Former Gov. Luis Fortuño spoke to the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce this week.
Fortuño said that his tough financial cuts and transparency with Wall Street had succeeded in keeping at bay the downgrade to junk status that Puerto Rico’s bonds have recently faced. He spoke of the strict integrity and the realism of his government’s fiscal policies, in comparison with his successor’s efforts to make things look better from the outside.
“I worry when I read comments in public discussion to the effect that “what the government should do is not worry so much about balancing the checkbook and focus on economic growth,'” he said. “Look, you cannot grow the economy when the fiscal house is not in order.”
Having taken the opportunity, for the first time since leaving office, to defend his government’s actions, Fortuño moved on to the current economic position in Puerto Rico.
“To address a problem,” he said, “we must first recognize that we have one.”
Fortuño outlined the current economic challenges:
- Increasing unemployment, with a net loss of 25,000 jobs last year and a rise in unemployment to 15.4%
- Contractions in home starts and energy use, contrary to the national picture
- A 6.3% rise in bankruptcies last year, against the previous trend
- Slumps in the Index of Economic Activity after an upward trend in 2011-2012
Touching on the increasing exodus from Puerto Rico to the mainland, Fortuño predicted that fiscal responsibility and efforts toward growth would be necessary to end the downward slide. “As in nature,” he said, “everything that does not grow, dies.”
Fortuño went on to list specific areas in which Puerto Rico could reduce costs, from consolidating schools to streamlining government bidding processes with new technology. He spoke up for partnerships between Puerto Rico’s government and the private sector, and with U.S. federal agencies. He pointed to the importance of education and of making use of new technologies in energy production to “play on the strengths” of Puerto Rico.
Fortuño also announced a new initiative:
It is in that spirit that we have taken on the task of establishing here in Puerto Rico the Center for Economic Renewal , Growth and Excellence – or GROW (Centro para Renovación Económica, Crecimiento y Excelencia—o CRECE) , an institution dedicated to develop, disseminate and implement policies and practices that expand individual freedom, responsibility, and opportunity for all, thereby helping Puerto Rico and Hispanic communities across the nation to reach their full potential for growth and prosperity.
Finally, Fortuño spoke on the question of status:
It’s time to decide, once and for all, the issue of status .
Establishing the pro-growth policies that I have shared with you of course will help, no matter what our status. But reaching our full development will not be possible while we are competing on unequal status with the rest of the world. Therefore , I strongly believe it’s time to solve this problem which so divides us with a solution to end the matter permanently.
Whether you are someone who thinks that the current status “served us well” or not, the fact is that its most important elements, such as preferential access to cheap domestic market or corporate tax exemptions, no longer exist and will not return. Free trade agreements , changes in tax policy at the federal level and in other countries and other factors have changed the landscape. The world has evolved, but not us. Our model is worn and has brought us to the dead end where we are now.
The Department of Justice , the research agency of Congress, and even the Working Group in the White House have said again and again that there are no special accommodations under the current territorial status. They have said more. They have expressed that to end this discussion forever, there are only two ways: integration or separation.
This may not appeal to some, but that is the reality we face. I believe that we have every right to choose which of the two ways we go. But whatever we choose, it must not only be in our best interests, but it also a matter of dignity. If we choose the path of separation, we MUST be equal with the other independent countries. And if we choose the path of integration, it MUST be on an equal footing with the other states .
Everyone here knows that I prefer the advantages of statehood. To give just one example, the contrast in economic and social growth between Hawaii and Puerto Rico over the past decades is huge and more than eloquent. Regardless of this, my call is to solve it now. We’ve been waiting too long!
The speech ended with a call to action. “I know we are afraid of change,” Fortuño said, “but we should not be, because it is the only constant in life.”