On Tuesday, November 28, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) unveiled the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act, a massive $146 billion “Marshall Plan” for Puerto Rico, along with several other senators. The plan includes immediate relief for the island’s cash-strapped government, and billions more for economic development, renewable energy, and Medicaid and Medicare parity, a key priority for the island.
The bill is cosponsored in the Senate by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Ed Markey (D-MA). Reps. Stacy Plaskett (D-VI), Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), and Darren Soto (D-FL) will introduce a companion bill in the House. The bill is endorsed by 75 organizations.
The legislation would instruct the federal government to immediately address these humanitarian crises by mobilizing all necessary resources and assets to restore power, provide clean drinking water and food, safe shelter, and access to health care. And, it would do so without forcing the territories to take on more debt.
The Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act emphasizes local control and sustainable rebuilding of the territories and instructs Congress to address Puerto Rico’s debt – a major impediment to a just and full recovery. And, it ensures that any federal disaster funding provided to the islands is protected from the predatory disaster capitalism of Wall Street vulture funds and acted upon with local input and local workers.
“More than two months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, half of the people there—American citizens all—still have no electricity,” Sanders said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
“Many are struggling to get clean drinking water, and more than 100,000 people have left Puerto Rico alone. This is not acceptable, and we are here today to tell the people of Puerto Rico and tell the people of the Virgin Islands that they are not forgotten, they are not alone, and that we intend to do everything possible to rebuild those beautiful islands.”
The expansive legislation would grant $62 billion to the governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, $27 billion to renovate infrastructure, and $13 billion in additional FEMA funding to rebuild the electric grid “with more modern, resilient technologies,” instead of the Stafford Act’s requirements that the grid be restored to its previous condition before the storms, according to a summary of the bill from Sanders’s office.
Talks between Sanders, Warren and other Democrats on a Puerto Rico messaging bill began roughly a month ago. The legislation is not intended to become law as written, but to lay down a marker for Democrats to fight for as negotiations continue over relief for the island.
The plan for Puerto Rico, while costly, pales in comparison to the tax cuts Senate Republicans are putting the finishing touches on, estimated to cost the Treasury some $1.5 trillion over the next decade and many trillions more in years to come.
As for Puerto Rico’s crippling $74 billion debt, Sen. Warren said the island needs “full debt relief” and she will be working alongside Sanders and other colleagues to introduce a debt relief plan in the weeks ahead.
“The vulture funds that snapped up Puerto Rican debt should not get one cent from the island, not one cent,” she said Tuesday.
The bill addresses seven components necessary to rebuild and move the islands forward:
1) Debt and Privatization: Puerto Rico’s debt must be addressed to ensure the territory can recover with dignity. Congress must also prevent the privatization of public institutions to benefit creditors in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico is struggling with an unsustainable $74.8 billion of debt, much of which is held by Wall Street creditors, with an additional $49 billion in unpaid pension obligations. The territories’ recovery should not add to existing debt.
2) Resilient and Renewable Energy: Instead of simply rebuilding an antiquated, centralized and inefficient system dependent on imported fossil fuels, the bill ensures the electric grids will be rebuilt to be more renewable and resilient, to provide less expensive electricity and create local jobs.
3) Medicaid and Medicare Parity: The health care systems in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were inadequate before the hurricanes made landfall, in large part because they receive far fewer federal dollars compared to states. The bill makes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands eligible for the same Medicare and Medicaid benefits as the rest of America.
4) Rebuild and Improve the VA Hospital and Clinics: Appropriates necessary funds to the VA for veterans in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
5) Improve Public Schools, Colleges, and Childcare Facilities: In addition to rebuilding damaged schools and childcare facilities, we must face the fact that many of these facilities were inadequate before the storms hit. Hundreds of public schools in Puerto Rico have been closed because of austerity policies and schools in the Virgin Islands are struggling to prepare students for college and future careers. The bill appropriates necessary funds for services and facilities for public Head Start, elementary, secondary and higher education.
6) Invest in Infrastructure and Spur Economic Development: Underfunded infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands contributed to the severity of the damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In addition to rebuilding damaged facilities, the legislation would make significant investments in the islands’ physical infrastructure to spur the local economy and create jobs.
7) Environmental Cleanup: Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have significant environmental contamination related to the hurricanes, prior pollution and a legacy of military bombing exercises on Vieques. The legislation would provide grants to the EPA, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense for environmental remediation.
Sanders also pointed out that unlike Texas and Florida, which suffered natural disasters recently, “the people of Puerto Rico and the people of Virgin Islands, while being full American citizens, they have no United States senators here to represent them” and “they do not have full voting members in the U.S. House.”
And the Boricua voice in Congress will soon suffer a further loss as Puerto Rican member and outspoken advocate, Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), announced on Tuesday he won’t seek re-election but has plans to help rebuild the hurricane-ravaged island.
“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. “Senator Sanders also shows a great deal of respect and faith in us when claiming that the recovery or Puerto Rico must be in Puerto Rican hands.”
“The people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have waited far too long for a comprehensive effort from the federal government to recover from these devastating storms and to rebuild in a way that makes them stronger for the future. The Administration and Congress must stop delaying, and pass real, meaningful relief so that these Americans can begin the process of long-term recovery,” Markey said.
“The devastating effects of this historic natural disaster calls for a historic response. Our bill has the makings of a Marshall Plan – providing vital funds to rebuild islands’ housing, electricity, health care, and basic government operations. Relief is not enough. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands must rebuild with resilience to better withstand future disasters, and we must meet our moral obligation to help fellow American citizens in need,” Blumenthal said.
For a summary of the bill, click here.
For the section by section, click here.
For a copy of the legislation, click here.