Referéndum de Unicameralidad (2005):
Opción 1: Unicameralidad – 456,267 (83.4%)
Opción 2: Bicameralidad – 88,720 (16.2%)
Los resultados de este referéndum se desprenden de una tasa de participación de un 22.3%, entre el Universo de 2,453,292 de electores hábiles, según las cifras oficiales de la CEE en el 2005.
Congressman Serrano Asks Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in PR to include the Island's Status, Key Health Care Areas, Federal Poverty Programs, and Energy Reform in Group's Agenda US Representative Jose E. Serrano
August 30, 2016
Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico
c/o Senator Orrin G. Hatch
104 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Task Force Members:
Thank you for the opportunity to provide recommendations to the Task Force as you decide how Congress can assist Puerto Rico in getting back on its feet. As the most senior Member of Congress of Puerto Rican descent, I strongly believe that your work is crucial in addressing the economic crisis on the island. Towards that end, I think it is important for the Task Force's recommendations to include the following items, which will improve the economic development of Puerto Rico and help working families on the island.
1) Status: By far the most important issue needed to address economic opportunity and development in Puerto Rico is that of Puerto Rico's political status. Currently, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory subject to congressional authority pursuant to the Territorial Clause of the Constitution which grants Congress "power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States." Art. IV, Sec. 3, cl. 2. Although those born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, they are denied basic political rights such as having full representation in Congress, voting in presidential elections, and having the same eligibility for various federal programs as those in the states. While those residing in Puerto Rico cannot vote for their Commander-in-Chief, they can be sent to war and have fought in every war since World War I.
The Puerto Rican people have been treated unequally for 118 years, and it should surprise no one that the result is that Puerto Rico's economy is in shambles, its unemployment rate is too high, and hundreds of thousands of island residents have left for the mainland in search of a better quality of life. It is clear that the current economic and fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico is a direct result of this colonial status- Puerto Rico, as either a state or independent nation, would have had access to the necessary assistance without further congressional action. Instead, the island was forced to beg Congress for even the most meager aid possible.
There are some that will argue that we should first concentrate on solving Puerto Rico's fiscal crisis and economic problems before dealing with the political status question. The two issues cannot be separated. Because of its colonial status, Puerto Rico is not granted billions of federal dollars a year that it would receive were it a state of the Union. As a result, in order to provide essential services, the island's government has had to borrow heavily in order to close the gap. Since its economy has lagged well behind the states for decades as a result of its colonial status, the island did not have sufficient economic growth to cover its expenses and service its debt. Therefore, a reasonable person would conclude that Puerto Rico's problems are a result of its colonial status. In other words, the economic situation is directly correlated to its political status and until and unless we solve the political status question, we will not solve the economic situation.
Resolving Puerto Rico's status cannot occur, however, without a clear invitation from Congress to do so. Thankfully, Congress and the Puerto Rican people have already taken steps in that direction. In fiscal year 2014, Congress passed legislation that included $2.5 million to allow Puerto Rico to conduct a plebiscite on constitutional options to resolve its status. Local politics have prevented that money from being used, but in the wake of this economic emergency, consensus has started to emerge that Puerto Rico can no longer continue as a colony of this country. In 2012, a majority of the Puerto Rican people voted in a non-binding plebiscite on political status to end the current colonial status, and a supermajority of 61.2 percent voted in favor of statehood. Recent polls conducted in Puerto Rico suggest that 65 percent of the population favors statehood. I believe that this Task Force should include further funding in its recommendation in order to ensure that this money is used for its designated purpose, and so that the Puerto Rican people can choose once and for all.
Further, I believe this Task Force should recommend the simplest option for resolving the status- H.R. 727, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Process Act. This bill authorizes a simple up or down vote on statehood for Puerto Rico. A vote on this issue will help clarify whether Puerto Rico should seek the only other viable option- independence.
Absent serious action in Congress to address Puerto Rico's status, I strongly believe we in Congress will end up revisiting Puerto Rico's economic woes again in the future, whether that is a year, a decade, or a half-century from now.
2) Health Care: In addition to necessary action on the status issue, there are several areas that should be addressed by this Task Force. One key component of Puerto Rico's economic revival involves health care services. Puerto Ricans pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, but are not eligible for equal benefits, as explained below. Absent other congressional action, I believe the Committee should address the following issues in its recommendations:
* Zika- it is imperative that Congress finally act on the President's full supplemental request to address the Zika virus. Puerto Rico is the epicenter of the Zika crisis in the United States, with more than 10,000 diagnosed cases according to the Puerto Rico Department of Health. The President's $1.9 billion supplemental appropriations request includes significant funding assistance for Puerto Rico in order to address this crisis on the Island- including $250 million in dedicated funding from CMS. As a Member of the Appropriations Conference Committee addressing the Zika crisis, I have seen the urgent need for these additional funds. If we do not address this public health crisis, then it will continue to impact the economy of Puerto Rico by driving away much-needed tourism dollars and affecting the life outcomes and productivity of tens of thousands of American citizens on the island.
* Inequities in Medicaid and Medicare Funding- within both of these programs, there are numerous inequities that force the island's government to divert local funds to help cover gaps in medical coverage. This money could be better used by the territory to promote economic development. For example, Puerto Rico was not treated equally under the Affordable Care Act- it was not included in the exchanges, and while it was given a temporary increase in Medicaid funding that extra allocation is not equivalent to that of the states, and will run out sometime in the next two years. This funding crisis, known as the Medicaid cliff, will reduce federal Medicaid allotments by hundreds of millions of dollars per year if not addressed by this Task Force. Within Medicare, Puerto Rico currently receives a truncated funding level under Medicaid in lieu of what they would receive under the regular formula for the Medicare Part D low-income subsidy (LIS). In the 50 states, the LIS program provides a subsidy for those who are below 135% of the federal poverty level. These individuals have smaller deductibles and lower cost sharing. While Puerto Rico is given a much smaller analogous program, it is approximately 1/10th of what they would receive under full LIS participation. Additionally, Puerto Ricans are not automatically enrolled under Medicare Part B, as is the case in the 50 states. Parity in these two programs will allow the Puerto Rican government, and the Puerto Rican people, to put more money into the economy.
* Hospital Financing- The economic crisis in Puerto Rico has resulted in numerous problems. One of the most troubling is the flight of medical professionals, mainly doctors and nurses, to the 50 states. Much of this flight is due to insufficient hospital funding, a problem which has been exacerbated by the high rates of interest for their mortgages and loans that hospitals have been forced to pay, leaving insufficient money to ensure quality care and to maintain staff. Several hospitals have been forced to let staff go. This has resulted in degraded medical care, and a loss of revenue for the territory's government. The Office of Hospital Facilities within the Department of Housing and Urban Development is tasked with helping hospitals refinance their loans through the Section 242 mortgage insurance program. However, despite repeated outreach from hospitals on the island, not a single one has been able to take advantage of these services in recent years. The Task Force should examine ways in which access to the 242 program can be eased for hospitals in Puerto Rico, in order to allow refinancing by hospitals on the island that can greatly lower their non-health care costs. This would allow hospitals to reinvest in hospital staff and quality care.
3) Federal Poverty Programs: Puerto Rico is excluded from several federal programs and tax policies that play important roles in reducing poverty elsewhere in the United States. Inclusion in these programs will help put money in the pockets of the poorest individuals and families on the island, and numerous studies have shown the economic benefit of providing assistance to working families. Money from programs like the EITC and the CTC is routinely reinvested in the economy, and will provide an economic boost to the island. Among the inequities that this Task Force should address are:
* Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)- Currently, Puerto Rico is excluded from the EITC, one of our nation's most powerful anti-poverty programs. With an average family income well-below that of Mississippi (the lowest ranked state), Puerto Rico is in dire need of federal assistance to help low-income individuals and families. Inclusion in this program will help working families on the island make ends meet, by spending more income and boosting the economy. Additionally, inclusion in the EITC will help increase tax compliance and formal participation in the economy.
* Child Tax Credit (CTC)- Currently, families with three or more children are eligible for the federal child tax credit, but those with one or two children are not. Making these families eligible would provide an additional 300,000 families with much needed assistance. Additionally, the refundable Additional Child Tax Credit suffers from the same problem, and an unequal formula that is currently applied only to Puerto Rican families with three or more children. This inequity should be addressed by the Task Force as well.
* Supplemental Security Income (SSI)- Currently, Puerto Rico is excluded from participation in SSI, the program for indigent individuals who are older than 65, blind, or disabled. Instead, Puerto Rico is provided with a block grant that is miniscule relative to what individuals would receive were they allowed to participate in SSI. This is a basic inequity that hurts the most vulnerable in our society. Puerto Ricans pay Social Security taxes, and should be allowed to equally participate in all parts of Social Security.
4) Energy: Energy is an area that needs to be studied by this Task Force in order to help improve Puerto Rico's economy. Puerto Rico's electrical power prices are more than twice the average power price in the states. Currently, about half of the island's electricity is obtained from petroleum, making the island very susceptible to price volatility in the oil markets. In order to boost economic growth by increasing productivity, electricity costs in the island must be reduced. Too often, businesses on the island shut down or do not expand due to high electricity costs. Lower electricity costs will attract businesses to commence or expand operations. Some suggestions into how to improve the energy sector in Puerto Rico and ultimately lower electricity prices are the following:
* In order to foster economic growth, the federal government should provide technical and programmatic assistance so that there are no surcharges to current electricity rates in Puerto Rico other than rate increases due to the price of oil.
* The federal government should provide technical assistance to the government of Puerto Rico in order to discuss ways to open up the electricity market on the island to competition.
* Federal agencies including the Department of Energy should provide all available technical and programmatic assistance (i.e. grants, loans, loan guarantees)-consistent with federal rules and regulations-for capital improvements and critical energy projects in Puerto Rico, as mandated by the PROMESA Act, P.L.114-187.
* The Task Force should examine ways to allow Puerto Ricans access to federal tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. This will encourage the use of alternative and renewable energy sources on the island.
* Puerto Rico must have an agile bureaucracy that grants or declines permits for renewable energy projects in a timely manner comparable to that of the 50 states, while adhering to all federal and state environmental rules and regulations.
* The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy should offer technical and other programmatic assistance to the Commonwealth for the implementation of innovative technologies with the capability of combining different infrastructure systems in an integrated manner to effectively mitigate power plant emissions, efficiently treat and reuse wastewater, and produce biofuels.
* The Department of Energy should develop an energy action plan for Puerto Rico-as mandated by the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 (P.L. 113-235)-that includes recommendations on reducing the island's dependence on fossil fuels, utilizing U.S. fuel energy sources, and improving the island's energy infrastructure and overall energy efficiency.
* State-like treatment should be provided to Puerto Rico under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) statute, thereby helping more low-income households pay their electricity bills.
* Congress should appropriate funds in FY 2017 for a program that was authorized in 2005. Under the program, the Secretary of the Interior can award up to $6 million in grants to harden electric power transmission and distribution lines in Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories against hurricane-related damage.
I hope that the Task Force will be able to come together in a bipartisan manner to create a comprehensive proposal for action to further assist Puerto Rico in its time of need.
José E. Serrano
Member of Congress
Congressman José E. Serrano has represented The Bronx in Congress since 1990.
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