WASHINGTON – The Trump administration imposed severe restrictions on billions of dollars on emergency aid to Puerto Rico on Wednesday, including blocking spending on the island’s power grid and suspending its minimum wage of $ 15 per hour to relief work financed with federal funds.
The nearly $ 16 billion in funds, released while Puerto Ricans still sleep on the streets for fear of last week’s earthquake aftershocks, are part of the $ 20 billion that Congress allocated for disaster recovery and recovery makes over a year, in response to the territory hit by consecutive hurricanes in 2017.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development had released only $ 1.5 billion from congressional relief, citing political corruption concerns. Of that, only $ 5 million has been allocated.
“In a great victory for Puerto Ricans and US taxpayers, the Administration has outlined reforms to the grant agreement to Puerto Rico in order to protect resources,” said Chase Jennings, spokesman for the House Office of Administration and Budget White.
Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, a New York Democrat and the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the House, described the movement as derogatory and derogatory.
“Why is Puerto Rico always subject to different standards when it comes to this administration?” He asked.
President Trump has repeatedly faced the government of Puerto Rico. In 2018 suggested the death toll from hurricanes Irma and María He had been inflated “to make me look as bad as possible.” He exaggerated the amount of federal aid assigned to the island and denounced the mayor of San Juan as “crazy and incompetent.”
Even though the pressure has increased for him to release emergency assistance, the president has maintained his claims that the money will not be well spent. On Wednesday, the White House budget office made it clear how those claims had shaped the relief.
To access $ 8.2 billion in recovery money and $ 8.3 billion in disaster prevention funds, Puerto Rico will have to submit budget plans to the federally mandated fiscal control board of the territory, which will track where The money goes. You will also have to strengthen your property registration database.
Puerto Rico cannot pay its minimum wage of $ 15 per hour to workers in projects financed by the federal government. And none of the funds can be used in the power grid, although the Department of Housing and Urban Development has not yet released nearly $ 2 billion that was allocated to the Puerto Rico power system.
White House officials acknowledged that blackouts continue in Puerto Rico, but insisted there was no need for new funds.
The requirements were first reported by The Washington Post.
A congressional assistant involved in the issue said that the White House and its budget office seemed to have chosen restrictions that would be politically difficult to carry out by Puerto Rican officials. That way, the assistant suggested, the federal government would not seem responsible for withholding aid.
For example, the fiscal control board is seen in Puerto Rico as inexplicable to people. And Puerto Rican officials are not willing to tell workers that they will be paid less than the minimum wage. With respect to property and deed records, Puerto Ricans have long used informal property records.
The restriction related to the power grid can be practical: Congress has already appropriated a separate tranche of money specifically for the power grid, although it has not yet been allocated.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called the new restrictions “burdensome and unprecedented” and said “they would add insult to injuries to our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico who are reeling from multiple natural disasters.”
The White House announcement came four days after an earthquake of magnitude 5.9 shook an island that wobbled by a series of earthquakes this month and still struggles to recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Parts of the island have lost energy, and some Puerto Ricans have lost power. Establish a camp in public spaces instead of returning to their homes.
“While it is a positive fact that the administration has released its retention of these funds, this step is inexcusably delayed,” Velazquez said.
The Puerto Rican government was already struggling to spend federal money under previous restrictions. The new conditions will make it much more difficult.
The uneven treatment of the administration in Puerto Rico is not new. In August, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would release billions of dollars in federal disaster mitigation funds into two funds: one for nine states on the continent and the other for territories such as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands of the United States. U.S. The department also announced that it would name a federal financial monitor to ensure that money for Puerto Rico is properly managed.
“The recovery efforts in jurisdictions prepared to do their part should not stop due to the alleged corruption, fiscal irregularities and financial mismanagement that occur in Puerto Rico,” said Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development at the time. .
Congressional Democrats are surprised at how long the money has been delayed.
“As appropriators, we have fought for the release of aid by questioning Secretary Carson, establishing a legal deadline for agency action, conducting a supervisory hearing with HUD officials and the inspector general, and withholding money from the department. in the most recent appropriations bill, “said Rep. David E. Price, a Democrat from North Carolina.” It should never have come to this. “
Since 2017, the housing department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies have provided only a fraction of the $ 91 billion in aid estimated that Puerto Rico needed after hurricanes Irma and María, leaving the infrastructure Criticism of the island and the houses in limbo.
President Trump approved Puerto Rico’s request for an emergency declaration, but he did not approve a major disaster declaration, which could pave the way for additional federal funds.
Annie Karni contributed reporting.