What happened at the Natural Resources hearing on Puerto Rico and the USVI
On November 14, 2017, the US House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources held an oversight hearing on “The Need for Transparent Financial Accountability in Territories’ Disaster Recovery Efforts.” Both the Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rosselló and Governor of the Virgin Islands Kenneth Mapp attended the hearing as witnesses.
The hearing had two purposes: to review the immediate financial need of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands after the devastation of Hurricane Irma and Maria, as well as the need and form for independent oversight of the use of the federal funds.
Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon stated in an opening statement that Congress has a historic opportunity to reassess the way that public policy affects millions of Americans. Although the current devastation can be blamed on inferior level of infrastructure, construction and maintenance, policy itself has limited these territories in their access to federal grants and credit backing for example.
On the US Virgin Islands
Governor Mapp estimates that damage to commercial facilities are at nearly $900 million, with uninsured hurricane related damaged exceeding $7.5 billion dollars.
Mapp urged for changes in legislation to better allow the US Virgin Islands to grow economically, such as requesting for the Medicaid provisions of the Social Security Act be amended to provide for a temporary disaster-relief increase. He also urged support for amendments to the Stafford Act that will authorize federal funding to build their energy transmission and distribution systems to be stronger and more resilient.
Mapp also urged Congress to consider the territories’ unique circumstances and economic development needs when it comes to tax reform and taxation to the United States from the territories. He reminded Congress that the territories are often treated worse than foreign jurisdictions, due to the provisions of the JOBS act of 2004.
On Puerto Rico
Governor Rosselló called for close to $100 billion in federal funding to support recovery and rebuilding. He also acknowledged the fiscal mismanagement at the local level before and following the hurricanes.
He called for emergency supplemental legislation to ensure “equal treatment for Puerto Rico compared to what any state in the country should expect if they experienced a similar level of devastation.”
He also informed the committee on a Recovery Transparency Portal that is to be created, to foster a culture of accountability. It will track the status of recovery, as well as provide public information on how and where federal funds are being used. Rosselló has also appointed an independent compliance officer with a background in procurement for the Government. The Puerto Rican government is also developing a Contracting and Procurement Protocol to further ensure proper oversight.
Rosselló also recommended that before the power of the Financial Oversight and Management Board be expanded, the Committee should look firstly at what the Governments have been doing to lead recovery efforts and how the Oversight Board can be used to help and enhance the efforts. Rather than control, collaboration will be the key for a successful future, according to Rosselló. The Governor also reminded the Congress that for the Oversight Board to be engaged with the Government, they should be on the ground, dealing with the recovery effort firsthand. It will help not only in the transparency in the manner, but also allow the Puerto Rican government better access to information.