From The Ridiculous To The Sublime

by John Marino

January 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThere was a breath of fresh air at the Capitol as the Legislature began its first session of the new year this week.

No, Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora has not dropped his obsession to see Spanish returned to the sole official language of Puerto Rico or to prod the government to get back control of the island's water and telephone utilities. Nor has House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrando ditched his equally ludicrous plan to pass legislation mandating that the birth certificates of native Puerto Ricans say that they are "Puerto Rican citizens."

But two good ideas, supported by members of all three political parties, were announced in the days prior to the official start of the session on Monday.

And if they can actually be followed through to fruition, the tri-partisanship spirit behind them may work to clear the atmosphere not just from the mean-spirited politicking, but the absolute frivolity, of so many public hearings taking place at the Capitol.

One measure, authored by Puerto Rican Independence Party Rep. Victor García San Inocencio, would set mandatory retirement ages for top-ranking police and fire officers. The other would investigate the numerous prison early release and good behavior programs which allow offenders to be set free after serving as little as 10 percent of their sentences.

Both measures were supported by House Majority Leader Roberto Maldonado, of the Popular Democratic Party; House Minority Leader Aníbal Vega Borges, of the New Progressive Party; and García of the PIP.

It's refreshing to see the PIP taking initiatives on such bread-and-butter issues. The only other notable legislative initiatives of late have come on the environmental front.

By supporting the measures, Maldonado comes off as much more level-headed than his bosses Vizcarrando, who is also pushing for the government to become the insurer behind health reform, and Fas Alzamora, who took out $80,000 in paid television time to announce the achievements of the Senate after his first session as upper chamber chief.

Vega Borges has shown himself to be much more mindful of good government and the benefits of occasionally reaching across the aisle than his predecessor Edison Misla Aldarondo, who after months of putting personal benefit over loyalty to his party, the House and the Puerto Rican public at large, finally resigned his seat this week following his federal indictment in October on corruption charges.

Rather than attempting to undermine administration efforts (like the top items on Vizcarrando's and Fas Alzamora's agendas, never mind that Gov. Calderón is head of their party), the plan to institute a top retirement age dovetails with Police Superintendent Miguel Periera's efforts to re-engineer the structure of the department and those officials who sit at the top.

The prison early-release program, meanwhile, is an issue finally worthy of a full-fledged investigation by the Legislature. Under these programs, inmates often get out after serving just one-third of their sentences or less. While murderers have been ineligible for such programs since 1995, those who were convicted before them still are. The cases of two convicted killers released despite fears expressed by families of the victims caused widespread anger when reported by the San Juan Star in December.

"Islanders feel unsafe and mocked by the system," Maldonado said in announcing the probe.

Too many legislative investigations overlap work already being done by the Comptroller's Office, the Government Ethics Office and the Justice Department. Too often, as well, the probes seem sharply pointed at the opponents of the party in power.

Today's PDP-dominated Legislature decides to investigate rehabilitation projects at the University of Puerto Rico and the Conservatory of Music undertaken by the former Rosselló administration, just as the previous NPP-dominated Legislature investigated the costly collapse of a government-sponsored airplane manufacturer that never got off the ground while Sila Calderón served in the Hernández Colón administration.

There have been some exceptions, such as the legislative inquiry into the San Juan AIDS Institute, which is credited with getting the federal authorities interested in the case. But too many other investigations, if not designed as political weapons, are often futile exercises with goals that do not address broad public concerns.

Such was the case with the Fas Alzamora investigation to determine whether or not Puerto Rico should have Spanish or English as its official language, or whether it should keep both. Linguistic experts from across the world were flown in at taxpayer expense for the proceedings.

The costly hearings were a venture into trivia, divorced from the daily lives of real Puerto Ricans and their everyday concerns. The ending, with the report authorized by the Senate president calling for a return to Spanish as the official language of Puerto Rico, was no surprise either.

The early release investigation, by contrast, could offer up some fresh ideas on how to toughen prison penalties and improve the overall prison system, vexed by overcrowding and poor conditions that have cost the commonwealth millions in federal fines.

The Calderón administration - any administration - needs all the help it can get with a problem whose solution has eluded so many before it.

Make no mistake. The Capitol will be the scene of political backbiting at its best (after all the House minority parties are suing the majority over what they say was the illegal passage of several measures during November).

And the burning issue of the wording on Puerto Rican birth certificates is on the agenda.

But the glimpses of tri-partisanship exhibited this week indicate that some real work will get done at the Capitol this session -- and that there is still some hope for the lawmakers who call it home.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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