Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, the resident commissioner for Puerto Rico, has filed a collection of bills as the 118th session of Congress kicks off:
- HR 253, a bill moving Puerto Rico from the NAP program to the SNAP program for nutritional support
- HR 254, an act to improve TRICARE, the military health insurance program, for veterans in Puerto Rico
- HR 256, which will include Puerto Rico and the other territories in SSI (supplemental security income) programs
- HR 257, a bill to make Puerto Rico eligible for the Earned Income Credit
- HR 258, a bill to improve the collection of statistics and dissemination of related data in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and the U.S. Constitution permits Congress to treat territories differently from states. Generally, when U.S. territories do not receive state-like treatment, this means providing fewer resources or making the territories ineligible for programs and rights available to U.S. citizens living in states.
While a patchwork of accommodations does not provide the permanent solution to this problem that statehood will provide, passage and implementation of any of these bills will improve the daily lives of many of the 3.2 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico.
HR 253, the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Act
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps feed families n the United States who live in poverty. Puerto Rico has a separate and distinctly not equal program, the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP).
Under NAP, families must earn less than those living in the states in order to be eligible. Once they have been identified as eligible, they receive less in benefits. What’s more, NAP has a block grant which does not respond to needs. In the U.S., if needs are greater, the federal government increases contributions to cover the expanded need. In Puerto Rico, money can simply run out and there is no adjustment in the case of disasters, inflation, or other changes in circumstances.
The cost of groceries is just as high in Puerto Rico as in the states. 85% of the food in Puerto Rico is imported from other places, including the states. The restrictions of the NAP program lead to hardship for families on the Island.
Cosponsors include Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-AS), Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), Del. James Moylan (R-GU), and Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL).
This bill has been referred to the Committee on Agriculture.
HR 254, the TRICARE Equality Act
Puerto Rico sends a higher proportion of its men and women to the military than any state. Yet veterans often do not receive the same benefits when they live in Puerto Rico as veterans do when they live in the states.
One example is TRICARE, the health insurance program Americans who serve in the military as well as some retired and family members. Some programs, including TRICARE Prime, are not available in Puerto Rico. Providers do not make appointments but see patients on a first come, first served basis. This, along with the geographic distance many veterans must travel to see provers, makes for excessively long wait times, according to a study from the Department of Defense. Patients may also have to pay for treatments up front, which is not the case in the states.
HR 254 simply makes TRICARE in Puerto Rico match TRICARE on the mainland.
This bill has been referred to the Armed Services Committee.
HR 256, the Supplemental Security Income Equality Act
The Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that Puerto Rico could simply be left out of the coverage for the elderly, needy, and disabled provided by SSI.
The Supreme Court specifically said that the fact that Puerto Ricans do not usually file federal income taxes was a reason for their decision, even though the cost of SSI is not covered by income taxes. Under HR 256, Puerto Rico would receive the same SSI benefits as states.
Cosponsors include Reps. Torres (D-NY), Moylan (R-GU), Soto (D-FL), Plaskett (D-VI), and Sablan (D-MP).
The bill has been referred to the Ways and Means Committee.
HR 257, the Earned Income Tax Credit Equity for Puerto Rico Act
The Earned Income Credit is an income tax credit for working families with low and moderate incomes. It can refund all that the families have paid in for their taxes, and can also provide additional funds. Families receiving these credits typically use the money for training, more reliable transportation, and other expenses that help them find and keep better jobs. The EITC has been shown to lift families out of poverty.
Puerto Rico has a much higher proportion of people living in poverty than any state. In the territory, as in the states, people who work and yet still live in poverty have some special challenges. Often problems with child care, transportation, or health keep them from getting to work. More affluent families can often solve these problems by paying for help, but needy families may miss work and even lose their jobs when they face these complications. The EITC helps with these problems.
Puerto Rico has not been eligible for this credit in the past, but has occasionally had temporary access to a territorial version of the credit. The new bill removes the eligibility obstacle and makes Puerto Rico equal to the states in this matter.
This bill has been referred to the Ways and Means committee. Cosponsors include Reps. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Darren Soto (D-FL), and James Moylan (R-GU).
HR 258, the Puerto Rico Data Collection Equality Act
Statistics are not kept as well in Puerto Rico as in the rest of the United States. This fact has consequences, including inadequate benefits and inaccurate reporting of statistics about Puerto Rico and the nation in general.
Sometimes Puerto Rico is specifically exempted from collecting information. Sometimes they are simply overlooked. Sometimes skipping Puerto Rico is a cost-cutting measure.
With more accurate data, better decisions could be made and Puerto Rico could expect to receive better funding, more in line with the needs of the territory.
The bill is cosponsored by Rep. Soto.
Thus bill has been referred to the Committees on Natural Resources, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Accountability.
Rep. Gonzalez-Colon has also announced her intention of filing a Puerto Rico Status Act as soon as possible.