Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ),chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has written to President-Elect Biden asking him to take action on the Biden-Harris Plan for Puerto Rico.
After expressing congratulations on Biden and Harris’s victory, the letter begins, “The Committee on Natural Resources is the lead committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on matters related to U.S. Territories. We thank you and Vice-President-Elect Harris for developing the Biden-Harris Plan for Recovery, Renewal and Respect for Puerto Rico,” Grijalva wrote. “The residents of the island have been impacted by an ongoing fiscal crisis and economic depression, major hurricanes and earthquakes, and the COVID-19 pandemic. We write to underscore the importance of the new administration addressing the needs of the 3.2 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico and to respectfully request a rapid implementation of the Biden-Harris priorities for the island.”
The letter than goes on to outline some of the top priorities for the committee.
An active working group for Puerto Rico
Grijalva recently spearheaded an inquiry into the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico. In fact, the letter asking for the investigation drew attention to the fact that there was no active task force and that the administration had not taken the required action on Puerto Rico.
The request for a working group asked that such a group’s responsibilities “include providing advice to the President and the Congress on policies and initiatives for Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery and disaster reconstruction.”
“This would provide much-needed Executive leadership on timely federal initiatives,” Grijalva said.
Puerto Rico’s political status
“For decades, Puerto Ricans have been considering different political status alternatives to the present territorial status with the United States,” the letter continues. “A future of renewal and respect is not possible without addressing the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status.”
The letter implicitly acknowledges that the status issue needs to be resolved, and that it is the responsibility of the federal government to take action.
Supporting full recovery, to modern standards
Grijalva’s letter calls for full support for Puerto Rico’s recovery and the rebuilding of the Island’s infrastructure to current standards.
“The federal response has been ineffective and slow, limiting the island’s long-term recovery,” Grijalva wrote. “With adequate federal policies, Puerto Rico can invest to rebuild its infrastructure and increase its resiliency to withstand future natural disasters.”
Congress may consider a broad infrastructure plan during the next congressional session.
“Puerto Rico has been experiencing an economic crisis for more than a decade; poverty and unemployment rates are much higher in the U.S. Territory compared to the States,” the letter reminds readers. “Existing federal policies hamper Puerto Rico’s economic growth. With appropriate federal policies, Puerto Rico can develop a healthy and self-sufficient economy, and improve the quality of life of the residents of the island.
Grijalva reminds Biden that Puerto Rico said the level of debt was unsustainable in 2015, and that PROMESA had debt restructuring as a goal.
“Considering the major natural disasters that have affected the island and the COVID-19 pandemic,” says the letter, “the implementation of PROMESA needs a meaningful shift in approach to protect essential public services and pensions and reduce the island’s unsustainable public debt burden.”
The letter calls for investment in schooling and in workforce development, pointing out that the hurricanes, earthquakes, and the pandemic have all had negative impacts on education in Puerto Rico.
“More than half of children on the island live below the federal poverty line and Puerto Rico is the jurisdiction with the highest percentage of students receiving special education services,” the letter points out. “The Federal government can increase investments in students and public schools in Puerto Rico to expand access to high-quality public education, ensure individual career services, and invest in public school infrastructure.
A court decision recently held that SSI, part of Social Security benefits, could not be withheld from eligible citizens simply because they live in Puerto Rico. The Trump Administration appealed the decision on the grounds that the government is not required to treat territories equally with states.
Grijalva asks that the Solicitor General support the right of Puerto Rico to SSI.
The letter concludes, “We look forward to partnering with you and Vice-President-Elect Harris to advance the Biden-Harris Plan for Recovery, Renewal and Respect for Puerto Rico. The new Biden-Harris administration represents a unique opportunity for the Federal government to demonstrate to the people of Puerto Rico that they deserve to be treated with dignity and an equal chance to get ahead.”