CT Latino panel urges Congress to act quickly to help Puerto Rico

The flag of Puerto Rico

The flag of Puerto Rico

Washington – Connecticut’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission has asked Congress for quick action on legislation to help Puerto Rico with its $72 billion debt crisis.

In an open letter to Congress, the commission, an advisory group to the General Assembly, urged federal lawmakers to act “in a manner that protects residents from unwarranted harm and provides a durable foundation from which to achieve sustainable financial stability.”

“Connecticut, with the largest concentration of people of Puerto Rican ancestry in the United States, is acutely aware of the shattering human crisis that would reverberate well beyond Puerto Rico to our state and states across the country were the current crisis left unresolved in the face of looming deadlines with serious and substantial financial consequences,”said the commission’s letter, the first it has written to Congress.

More than 7 percent of Connecticut’s population is Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican ancestry.

Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives this week unveiled a draft proposal for dealing with the crisis that has been attacked both by liberals and the island’s creditors.

The proposal would require Puerto Rico’s elected leaders to work with a federally appointed financial control board to solve its fiscal crisis. It would also bar Puerto Rico from declaring Chapter 9 bankruptcy, as Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and other federal lawmakers from the state have sought.

But it would allow Puerto Rico, with the control board’s consent, to enter into a court-supervised debt restructuring similar to bankruptcy if it is unable to reach voluntary agreements with creditors.

Liberals, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla and others on the island have harshly criticized the proposed control board as stripping Puerto Rico of its sovereignty. The island’s creditors fear they would receive less compensation under the plan than they are receiving now.

The Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission stopped short of endorsing the draft proposal. Instead, focused on the need for swift action on a Puerto Rico bill when Congress reconvenes on April 11.

“Consideration of a law allowing Puerto Rico to restructure its debt, of a moratorium on lawsuits, of amending federal laws that affect the flow of money to Puerto Rico, of a financial review board, of emergency financial assistance, of clarifications to the existing status of Puerto Rico in regards to legislation and jurisprudence, and review of the ability of the Puerto Rican government to adequately address the needs of the local citizenry, to varying degrees merit attention and consideration as Congress grapples with how best to proceed in these extraordinary circumstances,” the letter said.

Werner Oyanadel,  executive director of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, said there were “some differences of opinion” among the board’s members about the Puerto Rico draft plan. But they decided to write Congress, anyway “because of the urgency of the issue.”

Puerto Rico’s health care system is on the brink of collapse, and the economic crisis is so bad islanders are fleeing to the mainland in record numbers. Population growth was once the norm, but a recent Pew Research Center report said Puerto Rico’s population has declined by 7 percent from 2010 to 2015. Most of the emigrants are moving to Florida, but some have relocated to New York and Connecticut.

A bailout?

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., wrote a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., urging quick action. In that letter, signed by all five members of Connecticut’s U.S. House delegation, Larson said Congress must act to help Puerto Rico before the island’s next bond payment of $422 million comes due on May 1.

Puerto Rican Day festival gathering in Hartford's Bushnell Park in June.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMIrror.org

Puerto Rican Day festival gathering in Hartford’s Bushnell Park last June.

The letter also said that, “We all support allowing Puerto Rico the ability to utilize Chapter 9 bankruptcy law to restructure its debt as the best way forward,” but acknowledged legislation that would do so, sponsored by Blumenthal and by Rep. Pedro Pierlusi, a non-voting delegate who represents Puerto Rico in the House, “has not received floor consideration in either chamber.”

“We recognize that the legislation that you propose may differ from this approach. We believe that it is imperative that any bill proposed allows Puerto Rico to restructure its debt, and that if the proposal creates a temporary oversight board, that it respects the voices of Puerto Rican citizens and the roles of their democratically elected leaders,” Larson’s letter said.

In a press release that was distributed with Larson’ s letter,  Oyanadel said “Puerto Rico is not looking for a handout but rather they need a hand up to get out of this mess..”

Conservatives in Congress are concerned the final Puerto Rico bill would include a “bailout” and have opposed any debt restructuring plan for the island that would use the courts to force investors to accept losses.

However, Charles Venator-Santiago of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Connecticut, said it would be difficult to restructure Puerto Rico’s debts without an infusion of federal cash.

“In order to restructure debt, you have to have money,” he said. Santiago also said some kind of financial review board is necessary to make sure funds are distributed correctly.

He also said the Supreme Court may settle the issue if Congress does not act.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case involving Puerto Rico’s efforts to reinstate a law, called the Recovery Act, that would allow it to restructure its debt.

A victory could strengthen the arguments of island officials, Blumenthal and other Democrats who seek to give Puerto Rico bankruptcy protection rights – like the U.S. states receive.

Puerto Rico had a slim chance of winning the case before the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – and the recusal of fellow conservative Justice Samuel Alito, who has financial interests on the island.

Now there’s the possibility of a win in the high court.

 

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