Trump bickers with Puerto Rico as national disaster aid package languishes

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WASHINGTON — President Trump’s opposition to any additional federal disaster assistance for Puerto Rico has delayed a new round of nationwide disaster aid and provoked a rebuke from the commonwealth’s governor.

“I want to be very clear: Not a single federal dollar has been used to make debt payments,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a statement Tuesday. “This has been the most transparent recovery in the history of the United States, providing unprecedented access and collaboration with federal agencies.”

Rosselló said the commonwealth reached an agreement Monday with the Federal Emergency Management Agency “that appropriate fiscal controls are in fact established.”

Aside from recovering from 2017 hurricanes, Puerto Rico is in the midst of the biggest municipal bankruptcy in history, with the government under the supervision of a fiscal Oversight Board.

Members of the board may have to be nominated by Trump and approved by the Senate by May 16 after the 1st Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found the appointment procedures set out the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act were unconstitutional. The Oversight Board has said it planned to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review that ruling.

Trump reportedly questioned why Puerto Rico has received $91 billion in disaster aid while Texas and Florida are getting much less, according to a Washington Post report on the president’s closed-door luncheon meeting Tuesday with Republican senators at the U.S. Capitol.

The story said Trump may have confused the estimated damage to the island with the amount of federal aid that has been appropriated.

“He alluded to some of his concerns” about Puerto Rico, Sen. Richard Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Bloomberg News after the luncheon. “He’s right on that. A lot of it’s been misused and abused.”

A senior administration official recently told the Washington Post that Trump “doesn’t want another single dollar going to the island.”

Rossello accused Trump of making comments to Republican senators that “are below the dignity of a sitting President of the United States.”

Trump’s comments “continue to lack empathy, are irresponsible, regrettable and, above all, unjustified,” Rossello said.

The governor said he’s been unable to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Trump despite several requests and an earlier pledge by Trump to meet after his return from Vietnam.

In Washington, the Senate on Wednesday debated a $13.45 billion Senate supplemental disaster aid bill that would require Puerto Rico to assume a local share of additional FEMA aid rather than the 100% federal share in a bill passed by the House in January.

The Senate bill does include an additional $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday the Republican disaster aid bill also “eliminates state revolving funds that would help Puerto Rico rebuild damaged water systems and ensure they are resilient for future storms.” It also “eliminates money to help ensure Puerto Rico is able to rebuild its electrical grid,’’ he said.

“My friends on the other side of the aisle have claimed that this money is not needed,” Leahy said. “They point to previous disaster supplemental bills and argue that we have already addressed the needs of Puerto Rico and we should move on. This is simply untrue.”

Leahy and Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to Trump administration officials Tuesday accusing them of undermining the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

“The lack of leadership and coordination, combined with delays in meeting the basic needs of the island, more than 18 months after receiving a presidential disaster declaration, has left far too many children and elderly citizens in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, families in severely damaged homes and communities without adequate infrastructure to sustain a decent quality of life,” Schumer and Leahy wrote.

The letter pointed out that “billions of dollars that Congress approved over a year ago for disaster recovery efforts remain in the U.S. Treasury in Washington – not where they belong: assisting the Puerto Rican people.”

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Natural disasters Hurricane Maria Government finance Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Washington DC Puerto Rico