Trump Drops Another Shoe On Puerto Rico
We were skeptical yesterday when we saw the Trump administration had finally ended its illegal delay of disaster relief to Puerto Rico. The $8.2 billion in aid was appropriated by Congress last year to pay for rebuilding after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, and the funds should have been made available in September. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development refused to release it, citing worries about "corruption" in the Puerto Rican government. No, it probably wasn't legal to hold the aid, either.
Then, last Tuesday, the island was hit by a 6.4 magnitude earthquakethat killed one person and has done at least $110 million in damage, though that amount is expected to rise as Puerto Rico continues to be hit with aftershocks. Yesterday, HUD officials announced they were very generously releasing the aid that should have been distributed months ago, and we wondered what new fuckery might follow.
Puerto Rico, if there's anything to magical thinking, we're sorry. There's new fuckery. For Puerto Rico to actually get the aid, it will have to jump through a whole bunch of new hoops imposed by the administration -- conditions that states on the mainland haven't had imposed on them following disasters. Gosh, why could it possibly be that Puerto Rico was singled out for special treatment? If only we could guess. It just might be because Trump's a goddamn racist and a petty asshole.
That's our working theory at least.
The aid restrictions, first reported by the Washington Post and detailed further by the New York Times, require the commonwealth's government to eat a shit sandwich of actions that will be very unpopular with Puerto Ricans. The Times notes the conditions would apply to two tranches of funds already allocated by Congress: $8.2 billion earmarked for recovery from the hurricanes, and another $8.3 billion for preparing for future disasters.
The restrictions will hit Puerto Ricans in several ways. Some federal projects would have to be approved by Puerto Rico's hated Fiscal Control Board, whose members are appointed by Washington with no input from Puerto Rico. In addition, despite the commonwealth's government having set the minimum wage at $15 an hour, federal contractors for disaster projects will have to accept lower wages, because minimum wage bad.
Incredibly, none of the aid would be allowed to go toward Puerto Rico's electrical grid, which was a mess before the hurricanes, and which took forever to repair. The string of earthquakes and aftershocks -- over 2,800 seismic events since late December -- has repeatedly knocked all or part of the grid offline. Finally, Puerto Rico would have to create a "new system for registering properties and deeds," to prevent any shady claims for disaster aid.
The Times explains these measures seem aimed at restricting aid to the island while shifting the political cost from the administration to Puerto Rican officials, as "a congressional aide involved with the issue" pointed out:
For example, the fiscal control board is viewed in Puerto Rico as unaccountable to the people. And Puerto Rican officials are not inclined to tell workers they will be paid less than the minimum wage [...]
The fiscal control board was imposed on Puerto Rico by Republicans in Congress as the price of some relief from the debt crisis that predated the hurricanes. Oh, and a lot of the island's debt may have been illegal in the first place. For the most part, it's aimed at protecting creditors, not the people who live in Puerto Rico, who mockingly call it "La Junta" because it has near-dictatorial powers over the economy. Giving the board power over disaster aid is sure to be a big winner, but it has to delight Trump, whose earliest public comments after Hurricane Maria suggested the island was so badly managed it didn't deserve help.
As for preventing funds from going to repairing the electrical grid, the administration says that's because of wasteful spending following Hurricane Maria, which is probably true. But that's also mighty rich, considering the most egregious example of waste involved the island's utility initially giving a $300 million contract to two guys with no experience in doing huge infrastructure construction, and who happened to know then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Oh, those corrupt Puerto Ricans!
Now, the Times does note another possible reason for the restriction on aid going to repair the grid; Congress has "appropriated a separate tranche of money specifically for the electrical grid, though it has yet to be allocated." If that restriction had come from any other administration, that would probably be a fairly benign explanation, but with this bunch, it sounds a lot more like plausible deniability. Call us cynical.
Finally, on that requirement for overhauling property records. Again, under anyone else this might count as a legitimate fraud-prevention tactic, since, as the Times notes, "Puerto Ricans have long used informal ownership records," so it might be good to make sure some rich landowner isn't skimming disaster aid like a common Donald Trump after 9/11. But even there, we have doubts. As an analogy, look at voter ID laws: Any time the government imposes new documentation requirements, they tend to be hardest on people with the least money and political suction.Oh, bummer, Mrs. Torres, you can't produce a title for the house your family has owned for decades? No help for you.
Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), who was raised in Puerto Rico, has a question about all these restrictions, which were never applied to Houston, Florida, North Carolina, or other places hit by disasters during the Trump years: "Why is Puerto Rico always subjected to different standards when it comes to this administration?"
Probably all a coincidence, we bet.
For its part, the administration is simply delighted at what a great deal all this is for Puerto Ricans!
"In a great win for Puerto Ricans and U.S. taxpayers," said Chase Jennings, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, "the administration has outlined reforms for the grant agreement to Puerto Rico in order to protect resources."
Isn't that nice? Now Puerto Ricans won't have to worry that their corrupt, devious local government is getting in the way of disaster aid, because the corrupt, devious federal government got there first.
[WaPo / NYT / The Nation]
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