The residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens. They can’t vote for president and are represented in Congress by a delegate without full voting power. But Puerto Rico is now at the mercy of what Congress does next. Members of Congress should provide the help Puerto Rico desperately needs.
For many, Puerto Rico is a tourist spot, a place of beauty and history. But the connection is deeper here. More than 1 million New Yorkers are of Puerto Rican heritage, including nearly 724,000 NYC residents, according to the Census Bureau. It’s incumbent on us to pay attention.
Puerto Rico has been in economic turmoil for more than a decade. The situation worsened with the 2008 recession and never recovered. Residents fled for the mainland, weakening the tax base. Unemployment is above 12.5 percent. Now Puerto Rico is crippled by a 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, and there are larger payments due in July. 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 residents, who have watched their neighbors flee, businesses shutter and government fail to make ends meet. More service cuts could hurt health care, even as 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. Congress should approve 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 can’t end up down this hole again.
Puerto Rico’s growing crisis is our crisis, too.