Feds advance disbursement of $8.2 billion in aid to Puerto Rico

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Lawmakers expect the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to publish rules today or Thursday taking a step toward releasing $8.2 billion in Hurricane Maria aid to Puerto Rico.

After Hurricane Maria hit the island in late summer 2017, the U.S. Congress approved $20.5 billion in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief funds. Up to the present, the government has disbursed $1.5 billion.

The publication of the rules in the Federal Register will be an important step forward to disbursing an additional $8.2 billion.

The Puerto Rico Oversight Board and island economists are counting on federal aid to provide some stimulus to the island’s economy in the next few years. The board includes this aid as a factor in calculating how much debt the public entities can pay.

U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) released a statement on Wednesday that said: “While it is a welcome development that the [Trump] administration has released its hold on these funds, this step is inexcusably overdue. Congress approved this disaster relief almost two years ago and these ongoing delays speak to the administration’s disdain for the people of Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress, Jenniffer González Colón, said: “The emergency we are going through with the recent earthquakes proves that we must always be prepared for the unexpected. Now, more than ever we have to make sure that the infrastructure on the island is safe and sound.”

In June President Trump signed legislation that required HUD to publish the federal register notice on the rules for the money by Sept. 4. Since then, some Congressional Democrats have accused the president of breaking the law.

On Wednesday, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said: “While the president has heeded our calls to lift the blockade on some of the disaster-aid funding for our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico, it’s not nearly enough. We will continue to fight this administration’s unnecessary bureaucratic barriers from causing any further delay in disbursing these funds to Puerto Rico. We will also continue pushing for the additional appropriated funds that are still senselessly held up.”

On Tuesday, Moody’s Investors Service released an “issuer comment” on the impact of January’s earthquakes on Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. “The series of earthquakes occurring in the past few days off the southern coast of Puerto Rico (Ca negative) exacerbate the commonwealth’s challenges as it tries to rebuild its economy,” Senior Analyst Genevieve Nolan and six others wrote.

The analysts noted that along with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “The commonwealth is also working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to allocate additional disaster recovery funds. FEMA estimated recovery costs reach $48.4 billion. To date it has obligated $16 billion to start paying for approved projects, with $12.6 billion actually disbursed to fund construction and individual assistance.”

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