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U.S. Senate postpones disaster aid bill until January

By on December 26, 2017

SAN JUAN – The U.S. Senate has the power to accept or reject H.R. 4667, which would provide $81 billion in fiscal 2018 emergency appropriations to several federal agencies for disaster assistance related to hurricanes and wildfires, as well as delegating decision-making power on the use of funds allocated to Puerto Rico to the island’s fiscal board.

The bill’s section 1208, stipulates that the government of Puerto Rico must present a plan for the use of the funds that must be made in coordination with the fiscal board. In addition, the plan must be certified by the federally established panel.

The measure was approved in the House of Representatives. However, it is expected that the Senate will will not consider it until January, as the body is in its end-of-year recess.

Meanwhile, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González said she included more measures that would benefit Puerto Rico.

She said the House Rules Committee only recommended two amendments to be included in the supplemental appropriations, of which one was authored by her for the incorporation of Low Income Communities Zones in Puerto Rico.

“This measure provides that, according to the census data, communities under the levels of poverty, which is basically all of Puerto Rico, receive benefits for real estate investment, which promotes the creation of hotels, homes, renovation and building new infrastructure, among other things,” González said in a statement.

She also explained that, in the measure, language was included to amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to modify the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) disaster response and recovery programs. González and Congressman José Serrano introduced the Rebuilding Resilient Energy Systems Act of 2017 that would allow Stafford Act funding to be used to rebuild more resilient and efficient energy systems for major disaster or emergency-designated areas. In addition, the resident commissioner explained that $27.5 million is assigned to FEMA.

The commissioner said the measure includes $26.1 million for Community Development Funds program; and $10.5 million for cost studies, pre-construction design to minimize floods, and restoration, repair and construction projects.

Also, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), $12.9 million is allocated for the repairing or replacing meteorological and other equipment for weather projections. Some $50 million is allocated to improve weather, hurricane intensity and flooding forecasts, as well as mitigation capabilities.

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation would receive $16.3 million, which includes repairing the Arecibo Observatory facilities.

In addition, $2.9 million is allocated to education, both public and private, and $1.7 million is added to the Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loan program.

Some $1.4 million would be allocated for the Federal Transit Administration’s Emergency Relief Program to pay for protecting, repairing or replacing equipment and facilities that may suffer or have suffered serious damage. Of the combined funding $269 million is specifically to help communities affected by hurricanes to rebuild mass transit systems.

About $600 million is destined for economic development in areas affected by hurricanes and forest fires. Some $39.4 million are assigned for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for Customs and Border Protection-related activities.

González said the legislation clarifies that Puerto Rico, its municipalities and dependencies are considered local government and, therefore, qualify under the Disaster Assistance Direct Loan Program, to which $4 billion is allocated.

Ante la insuficiencia de fondos locales para parear aquellos proyectos federales, la medida permite a Puerto Rico el uso de los “toll taxes” para cumplir con el requisito conocido como “non-federal share” para programas de reconstrucción bajo la Administración Federal de Autopistas (FHWA, en inglés). Para el Programa de Asistencia Nutricional del Departamento de Agricultura federal se asignan $24 millones.

Amid a lack of local funds to match federal projects, the measure allows Puerto Rico to use “toll taxes” to comply with the requirement known as non-federal share for reconstruction programs under the Federal Highway Administration.

Also, $24 million is allocated for the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“This is not the last allocation of funds that will benefit the island, as Congress will work on a fourth measure of supplemental aid for Puerto Rico in 2018,” the commissioner added.

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