The residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens. Their currency is the U.S. dollar. They can’t vote for president and are represented in Congress only by a delegate without full voting power. But Puerto Rico is now at the mercy of what Congress does next. Members of Congress should stand by our fellow citizens and provide the help they desperately need.
For many, Puerto Rico is a tourist spot, a place of beauty and history. But the connection is far deeper here in New York. More than 1 million New Yorkers are of Puerto Rican heritage, including nearly 90,000 Long Islanders, according to the Census Bureau. It’s incumbent upon us to pay attention to what’s going on beyond the lapping waves.
Puerto Rico has been in economic turmoil for more than a decade, sparked in part by the 2006 expiration of tax credits to U.S. companies operating there that once fueled its economy but masked bigger problems. The situation worsened with the 2008 recession. Its government continued to spend more than it was taking in. Even after the U.S. economy improved, Puerto Rico’s lagged and residents fled for the mainland, further weakening the island’s tax base. Younger workers virtually disappeared, leaving Puerto Rico’s population older and poorer, with many not in the workforce. Unemployment is above 12.5 percent. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which represents the island, has noted that the territory’s vast underground economy doesn’t contribute to the island’s tax base.
Now, Puerto Rico is crippled by fiscal crisis its government has been unable to turn around. Earlier this month, Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank defaulted on a $400 million payment on the island’s $72 billion debt. Most investors aren’t worried about that default for now. But Puerto Rico has larger payments on general obligation bonds due in July, and without help, it’ll likely default on those, too.
Even more troubling is what could happen next. At some point, Puerto Rico will have to further slash basic services for its people, who are affected the most by this mess. Residents have watched their neighbors flee, their businesses shutter, their government fail to make ends meet. More service cuts could particularly hurt the island’s health care. Hundreds of doctors have already left, and the public health system is, by some accounts, on the verge of collapse. This, while the Zika virus rages, with more than 600 cases there.
This isn’t a storm we can wait out. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew knows it — and that’s why he visited Puerto Rico this week to spotlight the island’s crisis. Congress can do the right thing now, first by approving emergency funds specifically to help Puerto Rico deal with Zika. Then, it must carefully write a policy that would allow Puerto Rico to broadly restructure its debts and avoid a taxpayer-funded bailout. Federal law prevents Puerto Rico from declaring bankruptcy, and that restriction should be changed. Any action should include a financial control board with strict oversight and requirements that force officials to do the hard work of governing in a fiscal crisis. Puerto Rico cannot end up down the same hole again.
Puerto Rico’s growing crisis is our crisis, too. — The editorial board