The twin hurricanes of Irma and María are creating opportunities for public policies that were once objectionable or non priorities in Florida. As more hurricane evacuees arrive in Florida, state elected officials are scrambling to respond to the sudden influx of Puerto Ricans.
Here are a few examples:
- Game changer – Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló recently asked FEMA for Transitional Shelter Assistance or TSA, which he had been reluctant to do before. And understandably so. TSA would give temporary housing assistance to hurricane victims, a financial incentive that would encourage people to leave the island. The governor can hardly afford a continued outflux of people. Currently, few Puerto Rico businesses are open and few people are working, which means nobody is paying taxes. The island is broke –hence, the $4.9 billion federal emergency loan – and getting older by the day as the proportion of elderly increases. If people suddenly have the means to move, many will come to Florida, as has been the case for over a decade. TSA helps the people but it hurts the island.
- Forcing the hands – The continuing stream of Puerto Ricans into Florida – over 70,000 in the last month, according to the governor’s office – is forcing the hands of local elected officials. For instance, housing affordability is an ages-old regional issue. The Legislature raids state affordable housing funds each year. Now officials are tasked with the serious job of finding decent and affordable housing for new arrivals. Remember, it’s hard to land a job without a permanent address. One state representative mentioned tent cities. Others have talked about mobile homes or trailers. Would Central Floridians, Hispanic or not, accept this?
- Jobs, jobs, jobs – The influx of working-age Puerto Ricans is a godsend for the region’s employers, many of which are desperately looking to hire. With a September state unemployment rate of 3.8 percent – essentially zero unemployment – Puerto Ricans represent potential new hires at a time when companies, from tourism to retailers, are engaged in Christmas or seasonal hiring. These may not be permanent jobs or good-paying jobs in our low-wage region. Nonetheless, they are jobs for people looking to earn money. Thus, employers will be among those pushing hard for a resolution to affordable housing issues for hurricane evacuees. Perhaps this also helps explain Gov. Rick Scott‘s – the jobs governor – “welcoming” Puerto Rican newcomers.
- No better time – There has never been a more opportune time to be a Hispanic state elected official. At least six elected officials in Central Florida owe their elections either in total or in part to Puerto Rican voter support – State Sen. Víctor Torres, state Rep. René Plascenia, State Rep. Bob Cortés, State Rep. Amy Mercado and State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith. Gov. Scott, who reportedly may challenge Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018 – in a recent poll they are neck-in-neck, according to the Orlando Sentinel – has established three relief centers. The public – and local elected officials, too – demand state elected officials “do something” to help resolve issues related to the influx of Puerto Rico hurricane evacuees. Committee meetings are taking place even as I write. The Legislature opens in January, an early start. Show us the money. Let’s see if #FlStandsWithPR.
- School aid – Puerto Ricans for years have been urging local school districts to hire more teachers with island certification or credentials. The response has varied by county. Now with over 1,000 newly arrived hurricane evacuee pupils in Orange County and over 400 in Osceola, that’s looking more like a smart move. The self-imposed obstacles are tumbling down. Plus, let’s not forget – each student for whom Spanish is a first language generates thousands of extra dollars in state education funding for the schools they attend, money that isn’t “dedicated” solely to English-language learners but can be used for other purposes as well. School districts need to put the extra money to responsible use.
- El grano about the Jones Act – This month the AFL-CIO declared that repeal of the Jones Act would cost thousands of jobs. ICYMI, this is an aha! moment. The Jones Act is a 1920 maritime law requiring Puerto Rico use only U.S. flagships to import/export goods. But U.S. ships are costlier than foreign flagships, raising the price of consumer goods on the island – from coffee to cars. It’s an increasingly unconscionable law given the 40 percent island poverty rate, ongoing economic crisis and now hurricane devastation. Iniciativa Acción Puertorriqueña and Vamos4PR, two local groups that have been successful in organizing Orlando’s Puerto Rican community, have been relatively silent on the Jones Act, very likely because the SEIU is a financial backer. “… [R]epealing the Act would pave the way for foreign companies to replace domestic crews with lower paid workers lacking basic labor protections,” AFl-CIO wrote in a letter as reported in Politico. Many people have wondered how the SEIU would square the issue of union jobs with the Jones Act. Union brother cannot attack union brother.
˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor