A bipartisan Congressional task force heavily influenced by Florida’s U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio released its final report Tuesday on dealing with Puerto Rico’s economic collapse offering scores of recommendations for helping the U.S. territory, its economy and it’s people.
Authorized last summer by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or “PROMESA,” the task force has been working for six months to prepare a blueprint for the official federal agency created in that same law that will oversee the territory’s economic governance for the near future, the Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board.
Most of the recommendations could be passed by Congress and signed by the president, pushing reforms independent of the management board. Some are recommendations for the island’s commonwealth government to tackle. Others fall more in line with hopes for changes.
“The Task Force is of the view that Puerto Rico’s best days lie before it, not behind it.” the Congressional task force members including Nelson and Rubio wrote in a joint statement issued Tuesday. “The members of the Task Force have worked across party lines to identify steps that can be taken to help Puerto Rico’s economy stabilize and grow. The Task Force hopes that its work will serve as a platform for continued bipartisan efforts to support the American citizens in Puerto Rico.”
The island’s economy is spiraling downward, and the governor announced in June of 2015 that the Puerto Rico government could not pay its $70 billion in debts. Unemployment, poverty and crime rates are higher than any state’s. Puerto Ricans are fleeing by the ten thousand a month, mostly to Florida, and overwhelmingly to Central Florida. Island schools, first-responder agencies and other agencies have been cut to what many observers say are critically low levels. Health care reportedly has been particularly rocked by inequitable Medicaid rates, a mass exodus of doctors and other health care providers, and the epidemic outbreak of the Zika virus.
The congressional report is 125 pages long.
Among the task force’s recommendations:
* Repeal an exemption in a 1940 law that otherwise provides some investment protection to companies.
* Congress needs to enact an equitable and sustainable legislative solution to the financing of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program early in 2017.
* Changes also should be made to how Medicare is administered on the island, possibly changing the opt-in requirement for Puerto Ricans who want Medicare Part B.
* Congress should expand the federal child tax credit in Puerto Rico so families there with one or two children can claim it just as families in the states do.
* Congress also should consider other tax reforms to bring Puerto Rico’s tax laws more in line with the states.
* Increase the amount of excise tax on Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands rum, and imported rum, that is paid back to the island’s government.
* Congress should extend the tax deductions available in the states for qualified film, television, or live theatrical productions to Puerto Rico.
* The government of Puerto Rico should fully reform the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which the task force said “does not inspire confidence” with its high-priced and unreliable electrical production and grid.
* The National Science Foundation, in collaboration with other government and non-government stakeholders, take all feasible steps to ensure continued operation of the Arecibo Observatory.
* The government of Puerto Rico should make it a priority to redevelop the former Naval Station Roosevelt Roads.
* The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should expedite plans to restore the Martín Peña Channel.
* Congress should consider whether to authorize Puerto Rico to have greater flexibility in its use of Unemployment Compensation benefits for the purpose of increasing employment.
* The Small Business Administration should assess and reform its rate structures, limits, and contribution formulas for making small business loans in Puerto Rico.
* Congress should create a program for contracting preference program for Puerto Rico small businesses to participate in federal contracts.
* Congress should enact a law allowing Zika virus and other communicable diseases to qualify as a “disaster,” making affected small businesses eligible for emergency loans.
* Congress should hold a hearing to determine if Social Security Supplemental Security benefits should be extended to disable people in Puerto Rico.
* The government of Puerto Rico should develop a comprehensive economic development strategy that exploits the island’s many comparative advantages.
* Someone with expertise in Puerto Rico tourism should be appointed to the United States Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.
* The U.S. Economic Development Administration should base its Puerto Rico representative in Puerto Rico, rather than in Philadelphia.
* And, regarding future status – statehood, independence, continuance as a U.S. Territory, the Task Force simply stated Congress should take it seriously: “If the government of Puerto Rico conducts a plebiscite authorized and funded by Public Law 113-76, the Task Force recommends that Congress analyze the result of this plebiscite with care and seriousness of purpose, and take any appropriate legislative action,” the task force concluded.