Trump’s alleged reluctance on Puerto Rico disaster funding complicates passage of U.S. aid bill
Stalled emergency measure may have to be reconciled with House version after changes
SAN JUAN – Although Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló refuted President Trump, saying that Hurricane Maria recovery funds “have not been used to make debt payments,” in a luncheon with Republican lawmakers, the president reportedly also said the island was to receive more disaster funding than Texas and Florida, which were struck by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, respectively.
The president’s remarks came about as the U.S. Senate could vote on a House-passed emergency funding measure of about $13.4 billion that includes allocations for several states hit by disasters last year as well as $600 million for Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program.
“The comments attributed to Donald Trump [Tuesday] by senators from his own party are below the dignity of a sitting President of the United States. They continue to lack empathy, are irresponsible, regrettable and, above all, unjustified,” Rosselló said in a statement. “I want to be very clear: Not a single federal dollar has been used to make debt payments. This has been the most transparent recovery in the history of the United States, providing unprecedented access and collaboration with federal agencies. In fact, just yesterday we reached an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the transition of responsibilities for the reimbursement of recovery funds. An agreement predicated on the acknowledgment by the federal government that appropriate fiscal controls are in fact established.”
According to the Associated Press report, Trump told GOP supporters at the Hill that too much money to help rebuild the island has been awarded to Puerto Rico compared with Texas and Florida.
Trump’s comments came amid a public hearing Tuesday at the U.S. House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, where Puerto Rico Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat spoke about the obstacles the government has struggled with to receive Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The funds, Gil Enseñat noted, are for infrastructure projects, and HUD controls the allocation of some $20 billion.
“This has been frustrating, but we are working very well with our partners at HUD and we agree on the path [moving] forward,” he added. “While we lost some time due to the [government] shutdown, HUD staff worked quickly to get the approvals completed once the federal government reopened, giving us full access to our first tranche of funding, $1.5 billion.”
Trump reportedly opposed further funding Puerto Rico, which “sets up a showdown with House Democrats, who insist that a $13 billion to $14 billion disaster aid package that’s a top priority for southern Republicans won’t advance without further aid for the island,” the AP wrote.
“I can only assume that Trump is receiving misleading information from his own staff. I have now made several requests to meet with the President to discuss Puerto Rico’s recovery and reconstruction, but up to this day we haven’t received a confirmation or a date, even though Trump told me we would meet after his visit to Vietnam earlier this year,” Rosselló, who is in Washington D.C., added.
“I invite the President to stop listening to ignorant and completely wrong advice,” Rosselló said. “Instead he should come to Puerto Rico to hear firsthand from the people on the ground. I invite him to put all of the resources at his disposal to help Americans in Puerto Rico, like he did for Texas and Alabama. No more, no less.”
Reportedly, Trump changed his mind and now supports granting nutritional assistance program funds, specifically some $600 million to help alleviate the deficit in funding for the program that had already received a budget cut earlier this year.
However, the AP reported that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Trump was against awarding further funding for the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (Prasa) to rebuild the water system to make it more resilient in the event of another natural disaster.
“Of course, today the world knows the unpleasant truth that Puerto Rico is a colonial territory of the United States and are well aware of the democratic deficiencies we endure: We are not allowed to vote for our President nor have voting representation in Congress,” the governor added. “Even as we have asked democratically for statehood twice in the past seven years, the federal government has delayed their responsibility to act.”
Rosselló further said people around the world “have witnessed the inequalities Americans face on the island. The federal response and its treatment during these past months in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is clear evidence of our second-class citizenship,” adding, “Mr. President: Enough with the insults and demeaning mischaracterizations. We are not your political adversaries; we are your citizens…. We are not asking for anything more than any other U.S. state has received. We are merely asking for equality.”
After a Government Accountability Office study found that aid has not been delivered as quickly as local governments expected, the office recommended that Congress consider authorizing a disaster assistance program that meets unmet needs in a timely manner.
Among the GAO’s recommendations to HUD are developing a monitoring plan and conducting workforce planning to oversee CDBG-DR grants, as it found that the department lacks “adequate guidance” for staff reviewing the quality of grantees’ financial processes and procedures and assessments of capacity and unmet needs, and has not completed monitoring or workforce plans.
“The expected increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events underscores the need for a permanent program to address unmet disaster needs,” the GAO said following its study.
“The lack of leadership and coordination, combined with delays in meeting the basic needs of the island, more than eighteen months after receiving a presidential disaster declaration, has left far too many children and elderly citizens in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, families in severely damaged homes, and communities without adequate infrastructure to sustain a decent quality of life,” Democrats wrote in a letter to the White House on Tuesday.
“Trump noted to GOP senators that Texas — also battered by a spate of hurricanes — was awarded $29 billion in aid, while South Carolina got $1.5 billion to recover from storms. Trump then questioned why Puerto Rico was getting $91 billion, according to two people familiar with his comments, indicating that this was too much compared with compensation for states on the mainland,” the Washington Post wrote Tuesday.
In an effort to verify the claim, the Post found the following “after communications with officials in different agencies.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency: $15 billion obligated ($9.9 billion in outlays, or money that has been delivered)
- Army Corps of Engineers: $2.5 billion allocated ($3 million in outlays)
- Community Development Block Grants-Disaster Recovery (Housing and Urban Development): $20 billion approved, of which $1.5 billion has been obligated, or spending that has been identified but the money has not been delivered
- Small Business Administration: $1.95 billion for homes/business loans obligated ($1.1 billion in outlays)
- Education Department: $710 million obligated ($28 million in outlays)
- FEMA community disaster loans: $294 million obligated ($128 million in outlays)
- Various other agencies: $266 million approved (lesser amounts in outlays)
“That adds up to nearly $41 billion in announced funding,” the Post said, adding that “About half of the money scheduled for Puerto Rico comes from the HUD grants. But virtually none of that funding has been spent yet,” and that the president came up with the $91 billion figure, “referring to an internal Office of Management and Budget estimate of the potential liabilities over the life of the disaster that would need to be committed under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988. The estimate was described as a high-end estimate subject to change year by year.”
The Post’a Fact Checker concluded that what “apparently caught Trump’s attention was the relative scale — with the estimated long-term cost of Puerto Rican repairs potentially three times larger than the cost of Hurricane Harvey in Texas.”
In a statement U.S. Rep Nydia Velasquez “Regardless of what the President says, all Members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats, Senators and House Members alike – have a responsibility to acknowledge and address that there is an ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, harming millions of our fellow citizens. Congress must immediately appropriate additional funding for the Island’s Nutrition Assistance Program and pass the other recovery assistance previously approved by the House of Representatives. Where the President is exhibiting a failure of moral leadership, Members of Congress must step forward and do what is right.