In this photo taken April 20, 2016, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, right, accompanied by the committee's ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., speak about energy policy modernization during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Congressional efforts to approve the first major energy bill in nearly a decade are in jeopardy amid a partisan dispute over oil drilling, water for drought-stricken California and potential rollback of protections for the gray wolf and other wildlife. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, right, accompanied by the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON – Congressional efforts to approve the first major energy bill in nearly a decade are in jeopardy amid a partisan dispute over oil drilling, water for drought-stricken California and potential rollback of protections for the gray wolf and other wildlife.

A bipartisan bill approved by the Senate in April would boost oil and natural gas production while encouraging renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and increased energy efficiency.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the overwhelming 85-12 Senate vote “a significant victory that brings us much closer to our goal of modernizing our nation’s energy policies,” while Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the panel’s senior Democrat, said the measure was “urgently needed.”

But the bill’s prospects dimmed after the House approved a series of election-year amendments last month that promote Republican priorities, such as increased drilling for oil and gas and overriding protections for the gray wolf and other species under the Endangered Species Act. The House bill also would promote hunting and fishing on federal lands, shift more water to California farmers and cut the flow for threatened fish.

The House proposal includes at least seven measures that the White House strongly opposes or has threatened to veto.

House leaders have named 40 lawmakers to serve on a joint House-Senate committee to negotiate a final agreement, but Democrats are threatening to use a procedural motion to scuttle Senate action unless the GOP amendments are withdrawn.

“I wish they could do something besides legislation that has been already circled for veto pen action by the president,” Cantwell said after the House vote. A House-Senate “conference that starts with that as the baseline is not going to be a productive effort.”

Senators from both parties are expected to discuss the bill at closed-door luncheons on Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House-approved bill was nothing more than “a partisan, special interest package that fails to invest in infrastructure, leads to more energy consumption and carbon pollution, stacks the deck against the environment and … undermines protections for our public lands and wildlife.”

Republicans defended the measure.

“This bill is about jobs. It’s about keeping energy affordable. It’s about boosting our energy security, here and across the globe,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Eight Democrats joined 233 Republicans to support the bill, while 178 lawmakers- including six Republicans – opposed it.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the GOP bill “modernizes our energy infrastructure so we can address urgent priorities for the country, from tackling California’s drought crisis to healing our forests in order to prevent wildfires.”

The next steps are unclear.

“It’s really hard to see how this thing moves forward,” said Marc Boom, associate director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “I don’t see why senators who worked very hard on a bipartisan process would want to get into the (negotiating) room with a partisan product” like the House bill.

Even so, Murkowski professed optimism, especially given the overwhelming vote in the Senate. “There’s just so much good in this, let’s figure out how we can get going,” she said.

Cantwell did not rule out participation by Senate Democrats in a House-Senate conference, but said, “A 21st-century energy policy has nothing to do with rolling back environmental laws. It should be about smart investments in American infrastructure, innovation and new technologies.”

Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, strongly opposed the Senate bill, especially proposals to support renewable energy and extend authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which protects parks and other public lands.

While Heritage is confident that House Republicans will hold the line on the bill, Democratic efforts to scuttle the measure may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, spokesman Dan Holler said. “If the result of Democrat obstructionism is that they snuff out awful policy, that’s fine with us,” he said.

Phil Sharp, a former Democratic congressman who now serves as president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank, said the energy bill poses “a real test” for Congress, especially Ryan and other House GOP leaders.

“Do they think they are there to legislate and make progress, or do they want to make a statement about themselves?” Sharp said. “Speaker Ryan suggests this is an important priority for him. We’ll see if that suggests action.”

The Associated Press




Referendum Offered Money for Nothing, and the Swiss Say ‘No’

FILE -In this May 14, 2016 file picture, a huge poster reading “What would you do if your income were taken care of?” is pictured on the Plaine de Plainpalais square in Geneva, Switzerland.  The poster hints at a national referendum on June 5, were Swiss voters will have to decide on the introduction of an unconditional basic income for all.  ( Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP)

In this May 14 picture, a huge poster reading “What would you do if your income were taken care of?” is pictured on the Plaine de Plainpalais square in Geneva, Switzerland. ( Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have guaranteed everyone in the Alpine nation an unconditional basic income, according to projections published Sunday by public broadcaster SRF1.

The plan could have seen people in this wealthy nation of 8 million people receive about 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,560) per month – enough to cover their basic needs.

Proponents argued that a basic income would free people from meaningless toil and allow them to pursue more productive or creative goals in life. Critics said the plan would explode the state budget and encourage idleness, arguments that appear to have convinced voters.

Based on a partial count of results from 19 Swiss cantons (states), the gfs.bern polling group calculated that 78 percent of voters opposed the measure against 22 percent in favor.

The Swiss government itself advised voters to reject the proposal put forward by left-wing campaigners who collected the necessary 100,000 signatures to force a vote on the issue.

But the idea has won over some economists, who say it could replace traditional welfare payments and give everybody the same chances in life.

Salaried workers who earned more than basic income would have received no extra money, while children would have received one-quarter of the total for adults.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is planning a two-year experiment with a similar plan, handing money to residents who already receive welfare benefits.

The unconditional basic income proposal was one of five measures up for decision nationwide Sunday. Proposals to reform publicly owned companies and financing of transport routes was rejected, while voters backed plans to simplify the application procedures for asylum-seekers and another that will allow screening of embryos before they are implanted in the womb.

The Associated Press




House Passes Bill Banning Prepa Networks from Competing with Local Providers

SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico House of Representatives gave the green light Tuesday to a bill that will prevent Prepa Networks, a telecommunications company, from competing with local telecom providers.

The legislation, entitled the “Fair Competition in Information Telecommunications and Paid Television Act,” amends a 1996 law to also prevent agencies, corporations and cities from providing telecommunications services at the retail level.

PREPA Networks logoPrepa Networks offers wholesale and enterprise telecom services to carriers and business sectors, and its infrastructure serves Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, Miami, New York  and the Caribbean. It is a subsidiary of Prepa Holdings LLC a Delaware-based company dedicated to the development of infrastructure and energy related products and services.

The bill was approved with the opposition of the Telecommunications Regulatory Board, which objected the ban on allowing public agencies and cities to provide telecom services at the retail level. The board warned that the bill would not survive a judicial attack under the federal Telecommunications Act.

The Puerto Rican Alliance of Telecommunications, which represents some 9,000 employees, supported the bill, arguing that Prepa Networks could cause a distortion in the market because it was competing with the private sector while having an economic advantage through public sector subsidies.

 




Humane Society Calls for Ban on Reproduction and Sale of Dogs, Cats

SAN JUAN – The U.S. Humane Society is calling for the Legislature to pass a five-year ban on the reproduction and sale of dogs and cats in Puerto Rico to promote their adoption in shelters and reduce the number of stray animals.

Rescue groups and shelters have been trying for years to cope with the animal neglect, cruelty and massive stray animal population on the island, where spaying or neutering is not widely practiced but animal abandonment is.  

House Bill 2950 was filed May 6 at the request of the Humane Society by House Vice President Roberto Rivera Ruiz de Porras. There is less than two months for the end of the current session.

The problem of stray animals not only affects some 300,000 dogs and more than a million cats in Puerto Rico, but also poses a health threat.

SEMINYAK, BALI, INDONESIA - APRIL 20: Stray dogs paddle in the water at the beach at Seminyak Beach on April 20, 2015 in Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia. A three-month vaccination drive has been launched in Bali with the aim of inoculating as many of the island's dogs against rabies as possible. Thousands of stray dogs have become a threat to the tourism industry since rabies arrived in 2008, but measures to cull them have caused a rolling debate and controversy. Bali Governor Made Mangku Pastika urged residents to help out across the island, saying that rabies is increasing and that they have run out of money to provide residents with vaccinations and treatments to fight the disease. (Photo by Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)

(Photo by Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)

The legislation contends that the Health Department spends around $2 million yearly to treat bites from stray animals. A 2008 study by the Tourism and Hotel Association shows that Puerto Rico lost $15 million resulting from the negative impression tourists get from seeing stray animals on the streets.

Animal shelters have said 95% of the stray dogs and cats in shelters were left there by their owners, which means that 5% were picked up from the streets. This show that cities are not doing enough to rescue these animals, the bill says.

The bill will require pet owners to neuter their pets and ban puppy mills  

Several places, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami Beach and Austin, Texas, have banned the sale of pets, increasing pet adoptions and reducing puppy mills. Thirty states have laws requiring pet owners to spay their pets.

 




Senate Approves Amendments to Debt Moratorium Law; excludes Prepa

SAN JUAN – The Senate passed Monday amendments to the Puerto Rico Emergency Debt Moratorium and Financial Rehabilitation Act that would exclude the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) from a government moratorium.

The San Juan Capitol. (Photo by Eduardo San Miguel Tió/CB)

The San Juan Capitol (CB Photo/Eduardo San Miguel Tió)

The upper chamber also passed changes to the island’s Homestead Act, known as the Ley de Hogar Seguro, to broaden protections to a person’s property.

Senate Bill 1673, which amends Act 21, the moratorium law, also rephrases the chapter creating the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority ,which would act as fiscal agent for the commonwealth. Gov. Alejandro García Padilla recently designated Secretary of State Jorge Suárez to head the fiscal authority.  

Senate Minority Leader Larry Seilhamer, who said Act 21 destroyed what little credibility the government had, said, “Today the PDP [Popular Democratic Party] majority is approving another technical amendment to correct the inclusion of the Prepa restructuring amendments. Including them was another blow to the government’s credibility.”

Besides excluding Prepa, the bill removes the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewer Authority, the Municipal Financing Authority and the Children’s Trust from the moratorium law.  

While the House passed amendments to Act 21 to exclude general obligation (GO) debt from the moratorium, the Senate majority disagreed with the idea of excluding GOs from the moratorium.  

On the other hand, the Senate also passed the proposed amendments to the Homestead Act, which protects a person’s residence–which comprises the land, home and outbuildings–from forced sale for the collection of debt. In Puerto Rico, a person seeking to protect a residence from a forced sale must have a notary public draft a document to the effect and have it registered in the island’s property registry. Local law does not protect from home foreclosures by a bank or from embargoes sought by the government to collect taxes

Miguel Pereira

Sen. Miguel Pereira

Senate Bill 1175, penned by Sen. Miguel Pereira, broadens the definition of property to be exempt from embargoes or forced sales. His legislation would give homeowners a year to use the money obtained from the sale of a house protected by the Homestead Act to buy a new house that would also be protected by the act. The law’s name would be changed to “The Right to Protect the Main Home, Family Home and Personal Property Act.” However, if the debtor buys a property of lesser value, the difference would not be protected.  

Besides the residence, the proposed law will extend protection to a motor vehicle up to $7,500 or up to $15,000 in the case of a married couple; the value of home appliances and furniture up to $10,000 for individuals and up to $20,000 for a married couple; and the value of jewelry up to $1,500 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple.   

Also exempt will be property used for business or for a profession, up to $10,000 in the case of an individual and $20,000 in the case of a couple, excluding a vehicle’s debt. Also exempt is property needed for medical reasons. The legislation will also protect some of the income yielded by a debtor and the right to unemployment or pension as well as money from a victim’s compensation fund and money obtained from liability insurance up to $25,000.




Education Dept. Says It Will Evaluate Obama’s Transgender Directive

DURHAM, NC - MAY 10: Gender neutral signs are posted in the 21C Museum Hotel public restrooms on May 10, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. Debate over transgender bathroom access spreads nationwide as the U.S. Department of Justice countersues North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory from enforcing the provisions of House Bill 2 that dictate what bathrooms transgender individuals can use. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

A gender neutral signs in a 21C Museum Hotel public restroom in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

SAN JUAN – Education Secretary Rafael Román said Monday he will be evaluating the impact of President Obama’s order requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms that match their gender identity.

The letter on transgender rights came in the middle of a legal fight with North Carolina over the issue. The measure does not have the force of law but schools that do not abide by the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid.

Román said the agency has been making advancements on the matter, but that it received the order Friday.  

“We will be evaluating the impact of the Obama administration’s order and the actions the education department should take,” he said.

The agency recently agreed to a request to set up a bathroom for a transgender student at a school in Moca. It also allowed transgender students to use uniforms that match their gender identity.

Gov. Alejandro García Padilla said the order would require infrastructure work but that he is in agreement with it.  

He said that when his administration issued the order on transgender students, he was criticized by the opposition New Progressive Party. “Are they going to protest against Obama. Will they stop being pro-statehood…. Why don’t they march along Pennsylvania Avenue?” he asked.




New Group Seeks Banning Unauthorized Drone Recordings

SAN JUAN – Given what they consider “alarming news that unscrupulous people are using drones to spy and take pictures and videos without authorization,” a group of citizens requested Saturday prompt passage of legislation to protect people’s privacy.

The group, known as “Sí al PC 2294,” or “Yes to HB 2294,” wants the House of Representatives to approve a bill, authored by Rep. José Aponte, that would create the “Law to limit the use of images captured by unmanned aircraft.”

Any person harmed as a result of the use of these devices, under provisions of HB 2294, may have a civil cause of action against the person, entity or state agency that committed the act.

“The measure is vital to defend the right to privacy in today’s Puerto Rico,” the group’s spokesman, Jorge Pagán, said.

Drone_with_GoPro_digital_camera_728633537

A drone equipped with a digital camera.

The request came about after a report Saturday morning that a person residing in the Condado area denounced that a drone prowled around her apartment.

On Friday, Tamarita Maldonado wrote on Facebook, “In the afternoon of May 3, I was dining in the privacy of my home when my husband realized there was a drone recording us inside our apartment.”

“We urge all citizens who believe in the right to privacy, especially in our homes, to go to our Facebook page (Sí al PC 2294), and join this cause. We must send a clear and strong message to lawmakers that this bill needs to be approved before this session ends June 30,” Pagán said.

The activist added he would write a letter to House Speaker Jaime Perelló to move the legislation.

The bill has not moved past its first reading since it was filed Jan. 26, 2015. “This means it has not been given the importance it requires. We will not allow stories like those reported today, which there are many more of than those that have come to light, to continue without the government having taken concrete action,” the spokesman said.

Inter News Service

 

 




State Bills to Allow Fantasy Sports Could Hurt Smaller Firms

Smaller companies in the exploding fantasy sports industry say they could be shut out of doing business in some states by legislation that is actually intended to recognize the games’ legality.

Virginia’s governor signed a bill this month that authorizes fantasy contests but requires operators that charge participants and offer cash awards to pay a $50,000 annual registration fee to the state. On Friday, Indiana’s governor signed a bill allowing the state’s gambling commission to regulate fantasy sports and charging companies a one-time licensing fee of $50,000 with a $5,000 annual renewal fee.

Other states are considering legislation along the same lines, with a New York state proposal calling for a whopping initial fee of $500,000.

The two big daily fantasy sports companies, FanDuel and DraftKings, say they are looking out for the whole industry and oppose high fees. But they have not made it a priority to fight such expenses.

Smaller companies say the costs could be devastating to their business.

“On one level, it’s ‘rah-rah, yes, let’s do this,'” Rishi Nangia, a co-founder of Syde, a startup fantasy sports provider based in Arlington, Virginia, said of the efforts to make sure the business is considered legal. “But we know now that these companies are fighting for their bottom line.”

Ultimately, he said, such legislation will create a market controlled by the two major players.

Season-long fantasy sports have been around for decades, letting fans pretend to be general managers of teams. Participants draft and trade players. Athletes’ real statistics are used to calculate how the fantasy teams perform. In some leagues, there are entry fees and prizes; in others, players do it just for fun.

Daily fantasy sports are a newer creation. DraftKings and FanDuel, which have partnerships with some pro sports leagues and teams, generally let players pick a roster for that day or week. The prizes are so big that some people can make a living at it. DraftKings, in an extreme example, is offering $4 million, including $1 million for first place, in a fantasy golf competition.

Some state attorneys general, including those in New York and Texas, have determined that the games amount to illegal gambling. While lawmakers consider the games’ legal status, FanDuel agreed this month to stop taking bets in Texas, and both companies said they would stop doing so in New York.

The big companies are encouraging state lawmakers to adopt legislation that makes their business legal and defines it in a way that it is not considered gambling. In return, they are willing to accept certain regulations. Virginia and Indiana are the first states to send regulatory proposals to their governors, but bills have been introduced in the majority of states.

Boston-based DraftKings, New York-based FanDuel and the fantasy sports trade association, which also represents smaller businesses, have hired lobbyists in nearly every state. Some are big names. Former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is working for DraftKings. The industry’s lead lobbyist in New Jersey is a former state labor commissioner.

The two biggest companies and the industry association also contributed a combined $244,000 to candidates and political action committees from September through mid-January.

Marcus B. Simon, a Virginia legislator and sponsor of the law there, said one reason for the fee was to make sure the companies have enough cash flow to pay winners.

Syde’s Nangia said that unless something changes by the time the Virginia law takes effect July 1, his company will stop offering games in its home state. Four other smaller, season-long fantasy sports websites said the same thing in a letter earlier this month to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Among the letter’s signers was Alex Kaganovsky, a co-founder of For Players By Players, a New York-based business. He said he has fewer than 200 customers in Virginia, and the revenue they produce is only about one-tenth of the fee there.

“Given the cost constraints of our hobbyist business model, any requirement that we each pay a $50,000 licensing fee to the state of Virginia would lead us each to exit the Virginia marketplace – thus depriving hundreds of thousands of Virginia sports fans of access to play in their favorite traditional fantasy sports games,” the letter said.

Scott Burlingame, a 33-year-old financial industry worker from Aldie, Virginia, figures he is ahead by about $100 in the eight months or so he has been using Syde. He has been playing daily fantasy sports in $5 contests where the winners make $9. If it disappears, he said, he won’t play another daily fantasy game, largely because he finds them too time-consuming.

“I’m not going to move to a different state just to participate in it,” Burlingame said.

In this photo taken March 18, 2016, fantasy sports site (Syde) player, Scott Burlingame poses at his home in Aldie, Va. Smaller companies in the exploding fantasy sports industry say they could be shut out of doing business in some states by legislation that is actually intended to recognize the games’ legality.  (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

Fantasy sports site (Syde) player, Scott Burlingame poses at his home in Aldie, Va. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

Other players could end up switching to the bigger fantasy sites if the smaller ones withdraw.

“I can’t tell you that FanDuel and DraftKings wanted this type of situation,” said Darren Heitner, a Florida lawyer who represents several smaller daily fantasy sports firms, “but they’re not displeased with them.”

Peter Schoenke, chairman of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, said his members do not want to limit competition. He noted that in Florida, where a bill died this month, the industry pushed to have a registration fee on a sliding scale so smaller companies would not be subject to the proposed $500,000.

The dominant daily fantasy sports companies say every state bill has drawbacks.

“There may be some requirements that not all operators – perhaps even us – will celebrate, but for the long-term growth of the industry we will continue to work with lawmakers and regulators so that the entire fantasy industry can continue to innovate and operate,” FanDuel spokeswoman Justine Sacco said in an email to The Associated Press.

The Associated Press




Senate Hearing Held on Tip-dependent Employees

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico’s Labor and Economic Development (DDEC by its Spanish initials) departments were testifying before the Senate Consumer Affairs and Job Creation Committee, chaired by Luis Daniel Rivera, on employees who live off tips.

Monday’s is one of the public hearings carried out on Senate Bill 1305, which seeks to amend Act 180 of 1998, or the Puerto Rico Minimum Wage, Vacation and Sick Leave Act.

The measure, authored by Rivera, seeks to raise the minimum wage for tipped employees.

“These hearings are designed to let consumers know that tips are part of employees’ salary, and in keeping with the law, provide fairness to people who work for gratuities and currently earn $2.13 an hour. What we want is that the salary of people who work for tips amount to $4.90 an hour, as is the case in some U.S. states,” the senator explained.