By DÁNICA COTO, Associated Press
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s governor on Thursday promised wage increases for teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public workers, unveiling a government budget higher than the one submitted by a federal control board that oversees the island’s finances.
It is the first budget submitted by Gov. Wanda Vázquez since the island’s Supreme Court authorized her to lead the U.S. territory last August after former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló stepped down amid huge protests. The budget contains an additional $169 million in spending compared with the board’s $10 billion plan.
Before beginning the annual budget address, Vázquez asked for a minute of silence for those who have died of COVID-19. The island has reported more than 1,490 confirmed coronarivus cases, with at least 147 deaths.
Her speech contained multiple promises of incentives and spending increases that critics said were moot, given the island’s economic crisis and the control board’s power over Puerto Rico.
Vázquez vowed to fight corruption as the U.S. territory awaits millions of dollars in federal funds while struggling to recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria, a string of recent strong earthquakes and the pandemic. Altogether, those events have caused losses estimated at billions of dollars amid a more than decade-long recession and a bankruptcy-like process to restructure a portion of the island’s more than $70 billion in public debt.
“Rest assured that regardless of where it comes from and no matter the cost, I will not waver in the fight against corruption,” she said.
Vázquez announced a $314 million increase in the health budget, a $176 million increase in the education budget and a $285 million increase in the public safety budget. She did not specify where the additional funds would come from.
She also promised to scrap an increase in the enrollment fee at Puerto Rico’s biggest public university and award the school an additional $55 million to offset pandemic losses. She said the government would distribute computers to all public school students and teachers by July and give $1,000 to any public and private school student enrolled in a post-secondary institution so they can buy technological equipment.
Other promises include subsidies of up to $150 per farmer, the construction of 300 to 400 housing units a month to help those affected by hurricanes and earthquakes and $350 million to help subsidize home purchases, with priority given to such workers as police, nurses and firefighters. In addition, Vázquez rejected government pension cuts sought by the control board and promised to keep a traditional Christmas bonus awarded to all public employees.
Critics expressed surprise at the numerous pledges, saying the address felt more like a political campaign. They noted Vázquez is running for governor this year and will face Pedro Pierluisi, a seasoned politician, in an Aug. 9 primary of the New Progressive Party.
Puerto Rico Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, a member of the main opposition Popular Democratic Party who is also running for governor, accused Vázquez of not addressing many of the problems facing the island, including the tens of thousands of people still seeking unemployment assistance following a two-month coronavirus lockdown and awaiting new housing following the hurricanes and earthquakes.
Thomas Rivera Schatz, president of Puerto Rico’s Senate and a member of the governor’s party, defended her budget and said legislators will start debating all proposals Friday. The budget has to be approved by July 1.