Bill Nelson slams GOP response to Puerto Rico - Florida Politics

Bill Nelson slams GOP response to Puerto Rico

Senator Bill Nelson met with local representatives from the Tampa Bay Puerto Rican community on Friday, blasting recent actions (and non-actions) by congressional Republicans in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on the island exactly 100 days ago.

“A knife was put to the neck of Puerto Rico.”

That’s the phrase the Florida Democrat employed in discussing how the island fared out of the recently passed GOP tax reform bill. He was referring to a provision of the legislation that places a 12.5 percent tax rate on intellectual property. Manufacturing accounts for nearly half of the island’s economy and a third of government revenues.

“This is not right. This is not fair,” Nelson told the group who gathered at his Tampa district office on Friday. It followed the senator’s one-day trip on the island on Wednesday with Orlando U.S. Rep Darren Soto, who announced on Thursday the formation of a regional task force to address the needs of displaced Puerto Rican evacuees who have arrived in Central Florida since Hurricane Maria’s landfall.

Over 250,000 Puerto Rican residents have left the island for Florida, half to the Orlando Metro area, according to Nelson.

Nelson also criticized Republicans for including Puerto Rico in a recently passed federal disaster relief bill, but requiring the territory to provide FEMA with a percentage of marching funds – something that he says the cash-strapped island government can’t afford.

“This is how the island – our fellow American citizens – are being treated. They are not being treated like fellow American citizens,’ the senator said.

Authorities on the island said that nearly half of power customers – 55 percent of the nearly 1.5 million customers – have electricity.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the entire nation won’t have power until May.

Nelson’s criticism of the Republican Party’s handling of the crisis also has a political dimension. The 75-year-old lawmaker is on the ballot next fall in what he hopes will be a successful bid to remain in the Senate. He he was first elected in 2000.

He said that Puerto Ricans relocating to Florida are angry about the federal government’s response to their issues, which could have an impact on next year’s election.

“Most of them would like to return to the island,” Nelson said on behalf of the more than 250,000 who now live in the Sunshine State. But he acknowledged that the “hard realities of recovery” dictate that many of them won’t be returning anytime soon.

“If they are going to stay, I think they are going to know who helped them and who didn’t help them, and I assuredly want them to register to vote and express their feelings by the way they cast their vote,” he said candidly.

In the weeks following Maria, retired U.S. Air Force Col. E.J. Otero created Course of Action PR, under the umbrella of the Course of Action Foundation to send approximately 40 containers of goods to the island from Tampa. Otero says he’ll meet with officials from the USF business school next month on conducting a study on the economic impact of the storm on Florida and Puerto Rico.

A registered Republican who ran against Kathy Castor for Congress in 2012, Otero initially declined to comment specifically on Nelson’s anti-GOP remarks, saying that “both parties’ emergency response leave a lot to be desired.”

He later added however, that he wished the meeting had been solely about Puerto Rico and “inclusion into the economy” rather than talk of partisan issues.

(Photo credit: Kim DeFalco).

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.
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