Ricky Rosselló

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Puerto Rico Day of Reckoning Is Here

A crumbling building in historic Old San Juan, a symbol of Puerto Rico’s collapsed finances and reduced public employment. /Maria Padilla

SAN JUAN – People still applaud when their flight lands in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As one plane arrived, a passenger added, “Yo soy boricua” and the remaining passengers picked up the chant, “pa’ que tú lo sepas!”, an age-old chorus Puerto Ricans often sing in praise of themselves.

It’s all good considering the turbulence the island is enduring due to its enormous debt – over $70 billion – and the humiliation of an unelected, congressionally imposed fiscal oversight board whose purpose is to steer the island through its fiscal storm.

Which is to say, down on the ground the going is very rough.

Day of Reckoning

The fiscal year that began in July brought a new reckoning: more proposed cuts in public employment and reforms of government pension plans effective September 1. This on an island  reeling from a decade-old economic recession that has sent hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans packing to Florida and elsewhere since 2006, a historic migration.

Newly elected Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is going mano a mano with the Financial Oversight and Management Board over control of government, insisting the personnel cuts are “unnecessary” because the administration has made plenty of adjustments. Some mayors are even talking about civil disobedience.

The fiscal board, meanwhile, filed suit in federal court to force the governor’s hand. The outcome may determine who really is in charge. Huge hint: It’s the fiscal board.

Let’s be clear: Rosselló is attempting to put political distance between his administration and the inevitable shrinking of the government’s size and services. The fiscal board states 135,000 government workers are likely to be affected by a shorter work week, a number so high as to wither the political aspirations of the governor and his political party. In comparison, Florida had fewer than 100,000 full-time state workers, as of 2016.

Employer of Last Resort

For decades Puerto Ricans of all political stripes looked to the central government as employer of last resort – and the politicos gleefully complied. Voters will punish any governor who reverses course, as they have in the past.

Political posturing aside, people know deep inside there is no safe landing. This visitor couldn’t buy a treasury stamp (comprobante) in Dorado because the employee didn’t work Fridays. Plus, many municipal workers – another 55,000 employees – clock fewer hours as budget shortfalls have forced mayors to act.

But, in an absurd move that postpones the inevitable, the legislature declared “dead” a much-talked about consolidation of the island’s 78 municipalities that govern a shrinking population of 3.4 million people. That is more than Florida’s 67 counties and 20-plus million residents. Some mayors are forced to join hands. Several municipalities pitched in to collect the garbage of the town of Toa Baja (pop. 5,685), west of San Juan, one of the island’s most financially pinched. And the forecast is, some municipalities may disappear with or without reform for lack of funds.

In the southwest town of Cabo Rojo, residents must buy the town’s orange garbage bags to help pay for waste collection, a first. No orange bag, no pick up, according to the policy, which also encourages recycling. Certain residents reported that people are throwing garbage to the roadside to avoid buying bags, but this visitor didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary.

Stiff Upper Lip

The average Juan and Juana appears stiff-lipped, even graceful, under pressure as they plug away remembering others whose jobs have already vanished.

Workers, from a public school cafeteria worker and auto rental agent to a restaurant owner, seemed jittery but determined – nervous because they don’t know what’s coming but also determined to see things through.

The cafeteria worker dismissed any worries about losing her job, even though initial student registrations appeared to be down by 30,000. “We’ll see,” she commented. The auto rental agent was cautiously optimistic, glad that more travelers were arriving and renting cars. (Hotel occupancy was up 4 percent and hotel room taxes jumped 12 percent in July.)

Even collection of the dreaded 10.5 percent sales and use tax rose nearly 2 percent to $213 million in July over the same period a year ago. General tax collections were up 8 percent. Yes, picking the pockets of the puny 40 percent of the labor force that works is quite popular. Any layoffs, however, would shrink it further.

The bar-restaurant owner, whose parents opened the business located steps from the governor’s mansion decades ago, was all action behind the bar. “We have to work,” he said. “We have to work to push the country forward.”

Applause, please.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

This article was published September 1, 2017, in the Orlando Sentinel. See the story here.

Status: The Elixir of Puerto Ricans

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricky Rosselló (right) shakes hands with Cong. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). Rosselló will push for a political status bill in Congress. / R. Rossello-Facebook

Political status is the elixir of the Puerto Rican people – to paraphrase Karl Marx.

I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, because the newly installed island Gov. Ricky Rosselló and newly sworn Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González expect to file a bill in Congress on Wednesday for Puerto Rico to be admitted to the union as the 51st state.

At the same time, the Puerto Rico Legislature will put forth a bill for yet another plebiscite with only two options – statehood or independence –  thus excluding the present-day commonwealth status.

The move harks to a 2012 non-binding plebiscite – of which there have been several in Puerto Rico – in which statehood buried Commonwealth, garnering 61 percent of the vote. Congress ignored it.

For six decades Commonwealth has been billed as a semi-autonomous option, except that the congressionally imposed fiscal control board that likely will govern Puerto Rico over the next five years has proven that commonwealth is hollow. The island is not, in fact, self governing.

With Puerto Rico in dire financial straits as it tries to manage $72 billion in debt and in need of drastic economic reforms, a plebiscite can serve only as a public distraction from the very difficult decisions that lie ahead.

A distraction from billon-dollar budget deficits. A distraction from thousands of potential layoffs. A distraction from the downsizing and privatization of government. A distraction from badly needed education reform. A distraction from the island’s incredibly shrinking population as migrants continue to flee to places like Central Florida.

In fact, Rosselló’s father, former two-term governor Pedro Rosselló, utilized the very same distraction – twice during the 1990s. To no avail.

To be sure, the island’s political status needs to be seriously addressed and resolved. After all, it has been over 100 years since U.S. troops marched into Puerto Rico and took the island. And Puerto Rico is treated very unfairly in hundreds of federal programs because of its territorial status, as outlined in a recent report by a congressional economic commission on Puerto Rico that included Florida’s Senators Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R).

However, Puerto Ricans love, love, love talking about political status. Many will be more than happy to welcome the distraction.

Pour the elixir.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

2016 Comes to an End with a Bang

The year 2016 is coming to an end with a bang on many fronts. Let’s turn to a few less obvious but newsy items that merit attention for their importance.

Pulse

From the first news of the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, a tug of war erupted between the LGBTQ and Latino communities over who would take the lead in speaking for the 49 victims, most of whom were Hispanic, many of them Puerto Rican.

The LGBTQ community won the struggle, as evidenced by the six-month anniversary of the shooting at the Orange County History Center, where the Hispanic component of the shooting was nearly absent.

As reported in Orlando Latino, the ceremony host  “forgot” to acknowledge the Pulse victims. Not one of the survivors or family members was called to the podium. Not one. The host mentioned only in passing that the history center opened a display of the tributes to Pulse collected from around town.

Government and others have now also buried the grass roots efforts that took place in the Latino community to help survivors and families, where groups such as Somos Orlando offered – and continues to offer – mental health counseling to the affected community.

But the Hispanic community has not been totally forgotten. In an Orlando Sentinel poll conducted before the six-month anniversary, 21 percent said Pulse was an attack of terrorism, an attack against gays and Hispanics (italics mine). That was up from 13 percent in June.

Full disclosure: I was named to the board of Somos Orlando but have resigned this month.

Latinos Elected

Newly elected Cong. Darren Soto

Central Florida has about 11 Latino elected officials as a result of the 2016 elections, including Darren Soto, the first Florida Puerto Rican in Congress. About five are a net gain, meaning a Hispanic did not previously hold the seat.

Here are the winners:  Víctor Torres, former state representative to state senator, District 15; Bob Cortés, re-elected to House District 30; John Cortés, re-elected to House District 43; René Plasencia, re-elected to the State House but representing a new area: District 50; Amy Mercado elected to House District 48 previously occupied by her father Víctor Torres; Carlos Guillermo Smith elected to District 49; Emily Bonilla elected to the Orange County Commission, District 5; Armando Ramirez, re-elected as Clerk of the Court of Osceola County; José Alvarez elected the first Hispanic mayor of Kissimmee; and Olga González, elected to Kissimmee City Commission Seat 1.

Early Voting

An important lesson about early voting in the presidential election:  About 70 percent of all Florida votes were cast before election day but the latest analyses indicate there is no correlation between early voting and higher voter turnout.

Early voting simply changed the way people voted, which is important for organizers to keep in mind for future elections.

Undocumented Immigrants

President Barack Obama will have deported more than 2.75 million undocumented immigrants by the time he leaves office in several weeks, the highest number of any president – and some presidents combined, earning Obama the moniker of “Deporter in Chief.”

Of those deported, 84 percent had criminal records. That leaves over 820,000 of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions. If Trump delivers on his promise, there won’t be as many undocumented immigrants with criminal records to deport.

Obamacare

One of every five people or 20 percent enrolled in Obamacare lives in Florida, the highest percentage of any state. That’s over 1.3 million people, which is going to make it difficult for Washington to undo the Affordable Care Act without causing massive healthcare headaches for millions of people without other health care recourses.

There would be up to 800,000 more Obamacare customers in Florida if the state had expanded Medicaid, a key component of the health care act.

As of December 19, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services reports about, 6.4 million people had signed up for Obamacare for 2017, or about 2 million more than the year before, indicating that Obamacare has become more – not less – relevant.

Puerto Rico Financial Crisis

At year end, the new fiscal control board that’s poised to take over Puerto Rico in 2017 projected the island’s financial predicament is worse than had been reported, which was already pretty bad.

Puerto Rico Gov.-elect Ricky Rosselló.

As reported in Orlando Latino, Puerto Rico’s projected 10-year deficit is $67 billion, or $10 billion higher than originally stated and nearly as much as the island and its public agencies owe bondholders.

Gov.-elect Ricky Rosselló must present a balanced budget, which would be a first in decades, requiring significant government cutbacks as well as deep reforms to keep the island economy from toppling completely.

Bottom line for Florida: The pain is likely to send more economic migrants to the Sunshine State, continuing a dramatic shift in the state’s Latino population. Puerto Ricans number over 1 million in Florida, compared with about 1.3 million Cubans, the state’s largest Latino group.

Zika

The final Zika numbers for Puerto Rico fell short of earlier predictions but are still alarming. The Puerto Rico Health Department reports nearly 36,000 islanders contracted mosquito-borne Zika, accounting for the lion’s share of locally transmitted cases under the U.S. flag.

Only 216 local cases were reported in the 50 states, with Florida making up 210 of those.

Zika can cause birth defects such as microcephaly in pregnant women. About 2,500 island women were infected in 2016, which is significantly below the 43,000 cases per year that were projected for Puerto Rico, as reported earlier in Orlando Latino.

Of those 2,500 cases only seven (7 ) resulted in infants with birth defects. The island has projected 1,000 fewer births this year due to Zika.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor