Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, held a press conference in La Fortaleza on Sept. 16 to discuss the topics and issues addressed in his several meetings with Gov. Wanda Vázquez and other local officials concerning Promesa, Puerto Rico's political status, and environmental affairs, among others.
Grijalva confirmed that he convened with P.R. Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Sens. Eduardo Bhatia and José Luis Dalmau Santiago to discuss the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act (Promesa) established by the U.S. Congress, which created the Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB) tasked with monitoring the island's public debt and economic restructuring processes.
In the meeting, Rivera Schatz reiterated his opposition to this federally-established law and called for its repeal.
“In this Senate we are using and depleting all the resources to eliminate once and for all the devastating effects of Promesa on the island with a federal Fiscal Control Board that has achieved nothing and has been a major obstacle to Puerto Rico's recovery," the Senate president stated.
According to the pro-statehood legislator, FOMB "only ensures its own benefits, so it is time for Congress to act and repeal this arbitrary law."
However, Grijalva leaned toward enacting amendments rather than an absolute derogation of the act. Specifically, he informed that several of his proposals to amend Promesa are to audit the debt, ensure greater transparency, the creation of a reconstruction coordinator to oversee the Puerto Rico’s recovery from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, and to allocate FOMB's funds for its operation directly from the federal government.
“Because of the federal funding, it gives Congress and its investigative processes many more entry points for checks and balances,” the representative said.
Other suggested amendments include a detailed definition for essential benefits, as well as added protections to education, healthcare, and pension security. These last three have been key factors in discussions around Promesa, given that FOMB has repeatedly introduced austerity measures that effectively slash the government’s budget for these services.
Grijalva informed that he is gathering data from local officials on the subject of Promesa and expects to file a complete report on October 22.
Expedited Federal Funding for Reconstruction Efforts
Regarding the island's reconstruction, Grijalva stated that "the federal government has a responsibility to secure the funds dedicated to Puerto Rico."
The congressman said that he talked with corresponding officials about how to expedite funds, as well as the U.S. government's role in making sure that this process is expedited. Furthermore, he stated that the process to expedite assistance to municipalities relies on local policy and the roles of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3), a local government instrumentality that works alongside FEMA in disbursing obligated funds.
"There is consensus among municipalities and even people who are adamantly opposed to that position that there has to be some accountability, transparency, and oversight and that’s what we’re trying to figure out, and that’s where the involvement of the municipalities would be involved," he said.
Statehood Would be “Miracle of Miracles”
In addition to these matters of interest, Grijalva said that local officials also brought up the subject of Puerto Rico's status as an incorporated territory of the United States, a topic that has been heavily debated, particularly with the present pro-statehood administration.
On this regard, Grijalva stressed that both President Donald J. Trump and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have stated that the island's political status is not an utmost priority and they would not have a voting session on the matter. Regardless, Grijalva observed that there has been pressure locally from the media and from pro-statehood politicians.
"[Statehood] would be the miracle of miracles, politically... We will have the discussion, we will have the debate, but I assure you that there will be different ideas from other colleagues," he punctuated, adding that the issue requires a discussion nonetheless.
Coastal Erosion a Priority
Lastly, the congressman also talked about some environmental issues with Vázquez and other officials, particularly about climate change, the use of natural gas and how to tackle concerns about coastal erosion threatening residents' well-being.
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked about his discussion concerning the current debacle among some government leaders in regard to approving a Senate bill that aims to ban construction projects on coastal zones.
While some officials, such as Puerto Rico Tourism Co. Executive Director Carla Campos, stress that this would be detrimental to the island's tourism economy and construction industry, others—such as Sen. Juan Dalmau, who authored the bill—worry that allowing further construction projects in these areas could cause longstanding or irreparable damage.
In response, Grijalva noted that he will release a separate report about environmental issues, but affirmed that he is in favor of issuing a hiatus to these construction projects.
"I think there has to be a safe zone and I personally think that no construction in those areas is not only an environmentally good idea, in terms of sustainability and overall protection, a necessary idea," he said.