Sanders' Puerto Rico bill dwarfs requests from Gov. Rosselló, Trump

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U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced a comprehensive support bill for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands Tuesday, calculated to cost up to $146 billion.

The total would eclipse the mid-November request by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for $94 billion for aid to recover from Hurricanes Irma and Maria as well as President Trump’s suggestion that an additional $44 billion be allotted to the two territories, Texas, and Florida.

Observers saw little chance of passage of the bill, which comes after the biggest municipal debt restructuring in history ground to a near standstill after the hurricanes destroyed much of Puerto Rico's infrastructure.

"Many legislators concerned about the budget deficit would have pause at the cost, particularly for a program that is meant to enhance the commonwealth’s facilities rather than merely restore,” said Howard Cure, director of municipal research at Evercore Wealth Management .

He noted that natural catastrophes have also hit Texas, Florida and California this year. Since the states have voting representation in Congress they are likely to get more money than Puerto Rico, which lacks this representation, Cure said.

“This goes beyond normal Federal Emergency Management Agency funding and begs the question if other areas suffering from natural disasters should also receive enhanced funding,” Cure said. “Since there are no Republican sponsors on the [bill], I don’t think there is strong chance of passage,”

Sanders told Bond Buyer he hopes to get some Republican co-sponsors. Eight Democratic Senators and Representatives are cosponsoring the bill. At least 75 organizations have endorsed it.

Though the bill doesn't specify measures to address Puerto Rico's debt, it says should be relieved, already one of the goals of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act signed by former President Obama.

The multi-pronged bill would provide money so that the electric system would rapidly transition to renewable energy and the grid would be made more hurricane resistant, the territories’ Medicare and Medicaid systems would be fully funded, and their infrastructures would be rebuilt.

It would also prohibit the privatization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority if it were to receive any federal aid, as it already has.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said the bill “must be given serious consideration by Congress.”

On Tuesday, Rosselló said, “We are committed to rebuilding Puerto Rico smarter and stronger than ever before, but we need all the assistance we can get from the federal government.

“We welcome all discussions and proposals being discussed in the United States Senate, including Sen. Bernie Sander’s proposed bill, that seek to provide the resources necessary to rebuild Puerto Rico,” he continued.

Municipal Market Analytics partner Matt Fabian said adoption of the bill wasn’t a real possibility.

“The new plan is more likely a signal to displaced Puerto Ricans now living on the mainland to vote for Democrats than it is a real attempt to fund Puerto Rico’s reconstruction,” Fabian said.

On Nov. 17 Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan saying he had already signed bills providing an additional $35.8 billion for natural disaster aid across the country. By providing an additional $16 billion in debt cancellation for the National Flood Insurance Program, Mulvaney said, Trump had already signed over $50 billion in aid for disaster relief.

Brian Tumulty contributed to this story.

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