In her State and Budget message before members of the Legislative Assembly, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced barely referred to how the money Puerto Ricans contribute to the Treasury will be spent on.
Instead, she focused her speech on criticizing the Oversight Board´s decisions, announcing a series of new incentives, and listing some promises, including the fiscal defense of the University of Puerto Rico, public retirees pensions, and that the Puerto Rico Public Broadcasting Corporation (WIPR) remains in government hands.
Vázquez did not go into some of the major issues the government -or the island- is facing. For example, regarding long waits in the unemployment insurance lines, she only spoke about an expectation of success but did not specify how to do it.
As for economic matters, the governor said she will promote Washington Resident Commissioner in Washington D.C., Jenniffer González´s initiative seeking to encourage the U.S. government to boost manufacturing in Puerto Rico, an issue that does not depend on her administration. She also announced that next October the island would host a tourism industry convention.
Vázquez Garced began her speech by promising that she will not allow the government to continue to be the prize of privileged groups seeking to get rich. “Time calls us to be firm against those who seek advantages from the government because they conceive it as a prize to feed their greed,” she said.
However, she did not refer to the scandal over the purchase of overpriced rapid testing kits to detect COVID-19 that benefited people close to the New Progressive Party (PNP).
The governor then stressed that the problems in the agencies were inherited, that the earthquakes and the COVID-19 pandemic complicated public management, and that she has dedicated much of her effort to regain the trust of the U.S. government.
She then mentioned incentives the government would grant. She spoke of the $2,000 incentive to inspectors working for the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Consumer Affairs. She also announced $1,000 checks for high school students who started college this year and computers for those in the public school system. The governor also announced incentives of up to $150,000 for bona fide farmers and promised to improve the contribution to the police medical plan.
Governor anticipates an extraordinary session
Vázquez Garced highlighted the health issue on several occasions during her address. For example, she promised to extend the Government Health Plan, known as Vital, to some 200,000 people currently without coverage.
She also said she will put an end to the excessive “influence that the insurance industry exercises on the management of our people’s health” to end the “waste of funds.” She specifically spoke of expediting payments to doctors and eliminating insurance company interference in doctors’ decisions. To that end, she asked legislative presidents to create a joint commission to address the issue and did not rule out calling a special session.
Regarding the Board, she indicated that her collaboration with the agency does not imply submission. She criticized the Board for rejecting the Uniform Compensation Plan as part of the single-employer process.
She attributed to herself the fact that the Board authorized to postpone austerity initiatives, she assured that she will continue paying the Christmas bonus for public employees and rejected the proposal, already underway, to transfer the public television station to a non-profit organization.
Vázquez Garced also used her address at the Fine Arts Center in Santurce to indirectly highlight differences between herself and Pedro Pierluisi, her opponent in the New Progressive primary for governor in the upcoming elections.
“I didn’t accept to be governor of Puerto Rico to settle old scores, nor to address pending issues. I don’t have deferred debts with anyone,” she said. Pierluisi has still not paid off some of the debts he incurred when he tried to obtain the PNP candidacy for governor in 2016.
The audience also behaved, at times, as if they were in campaign, shouting in support of Vázquez Garced on several occasions, and even suggesting “únete (join in)” to Commissioner González, who is Pierluisi’s political ally.
Regarding the next fiscal year budget, she indicated that it totals $10.21 billion through the General Fund and $28.234 billion if federal funds and the income from public agencies and instruments are included. She said they are allocating new resources for the Health Department, public and private hospitals, the Education Department, and the Public Safety Department.
The State of the State and Budget message comes just one week before the deadline for the Legislature to approve measures and two weeks before the end of the legislative session.
Vázquez Garced had pointed out that her message wasdelayed due to adjustments to the fiscal plan as a result of this year’s emergencies, first with the earthquakes and now with the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, the Board´s executive director Natalie Jaresko said the entity she leads will seek a budget of $10.045 billion through the General Fund. This figure, she said, is $169 million smaller than the one the governor was promoting and $994 million larger than the current one.
La Fortaleza has also proposed two other budget options, but the Board has already advanced that they do not comply with PROMESA.
The Board overseeing the island´s finances has unilaterally imposed the last three budgets.
The State of the State and Budget message was held at the Fine Arts Center because social distancing measures made it complicated to hold the event on the House floor.
Rear Admiral Peter Brown, White House Reconstruction Coordinator for Puerto Rico also attended the event.
The Supreme Court Justices, however, did not attend. Neither did members of the legislative minorities of the Popular Democratic (PPD) and Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), who denounced the governor’s call as unconstitutional and claimed that the message was part of the campaign. Meanwhile, Manuel Natal did attend the event.
The previous budget message was also held outside the Capitol since that historic building was being repaired back then and the location then chosen was the Ponce Fair Complex.