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Congress Discusses Puerto Rico Disaster Funds Bill, Refers to Colonial Status

Last week, the House of Representatives passed HR 5687, the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief and Puerto Rico Disaster Tax Relief Act, 2020.  The debate that led up to House passage gave members of Congress an opportunity to make points about the legislative package and their priorities concerning Puerto Rico.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) began by reminding the Congress of the U.S. responsibility to respond and help fellow U.S. citizens. “In recent weeks, thousands of families in Puerto Rico were forced from their homes, schools were flattened, roads and infrastructure were severely damaged as earthquakes racked an island still struggling to recover from the devastation of hurricanes Maria and Irma,” she said. “We must act now on our shared responsibility to assist Americans in need.”

The bill provides $4.67 billion for disaster assistance, and makes some changes in the rules which would make it easier for Puerto Rico to receive and to spend the funds. The bill will also allow residents of Puerto Rico to benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit more equally with people living in the States.

“With this bill,” Lowey concluded, “we can provide families and communities swift relief and put Puerto Rico on the path to long-term recovery.”

Opposition to the bill

Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) responded to Lowey, saying that the tax reforms are not related to the earthquakes and should not be included in the bill. Granger also pointed out that Puerto Rico has not yet spent all the disaster funds they have received.

The Government Accountability Office explained in a report on Hurricane Maria that “red tape” has been hampering Puerto Rico’s ability to spend the funds they have received. In addition, most of the funds allocated by Congress have not actually been disbursed. “Over the last 3 years, we have allocated more than $40 billion for Puerto Rico disasters and less half of that has been spent,” said Granger.

She also pointed out that the federal government has not yet finished quantifying the damage. “There are billions in the FEMA Major Disaster Relief Fund that are already available and can be used toward earthquake response and recovery efforts now,” Granger said, “while we wait on a full and accurate report.”

Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez responded, “It is true that the island has already been allocated over $40 billion, not $90 billion, in funding…[but] of all that money that has been allocated, just $1.5 billion has been disbursed, so we don’t have the cash, and we don’t have the funds that Congress already allocated 2 years ago.”

Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) also suggested that Puerto Rico did not really need additional funds. In addition, he suggested that the tax reforms in the bill were “simply a a method of creating a new entitlement in Puerto Rico, credits against U.S. taxes for people who pay no U.S. tax.”

Many people in the States who receive the tax credits in question also do not pay U.S. income tax. They do not earn enough money to owe taxes.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett(D-USVI) responded by pointing out that territories do not have the option of paying federal income tax. “This government said, ‘You know what, we will let you keep your Federal taxes and then we won’t have to give you the same amounts off money that we give the rest of the States,” she said, “So it is a sham.”

Administration response to disasters

Many of the speakers mentioned the delays in funding caused by the federal government, as well as the misinformation provided about the disaster funds sent to Puerto Rico.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said this: “I lament that Puerto Rico is not a State. If it were a State or if the Virgin Islands were a State, they would have already been addressed and helped, consistent with what we have done for States.

“Madam Chair, history will remember this generation of Puerto Ricans for their perseverance, their courage, and their strength. Having endured two devastating hurricanes in 2017, they have had to cope with their heart-breaking aftermath, characterized by the Trump administration’s failure to allocate resources properly, fairly, effectively, and timely.”

Hoyer also said, “Sadly, we have seen the administration’s veto threat, which was little more than a denigration of our fellow Americans, accusing Puerto Ricans of corruption and being untrustworthy of receiving emergency aid. Ironic that his administration would make such a charge. Shame on them for making that allegation, and shame on them even more if they veto disaster aid to Puerto Rico under such a spurious and hateful belief.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-MD) said, “It is unacceptable that the administration illegally withheld for a full year the assistance that Congress appropriated and that Puerto Rico needs, both to recover from Maria, and to prepare for future disasters.”

Puerto Rico a colony?

Several congressional members described Puerto Rico as a colony.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) used the term: “While everyone here is arguing over money and over the administration of a colonial state, we have to take a look at the actual reality on the ground. Ninety-five percent of schools in Puerto Rico are not up to code. They are leaving thousands of Puerto Rican children vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters.”

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) said, “Puerto Rico, an island invaded by the United States Armed Forces, a colony—it is our responsibility to take care of our fellow American citizens.”

“Don’t come here and say that we have been there for Puerto Rico. Yes, we passed a disaster relief package. And this administration has done everything within their power to with- hold the money flowing to Puerto Rico,” Velazquez added.

“Don’t come here and say that you have been there for Puerto Rico. Don’t tell that to the parents of a 13-year-old girl who died in Vieques because they lack a functional hospital while FEMA has been withholding their money.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) said, “The President and his administration have a responsibility to ensure the people of Puerto Rico are treated as full Americans and not colonized subjects.”

Many more members detailed the hardships faced in Puerto Rico.

The bill passed in the House and has been sent to the Senate.

Read the full text of the floor debate.

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