Puerto Rico governor calls legislature for special session

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (Courtesy)

Slated for Monday, to address gov’t transparency, funding for nonprofits

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló called for a special session slated to begin Monday, July 8, so lawmakers can address several measures that were not passed during the 28th Legislative Session, which ended June 30. 

At a press conference, where he signed Executive Order 032-2019 to create the Puerto Rico Government Civic Innovation Program, Rosselló said he also convened the session for senators to confirm his appointment of Treasury Designate Secretary Francisco Parés, who was designated to head to the Treasury Department after June 30.

“The measures that will be included in the special session have already been discussed with the Legislative Assembly leaders and are all very close of culminating the legislative process,” Rosselló said. “I appreciate the availability of the House speaker, Senate president and other lawmakers and their commitment to address these important measures that will bring positive results in our credibility with the federal government, and for the nonprofit organizations that do so much for Puerto Rico.”

House Bill 2112, which would create the General Services Administration law, will be one of the measures to be discussed in the special session. The measure seeks to transform government procurement to become “transparent, centralized and uniform.” 

In addition, it seeks to reduce bureaucracy by eliminating hundreds of regulations while seeking lower purchase costs to ensure the “best use of public funds.”

Senate Bill 280, which would lower the excise tax on craft beer production to foster the development of the microbrewery industry will also be considered during the session.

Furthermore, the governor asked lawmakers to also address Joint House Bill 514, the so-called Legislative Donations measure, which allocates some $20 million to nonprofit organizations through the Joint Legislative Donations Committee.  

According to Article III, section 10, of the Puerto Rico Constitution, special sessions can last up to 20 days, thus should not extend past July 27.

Meanwhile, although the Weapons Act was passed by both legislative chambers, Rosselló said that he will not be enacting it.

“I will not sign anything that makes it feasible to obtain weapons more easily…. I will veto it,” he said. “I am waiting for it to arrive at my desk and I will evaluate it, but this is a philosophical position based on that giving easier access to weapons is not beneficial to our society.”




Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association calls for special session to address energy policy

SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association (PRMA) called on the legislature to immediately convene a special session for the Senate-passed energy framework to also be passed by the House of Representatives.

“We exhort the Governor, Hon. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, to convene an extraordinary session of the Legislature, including as part of its agenda Senate Bill 1121, which proposes a new energy regulatory framework to govern the transfer of assets and concessions of the Electric Power Authority [Prepa] and to include other public energy policy criteria that allow transforming, modernizing and making our electrical system more efficient,” PRMA President Rodrigo Masses said in a statement.

The bill would require the government to eliminate fossil fuel sources and use 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. In addition, it would empower the Energy Commission to regulate the sector and eliminate Prepa’s monopoly.

Masses stressed that S.B. 1121 is the product of a legislative process, led by Senate Vice President Larry Seilhamer and Minority Speaker Eduardo Bhatia, “where there was broad participation of the various business, professional, union, civic and governmental sectors,” the PRMA said.

“Puerto Rico deserves to have already adopted the regulatory framework that will delimit and guide every PREPA asset-transfer process, to have the certainty, confidence and security that said process will reflect the…public interest of achieving an efficient, safe, stable system, responsive to the needs and challenges of the different residential, industrial, commercial sectors and citizens in general,” Masses added.

The House postponed its vote on the measure after claiming it needed time to evaluate it thoroughly.

“We do not think waiting for the next ordinary session is the most appropriate while Act 120 allows the transfer of assets under the current state of law, which does not provide the standards, criteria and a robust and adequate regulatory framework so said process fosters the economic development Puerto Rico deserves and demands,” Masses continued.

The PRMA said it has been meeting with House Economic Development Committee Chairman Víctor Parés and his technical team, and that it is sure the House lawmakers and Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez would address the measure “in a thorough, diligent manner and with the sense of this matter’s urgency, if an extraordinary session were convened” to consider it.

“We trust that the Governor can consider this recommendation favorably, and that under the leadership of Engineer José Ortiz at the head of PREPA and the Governor’s team, the transformation of the electric system can be directed under an advanced regulatory framework, worked on in an exemplary manner by the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico and the majority and minority leadership,” Masses concluded.

Puerto Rico energy policy bill does not make it through session




Puerto Rico governor convenes 2nd special legislative session

SAN JUAN – Before going on vacation, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed an executive order Wednesday convening a second special legislative session to include the appointments of attorney Lersy G. Boria Vizcarrondo as women’s advocate and Ottmar Chávez Piñero as General Services administrator.

According to the executive order, during the special session, the appointments of Isaías Sánchez Báez as Attorney General of Puerto Rico, Dr. Zulma Méndez Ferrer as an associate member of the Parole Board and Alberto Flores Bermúdez as “assistant prosecutor II” at the Department of Justice will also be addressed.

According to a press release from his office, La Fortaleza, Rosselló will be on a trip with his family until Sunday. While the governor is abroad, Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín will serve as interim governor.

Rosselló, La Fortaleza announced, will then head to Washington, D.C. on Monday and hold meetings, “to advance the agenda of Puerto Rico,” that will be specified “once they occur.”

On Tuesday, the governor will be in San Antonio, Texas, where he will be a guest speaker at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Rosselló returns to the island Tuesday.

House speaker assures passage of Puerto Rico tax reform during special session




Bhatia Doubles Back on PFEI Appointment Controversy

SAN JUAN—Although Senate President Eduardo Bhatia had said Wednesday that an absolute majority in the House of Representatives was not needed to approve appointments to the Independent Special Prosecutor’s Panel (PFEI by its Spanish initials), explaining that a simple majority of the legislators in attendance was sufficient, he changed his tune Thursday.

Senate President Eduardo Bhatia / File

Senate President Eduardo Bhatia / File

During a radio interview earlier in the day, the senator acknowledged that, contrary to other appointments that the House evaluates and can be approved with simple majority, the PFEI Act specifies that the appointments to that entity must be made with an absolute majority of the legislative chambers, meaning 14 out of 27 senators and 26 out of 51 representatives.

With his remarks, the outgoing Senate president recognized the validity of the claims by the New Progressive Party (PNP) delegation in the House, which has threatened to go to court to challenge the designations of Emmalind García Garcia and Rafael Ortiz Carrión as alternate members of PFEI, two of the 30 appointments that were included by Gov. Alejandro García Padilla in the latest special session.

On Tuesday, Popular Democratic Party (PPD) Majority Leader Charlie while serving as interim House speaker during the special session, confirmed the two appointments to the PFEI, despite only having 24 votes in favor and 14 absentees. No representative voted against the nominees.

Hernández then closed the proceedings of the extraordinary session in the House in a haphazard way, provoking protests among some of the legislators present. NPP Rep. Lourdes Ramos said minutes later that the minority delegation would go to court to challenge the decision.

When the appointments were seen in the Senate on Wednesday, Bhatia took a turn to defend the House’s actions. Although the NPP delegation abstained from voting in the House, the minority delegation Senate it objected to the appointments and stated that the matter must be brought to court.




Senate Concludes Special Session with 18 Appointments, Four Bills Passed

The Senate approved Wednesday 18 appointments and four bills included by governor Alejandro García Padilla in the convocation to the fifth special session, among them a bill to ban the collection of service charges on purchase receipts if services are nonexistent or not susceptible of being corroborated (S.B. 1557).

The Puerto Rico Capitol in San Juan (CB photo/Luis J. Valentín)

The Puerto Rico Capitol in San Juan (CB photo/Luis J. Valentín)

However, after concluding the special session in both legislative chambers, the Legislature left 12 of the 18 bills unattended, as well as the appointment of Rolando Torres Carrión, former treasurer for García Padilla and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), as deputy electoral comptroller.

Among the measures that were left unattended are a reduction on penalties for minimum possession of marijuana, a bill to fortify the poultry industry as well as the registration of the brand Pollo Picú, amendments to the Wildlife Act, and a bill that would place Spanish as the first official language and English as the second.

Another appointment rejected by the Senate was the designation of attorney Claudia Juan García as superior court judge.

During the eight hours of session, the Senate also approved two additional bills (H.B. 3024 and H.B. 3025), which seek to amend the Internal Revenue Code to exempt the collection of contributions to the Association and Federation of Mayors and to establish that all goods purchased on military stores from the National Guard are exempt from taxes, respectively.

Past 4:00 p.m., the Senate considered two appointments included by the governor in a last minute second amendment to the convocation of the session. These included the appointment of the director of the Senate Finance Committee, José Orta, as superior court judge and attorney Gretchen Camacho as prosecutor VI.

Both Orta and Camacho were included in the original convocation to the fifth special session. Orta was recommended to hold a position as assistant prosecutor IV, while Camacho was confirmed last week as assistant prosecutor III.

Emmalind García and Rafael Ortiz Carrión were also appointed as alternate members to the Independent Special Prosecutor’s Panel (PFEI), an action that revived the controversy that took place earlier in the week in the House for approving designations with only 24 votes, when the majority of the House is 26 of 51 representatives.

Another 14 appointments to judges, prosecutors and board members were considered, as well as a resolution to assign money to Villalba.

Three additional resolutions were considered, the first to designate the Center for Fiscal Analysis and Innovation (CLAFI, in Spanish) under the name of Miguel Hernández Agosto. Another resolution sought to designate the Senate Conference Room in the Tropical Medicine Building under the name of “Dr. Antonio Fernós Isern Ideas Exchange Center”. The third resolution asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow the stay of synchronized AM boosters used by WAPA/WISO radio stations.




House Ends Special Session with Hurried Appointments

SAN JUAN—During a session that lasted about six hours and was closed in a haphazard manner, the Puerto Rico House of Representatives began and concluded Tuesday its fifth special session of the current term, along the way approving two new people to the Independent Special Prosecutor’s Panel (PFEI by its Spanish initials) and six of the 18 legislative bills included in the call made by Gov. Alejandro García Padilla.

CapitolioIt was at 10:00 p.m. that the designations of former appeals judge Emmalind García and Justice undersecretary, Rafael Ortiz Carrión, were evaluated to join PFEI. Their appointments were presented during the session the same day, at about 4:00 p.m.

Although both had only the endorsement of 24 representatives, since 14 lawmakers abstained—among them Luis Vega Ramos, Manuel Natal and Luis Raúl Torres, from the Popular Democratic Party (PDP)—Rep. Charlie Hernandez, who at the time was the House speaker, gave the go-ahead to the appointments. Immediately afterwards, he ordered the special session to a close.

This took several representatives by surprise, leading many to question how the appointments were approved despite not having the requisite 26 votes to approve a legislative measure. This in turn prompted New Progressive Party (NPP) Rep. Lourdes Ramos to say that she would go to court to challenge the appointments.

However, Hernández, who is a PDP majority spokesperson in the House, told reporters that what he did complies with the law, since the rules of the legislative body do not establish a minimum of votes to approve the appointments, contrary to what happens with the approval of bills.

The legislator added that he does not see problems of legitimacy in the approval of the appointments, which will have to be considered by the Senate during their session on Wednesday.

 

Ten measures left on cutting-room floor

Six days before Governor-elect Ricardo Rosselló and a new Legislature get sworn in, the House left ten legislative bills on the cutting-room floor, among which was a bill to strengthen the poultry industry and register the mark Pollo Picú (Senate Bill 1721 ); the reduction of penalties for minimum possession of marijuana (S.B. 517); The designation of Spanish as the first official language of the government and English as the second (S.B. 1117) and two concurrent resolutions to allocate funds to Guayanilla and Villalba.

The House also didn’t take action on measures designed to create the Economic, Social and Cultural Revitalization of Santurce Act (S.B. 1713); amendments to the Permits Reform Act (S.B. 1716) and the changes to the new Wildlife Act (S.B. 1723), as well as the appointment of a new electoral subcontractor.

On the other hand, among the six measures approved was House Bill 1557 to prohibit service charges on purchase receipts if the services are non-existent or not capable of being corroborated.

This measure, like House Bills 3024 and 3025, was endorsed by the NPP minority, which voted in block against the other five bills considered in the partial final vote held around 8:00 p.m.

H.B. 3024 and 3025 amended the Internal Revenue Code to exempt non-profit entities seeking the welfare of municipalities from payment of taxes and to establish that items purchased in military stores of the National Guard are exempt from taxes respectively.

Likewise, the Senate approved the H.B. 2745 and 2995 to facilitate the renewal of driving licenses online—an issue that had been resolved thanks to an interagency agreement—and to create a childhood reading program.

Likewise, Senate Bill 1663 was approved to adopt the Law on Administrative Law Reform and to amend the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act (Act 170 of 1988).

However, Senate Bills 1598 and 1670 could not be approved because, out of the 27 representatives of the PPD present, Luis Raúl Torres abstained, Lydia Méndez Silva voted against both and José “Conny” Varela opposed the second. Rep. Jose Báez is the only PPD representative absent in the special session, which has been marked by absenteeism.

S.B. 1598 bill sought to amend Act 22 of 2016, which reforms the energy and water subsidies, in order to establish a limit to consumption for those who benefit from these subsidies and request an inventory of accountants in public residences, among other matters. Meanwhile, S.B. 1670 sought to clarify the special rules that apply in the case of entry of air or sea transportation.

After opening the special session at 4:30 p.m.—three and a half hours later than that scheduled—and with 33 lawmakers present, the House began the special session with the reading of the resignation letter from PDP Sen. Efraín de Jesús, from District 19 (Mayagüez and Aguadilla).

De Jesús, who replaced Sen. Mari Tere González and was not elected in the last elections, resigned his effective position on December 28 although his legislative work concluded on December 30 because he will begin work as a superior judge.

 




Lack of Attendance Derails House Special Session

With the absence of nine representatives of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) and 19 of the New Progressive Party (NPP), the House of Representatives was unable to start the work of the special session convened Wednesday by Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, since they did not obtain the quorum of 26 representatives.

(CB/Cindy Burgos)

Although the session began almost four hours late, when the interim House Speaker Roberto Rivera Ruiz de Porras ran the attendance list, he had to put a stop to the proceedings and instead convene the lower chamber for next Tuesday, December 27, at 1:00 p.m.

The absent representatives from the PDP included Lydia Méndez Silva, Víctor Vassallo, Nardén Jaime, Brenda López de Arrarás, Sonia Pacheco, José Báez — who anticipated that he would not participate in any special session–Luisa “Piti” Gándara, who is hospitalized, Ángel Matos And José “Conny” Varela.

On the NPP side, only the alternate minority leader Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, José Aponte, Luis Junior Pérez, Waldemar Quiles and José “Pellé” Santiago were in attendance.

The interim House speaker explained to journalists at the end of the special session that the attendance issue of is something that corresponds not only to the PDP majority but also the NPP minority.

He argued that the sergeant-at-arms called several of the absent lawmakers, many of whom said they were on their way to the Capitol, but never came. Ruiz de Porras added that they have not evaluated whether they have the votes to approve the 16 legislative measures included by Garcia Padilla in this special session.

 

Absenteeism has been affecting the work in the House since the last special session, which was convened a few weeks after the elections.




Governor Convokes Second Special Session

SAN JUAN—Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla convened a second special session in the Legislature Wednesday afternoon. Some 27 appointments and 16 legislative bills are set for discussion during the new session, to begin Thursday at 1 p.m.

Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla (CB)

Some proposed appointments stand out, among them former Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Sen. Gilberto Rodríguez Valle as head of the Minors’ Advocate Office, Carlos del Río as a new member of the University of Puerto Rico’s governing board, and Rolando Torres as deputy electoral comptroller.

Other notable appointments include Wanda Arroyo Rivera and Luis Nazario Maldonado to the governing board of the Public Buildings Authority. Arroyo, who ran unsuccessfully for a PDP Senator-at-large seat in this year’s elections, was also named to the board of the Health Insurance Administration in representation of the public interest.

According to a press release released by La Fortaleza, the session will also address issues such as how to temper the Puerto Rico Controlled Substances Act with recent actions by the governor relaxing penalties on marijuana possession. Other matters to be discussed include facilitating the renewal of driver’s licenses online, the reactivation of the island’s poultry industry, a bill intended to revitalize San Juan’s Santurce district, another bill seeking to declare Spanish as an official language over English, and amendments to laws related to subsidies and late payments to electric and water utilities, among others.




Substitute for Sen. Mari Tere González also nominated to judiciary

special-senate-session

(CB photo/Cindy Burgos Alvarado)

SAN JUAN – Senate Chief of Staff Gina Méndez Miró isn’t the only person Gov. Alejandro García Padilla requested be nominated to the judiciary – as the appeal court – be appointed during this special session.

In a third amendment to the session, the governor requested that Rep. Efraín de Jesús be named superior court judge. In September, De Jesús was appointed as substitute for Sen. Mari Tere González in her seat representing district 19 of Mayagüez and Aguadilla. De Jesús wasn’t elected in the past elections.

Also at the Senate session, which began just over an hour late, it was announced that the governor requested the withdrawal of the appointments of Gilberto Gierbolini and William Vázquez. Vázquez, who worked in the Justice Department during the administration of former Gov. Sila María Calderón, requested her designation be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Senate Majority Leader Aníbal José Torres, requested the reconsideration of House Bill 2924, which includes amendments to the Teachers Retirement System Act.

He called on the floor that the amendments be left without effect, despite having already been approved by the House in its session Friday, when it adjourned the special session convened by García Padilla sine die, which could have been extended until Dec. 6.

The upper chamber is expected to make way for the appointments that remain to be evaluated. Senate President Eduardo Bhatia said a number of significant measures woin´t be addressed as requested by the governor because the House has already concluded its work. He said that “about 75%” of the 113 measures the governor had called for had been addressed.

The possibility that a second special session will be convened in the next few days is still on the table.

Call for release of Oscar López

During the special session, Bhatia requested an initial turn to insist on the release of Oscar López Rivera, who has been in prison for more than 30 years.

The Senate president urged citizens to help with the 100,000 signatures needed in a petition to President Barack Obama to consider López Rivera’s release before ending his administration later this year.

“I am going to do whatever is required [for the release of López Rivera]…. We are 9,000 signatures away from reaching 100,000 signatures. The faster the 100,000 signatures are reached, the quicker they have to answer,” the Senate leader said.

Sen. Miguel Pereira joined the request during his initial turn. The legislator compared López Rivera’s situation with U.S. Sen. John McCain’s, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and rejected his release until his fellow soldiers were also released. López Rivera had a similar opportunity during Bill Clinton’s, but rejected it for a similar reason.

López Rivera remains convicted on charges of seditious conspiracy.

During the session, only Bhatia, Pereira, Torres, Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago, and New Progressive Party (NPP) Sen. Ángel “Chayanne” Martínez were present. Later, NPP Sen. Larry Seilhamer arrived.




Senate debates if bills in special session violate Promesa

SAN JUAN – Amid questions about whether the legislation violated Promesa, the Senate approved Thursday 13 of the 103 bills contained in the governor’s executive order convening a special session Thursday, but the House opted to slow its pace.

House Majority Leader Charlie Hernández said the lower chamber doesn’t put bills directly to a vote even though many of the measures already had public hearings in the past session. “We want to give the committees a chance to look at the bills,” he said.

The Senate debated a motion from incoming Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who said none of the bills should be approved until the Fiscal Management and Oversight Board examines their fiscal impact. He also said the approval of the bills could be in violation of Promesa.

NPP Vice President Thomas Rivera Schatz

Senate President-elect Thomas Rivera Schatz

Rivera Schatz noted that the governor’s transition committee has said the government will run out of money in February. He also criticized the fact that governor was trying to put PDP sympathizers in government seats even though the party lost the election.

“It is a shame we are here to tighten loose screws,” Rivera Schatz said, adding that voters rejected the PDP in the past election and that there will be a new government in January.

Senate Majority Leader Aníbal José Torres says it is up to the governor and not the Senate to obtain approval of bills from the board, which must decide if they don’t violate the fiscal plan the governor has submitted to the board, which has yet to be approved. He says Promesa doesn’t impose limits to the Senate as to the kinds of bills it must approve.

PDP Sen. Cirilo Tirado commented that Rivera Schatz’s request was valid but was setting a bad precedent because it would be like the Senate is delegating its powers to the board.

“Any bill would need to have a certification on its fiscal impact from the board and that is absurd,” he said.

Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago said the legislature had already abdicated its powers because it can approve bills, but the board decides if they should go into effect.

Senate President Eduardo Bhatia then clarified that bills have to be in agreement with the government’s fiscal plan. Section 204 of Promesa states that after a law is enacted, the governor has seven days to submit it to the oversight board.

With the law, the governor must submit a formal estimate prepared by an entity with expertise in budgets and financial management of the impact, if any, the law would have on expenditures and revenue.

If the oversight board believes the law is inconsistent with the fiscal plan, then it will direct the government to correct the law or provide an explanation for the inconsistency to the board’s satisfaction or take any other action deemed necessary to ensure that the enactment or enforcement of the law won’t affect the fiscal plan adversely.

Bhatia noted that the fiscal plan has yet to be approved.

“I agree that the board is a terrible thing and it shouldn’t take away the powers of the Senate,” Bhatia said.