Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a bill Tuesday to rebuild and modernize the infrastructure of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with a massive federal investment of $146 billion.
The ambitious legislation, titled “The Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act of 2017,” would transform the U.S. territories’ energy, housing, education, agriculture, transportation and health care systems, addressing problems that have bedeviled the islands since long before two massive hurricanes plunged them into a state of full-on humanitarian crisis in September.
In total, the bill would grant $62 billion to the governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to address their fiscal challenges, $27 billion for infrastructure projects and $51 billion for economic development.
“The bill that Senator Sanders has introduced in the United States Congress is a comprehensive plan that provides the blueprint for the transformation of Puerto Rico,” Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, said in a statement. “While dealing with all major areas of immediate concern: energy, health and education it also sets the foundation to make Puerto Rico a more equitable, just and fair society for all.”
“Sen. Sanders also shows a great deal of respect and faith in us when claiming that the recovery of Puerto Rico must be in Puerto Rican hands,” Cruz added in her statement. “The bill comes from Sanders’ commitment of listening first hand to the hopes and aspirations of our people and must be given serious consideration by Congress.”
Sanders’ bill already enjoys the support of Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.).
Democratic Reps. Nydia Velazquez (N.Y.) and Darren Soto (Fla.) are due to introduce a companion bill in the House of Representatives. Democratic Rep. Stacey Plaskett, the delegate representing the Virgin Islands, also is co-sponsoring the House version of bill.
The bills also have the backing of scores of progressive organizations and labor unions active in Puerto Rico, such as the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers.
The legislation nonetheless faces a bleak future in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Seventeen Republican senators already voted against a $36.5 billion, bipartisan disaster recovery bill in October that set aside $4.9 billion in loans for Puerto Rico and other hurricane-stricken territories on the grounds that it was fiscally irresponsible. (Sanders and his peers in the Senate Democratic Caucus all voted for the successful bill.)
Regardless of the outcome, however, Sanders’ bill is an attempt to map out a progressive vision for developing the islands and relieving Puerto Rico, in particular, of a debt burden that has crippled its economy for years.
Among the changes the bill proposes are the elimination of the cap on federal Medicaid spending in Puerto Rico, which deprives the island of the funding it would otherwise merit based on its per capita income, and increases in Medicare reimbursement rates for medical providers on the island that would bring them closer to rates on the mainland.
Experts are especially impressed, though, with the legislation’s efforts to shore up the energy and power delivery systems in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The bill allots $13 billion in additional Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for the rebuilding of the territories’ electric grids with “more modern, resilient technologies,” according to a summary of the bill provided by Sanders’ office.
The White House argues that the Stafford Act of 1988 allows the federal government to rebuild only what existed in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands before the hurricanes. That means exposed, fossil fuel-dependent grids that are vulnerable to the sea level rise and violent storms that are expected to become more common as climate change worsens will not change.
“It doesn’t make sense to put up the same grid that was devastated by these hurricanes.”
Judith Enck, the former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator in charge of Puerto Rico from 2009 to January 2017, said the Democrats’ bill offered a “fantastic” alternative to the Trump administration’s plan to erect an “old, unreliable, dirty, rickety grid.”
“The sad reality is there will be more Hurricane Marias and Irmas in the years ahead,” she told HuffPost by phone Monday. “So it doesn’t make sense to put up the same grid that was devastated by these hurricanes.”
Enck urged lawmakers to introduce individual legislation as amendments to the budget bill set to be debated on Dec. 8.
“Can this wonderful bill be passed as a standalone bill, or might it make some sense to take these excellent ideas and incorporate them into the budget supplemental bill?” Enck said. “My only fear is that this gets left on the cutting room floor.”
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands languished for decades as economic development hinged on how it would benefit corporate interests on the mainland. As a result, the islands contributed little to the total carbon dioxide emissions of the U.S., which has by far the largest cumulative footprint despite falling behind China in present-day pollution output.
Yet the island territories are among the few places in the U.S. that burn oil to produce electricity, and their residents pay significantly higher rates than those in most states. As islands located farther south than any point in the continental U.S., they also feel the effects of a warming planet more tangibly than the northern portion of the country that historically enjoyed most of the benefits of industrialization, such as jobs and infrastructure investment.
“It plays into an ongoing story of exploitation,” Catalina de Onís, a professor of civic communication at Willamette University in Oregon, told HuffPost in September. “We see now in 2017 with Hurricane Maria that it’s another type of colonialism that marks certain areas as expendable, as a sacrifice zone.”
The recent hurricanes have renewed attention on Puerto Rico’s financial troubles. The Puerto Rican government owes its bondholders some $74 billion and has $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations for its public workforce. The unsustainable debt burden is the product of many forces, including Congress’s phase-out of business tax benefits beginning in 1996, local corruption and predatory Wall Street lending practices.
In its efforts to recover from the escalating debt crisis, Puerto Rico has also lacked many of the tools available to mainland states. For example, Puerto Rico’s municipalities and public corporations do not enjoy the federal bankruptcy protections at the disposal of financially distressed mainland cities, such as Detroit.
As a result, since the financial crisis of 2008, Puerto Rico has adopted increasingly harsh austerity measures to repay its lenders. The policies have devastated the island’s economy and infrastructure, driving the poverty rate up to 44 percent.
The law created a fiscal board equipped to oversee Puerto Rico’s budget and, if board members saw fit, mandate debt restructuring. But critics on the island argue that it has done virtually nothing for the island’s residents, even as it has eroded what was left of Puerto Rico’s financial sovereignty.
Meanwhile, in late September, Hurricane Maria inflicted additional damage on Puerto Rico that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló estimated will cost $95 billion to repair ― nearly the island’s yearly economic output.
In addition, the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were hit hard by Hurricane Irma earlier in September, face their own financial troubles that predate the storm damage. The archipelago of 100,000 people owed its bondholders and other creditors over $2 billion as of August, a sum that has put enormous strain on the island’s health care system, among other public resources.
Still, it is hard not to see at least some political benefit for Sanders in burnishing his policy chops in Puerto Rico. Courting the Puerto Rican vote is important for any potential Democratic presidential candidate.
Since Hurricane Maria alone, some 100,000 Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, have moved to Florida and other mainland states where they can immediately register to vote. Voters who remain on the island get to vote in the Democratic presidential primary as well, albeit not in the general election.
Sanders, who has beefed up his staff and taken other steps that have fueled speculation about a 2020 presidential bid, has consistently made addressing Puerto Rico’s financial struggles and limited sovereignty a part of his broader pitch to build a more egalitarian and just society.
The Vermont senator made a point of not only voting against the PROMESA Act but also speaking out against the law as a 2016 presidential candidate. Although he frames his new bill as a form reconstruction aid, it also provides an alternative path forward from the one charted by PROMESA.
His bill calls for Congress to issue a resolution affirming Puerto Rico’s right to major debt relief, along with a resolution insisting that in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands “any efforts to privatize public institutions must be rejected,” according to the summary of the law.
Sanders’ office released a set of “progressive principles” for rebuilding Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to accompany the aid bill. The principles, which include prioritizing the humanitarian needs of the islands and addressing pre-existing inequities with the U.S. mainland, provide as good a window as any into the narrative informing the senator’s proposals.
“Congress must ensure that these territories not only recover, but that they are able to rebuild in a way that empowers them to thrive,” Sanders’ office stated in the preamble to the precepts. “We must confront the difficult reality that we have neglected these territories, and the U.S. citizen residents who live there, and allowed them to fall behind in every measurable social and economic criteria.”