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Calderón’s Challenge: Doing More (Or The Same) With Less

by Lance Oliver

January 26, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Gov. Sila Calderón made the headlines this week by announcing what she called the single most alarming statistic she has learned since taking office earlier this month: that about 4,300 reports of child abuse have yet to be investigated.

There’s no doubt that failing to investigate reports of child abuse is a serious deficiency by the government, worse than the usual deficiencies. I can walk around my neighborhood and find half a dozen leaking water pipes that haven’t been repaired, but none of those pipes will lead to a child’s death or leave a young person emotionally scarred for life, poised to pass on his or her pathologies to new generations.

Aside from the seriousness of the issue, the backlog in the Department of the Family also raises political issues, both superficial and serious.

On the superficial side, the issue provided an example of how our new governor will handle such situations differently from our previous governor. Faced with news of 4,300-case backlog in child abuse reports, Pedro Rosselló would have accused his opponents and the press with collaborating to blow the problem out of proportion, launched a catchy phrase such as "Children First" and then gone out and built another highway or bridge or pipeline.

Calderón’s approach is to dramatize the incident (since she can blame it on someone else) and issue a call to arms. Though her long-term plan is to double the number of social workers (from 800) handling child abuse cases, for the immediate term she called on unemployed, retired, or otherwise non-working social workers to come to the aid of the government (and more importantly, the children) to clear the backlog. Hundreds responded, some hoping to work on a contract basis but some willing to answer the call as volunteers.

Setting aside the somewhat scary specter of "volunteers" making potentially life-and-death decisions about families and children, the issue also serves as an example of the big-picture challenge the governor is going to face at least through one term. She is going to have to do more than her predecessor (or at least as much) with less.

While Rosselló was able to cut taxes and still see tax revenues rise, that is very unlikely to occur in the first term of the Calderón administration.

In its analysis of Puerto Rico’s economic outlook, Perspectivas, the monthly newsletter published by Triple-S, Inc., and Estudios Técnicos, Inc., pointed to several challenges that will keep tighter fiscal reins on the Calderón administration.

The most obvious is the slowing growth in the U.S. economy, to which Puerto Rico’s economy is so closely tied. Rosselló was fortunate that his eight years in office coincided with the United States’ longest, uninterrupted peacetime economic expansion. Though Puerto Rico’s economy grew more slowly, generally falling within a range of 3% to 5% during his two terms, it still rode the coattails of the U.S. expansion.

Looking at the next five years, Perspectivas calculated three economic scenarios: a basic scenario, assuming a "soft landing" by the U.S. economy and no recession; an optimistic scenario, assuming the new Puerto Rico government’s plans will take hold and boost the economy after a lull in 2001; and a pessimistic scenario assuming a U.S. recession.

The optimistic scenario projects Puerto Rico’s GNP rising at the same rate it has risen in recent years, leaving a nearly straight, rising line on the chart. The other scenarios call for slower growth, even a drop in real terms under the pessimistic scenario.

Another factor more easily overlooked is that the Rosselló administration succeeded in reducing levels of tax evasion. This is free money for the government. With more people paying taxes and relatively good economic times keeping the economy going, the government could afford to cut tax rates.

Calderón faces a slower economy, less room to expand revenues by cutting down on cheating and less margin for borrowing, thanks to the heavy borrowing by the previous administration to finance massive public works projects.

Evidence that thousands of children are possibly being abused with no intervention by the authorities is an important and saddening situation by itself. But it will not be the last such case. Other demands will be placed on Calderón and in each case she will have to do better than her predecessor just to come out looking the same.

That’s because she is going to have to be a governor who does more with less.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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