Puerto Rico governor announces historic budget to aid elderly, reduce violence and boost solar power

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s governor said Tuesday that the U.S. territory’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year will be the largest in history at $14 billion, with new funds meant to help the island’s elderly population, reduce violence and expand solar power programs, among other things.

The announcement was made during Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s annual territorial address, where he spoke for more than one hour, highlighting his administration's achievements as he seeks re-election this year.

He noted that Puerto Rico’s economy has strengthened after the government filed for the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in history nearly seven years ago, although the $9 billion debt of the state power company has yet to be restructured.

Pierluisi also touted reconstruction efforts following Hurricane Maria, which pummeled the island as a powerful Category 4 storm in September 2017, and a series of powerful earthquakes that struck southern Puerto Rico starting in late 2019.

“We still have a lot to do. And I know that our people want and need more from their government and are still affected by everything we went through years ago,” he said. “I understand it, because the road has been hard.”

Pierluisi said more than 6,000 homes have been repaired or rebuilt and another 3,000 are mid-process. In addition, 169 projects related to the reconstruction of Puerto Rico’s power grid are underway and another 37 large-scale projects are in the advanced design phase, including replacement of substations, light posts and transmission and distribution lines.

But the pace of reconstruction, blamed partly on a delay in federal funds under the Trump administration, has frustrated and angered many in Puerto Rico.

“The delay in reconstruction works is so shameful that instead of making announcements about the projects, they should be making announcements apologizing for the inaction of the work,” said Jesús Manuel Ortiz, president of the main opposition Popular Democratic Party.

Another member of the party, Rafael “Tatito” Hernández, speaker of the island’s House of Representatives, said the vast majority of projects have not been completed.

“It’s important to point out what he didn’t talk about,” Hernández said of Pierluisi.

In his address, Pierluisi also announced help for the island’s rapidly aging population, with those 65 and older representing nearly a quarter of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million people, one of the highest percentages globally.

He said the Department of Family will increase average subsidies for those in long term care centers from $1,300 to $1,900 a month. In addition, Pierluisi said he would allocate $5 million annually for the next five years to provide grants of up to $250,000 to senior care centers to expand their facilities.

In a move welcomed by many who have long complained about the state of Puerto Rico’s road infrastructure, Pierluisi also announced that he would launch a new online project this month where people can alert the government about potholes, dangerous bridges and damaged stoplights, among other things.

The governor finished his speech by once again demanding statehood for Puerto Rico, a political status long sought by his New Progressive Party.

He said Puerto Ricans still face discrimination when it comes to Medicaid and Medicare, Supplemental Social Security and nutritional assistance, among other things: “In short, all the rights and benefits that we deserve as American citizens."

While Pierluisi’s supporters cheered his announcements, a federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances has final say over the island’s budget and how revenue is invested.

The board was created after the U.S. territory announced in 2015 that it was unable to pay its more than $70 billion debt load, which was accumulated following decades of corruption, mismanagement and excessive borrowing.