SAN JUAN – More than 70 Puerto Rican leaders from diverse sectors—social, political and economic—took part Tuesday in the first meeting of Frente por Puerto Rico (Front for Puerto Rico), a group created by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to lobby for fundamental issues for the island before the U.S. Government and Congress.
Specifically, the group will focus on three themes: that the island be granted healthcare funding parity with the states; to have it included in the federal tax reform; and that the recommendations of the Promesa-created Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico be approved.
The legislative presidents, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority leaders in the House and Senate, PDP President Héctor Ferrer, and a group of agency directors joined the initiative. Likewise, five former governors—Alejandro García Padilla, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, Carlos Romero Barceló, Pedro Rosselló González and Sila María Calderón—religious leaders and representatives from medical institutions and the private sector also took part.
Former independent gubernatorial candidates Alexandra Lúgaro and Manuel Cidre, as well as independent Sen. José Vargas Vidot, are also part of the group. The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) was invited, but decided not to participate. The governor said that the members of the fiscal control board were not invited, although he is willing to have them.
Although they belong in the group, Romero Barceló and Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz were not at the meeting.
During the meeting in Old San Juan’s Antiguo Casino, the governor stressed the importance of the group having “a single voice” when petitioning Congress and the federal government, saying it is the only way they can expect to achieve results.
Rosselló explained that if Puerto Rico is not considered in federal healthcare programs, it would represent a $1.3 billion loss, which would disrupt the local healthcare system. Thus, he called for “sustainable treatment” for the island, to be included in every federal legislation on the matter, and to address the problem with the “SCHIP cliff” (State Children’s Health Insurance Program funds to be awarded in September).
“Not doing so will cause a bigger problem for the federal government and the states,” said Rosselló, referring to the health cost represented by Puerto Ricans in the diaspora.
Similarly, he stressed that if the island is not included in the federal tax reform, there would be a direct impact on the local treasury and local economy. Therefore, the message should be to “protect Puerto Rico’s competitive advantage,” emphasize that this is not a financial rescue, or bailout, but “structural reform,” and to consider temporary alternatives that are in accordance with the fiscal plan.
Regarding the Promesa Congressional Task Force’s healthcare-, energy- and tax policy-related recommendations, the governor urged Congress to approve these. “If not, it would be the federal Congress that is in violation of Promesa,” he said.
The meeting drew up a work agenda for a second meeting on Aug. 30 to determine how the three visits to the U.S. capital will be carried out next month. The visits will take place Sept. 4-8, 11-15 and 18-22.
The group would have a “recapitulation meeting” Sept. 16, ahead of the third visit, and on the 29th of that month there will be a second call to participate on the initiative.
The group will have a “recapitulation meeting” Sept. 16 ahead of its third trip, and on Sept. 29, there will be a second call to participate in the initiative.
Plenty of recommendations
During the meeting, which lasted two hours, the members of the Front for Puerto Rico made a series of recommendations, as well as a call to the fiscal control board to join in their requests before Congress.
Senate PDP leader Eduardo Bhatia recommended that journalists and the public be given access to the “data rooms” created for creditors so the fiscal numbers the government is dealing with are known. He also called for putting aside the island’s political status issue while the group lobbies for parity and giving transparency to the process.
Gov. Rosselló responded that the status issue would be kept out of the group’s discussions.
For his part, former Gov. Acevedo Vilá suggested including the grievance to the Congress and federal government that they are also responsible for the island’s economic crisis.
“Let it be clear that the crisis in Puerto Rico is a shared responsibility. The United States has a responsibility for the crisis,” Acevedo Vilá said during the meeting. “I think you [the governor] and your representative [before the board, Christian Sobrino] have to tell the board that they are going to fail if they do not get Congress to act,” he stressed. “It is sad to say it is possible that those seven [members of the fiscal board] will be listened to more than all of us in Congress.”
The PDP President Ferrer recommended that a medium- and long-term agenda, not only until Sept. 30, should be established, and asked for matters of public policy on which everyone agrees to be included.
Cidre also suggested including in the talks executives of foreign companies in Puerto Rico, which represent 33% of Treasury’s revenue and make it clear to Congress that Puerto Rico does pay federal taxes.
The president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association, Alejandro Torres, asked it be reiterated that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who do not have the same rights as those living in the states and is a “human rights” issue.
Although not everyone present made a statement, those who did so made themselves available to the governor to collaborate however possible with the group, with their contacts, knowledge and participation.