Merry Christmas, More Big Government!

by John Marino

November 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOWith labor leaders and New Progressive Party lawmakers screaming "scrooge," Gov. Calderón this week announced that she would increase public employees’ Christmas bonuses by $125, part of a campaign pledge to increase annually the bonus from $500 to $1,000 over the course of her four-year term.

There apparently was some doubt over whether or not this would happen because legislation covering the bonus plan had not been submitted to the Legislature and there were rumblings from the Office of Management and Budget about there not being any money for the increase. But the governor announced Wednesday that the $25 million cost of this year’s increase would be covered from cost savings at commonwealth agencies, and that workers would have the bonus during the first week of December.

The governor might not have succumbed to public pressure, but it certainly appeared as if she did. On the one hand, she’s too astute to goof up that big. The campaign pledge, spelled out in the glossily reproduced Popular Democratic Party platform, specifies that the increases would be annually in $125 sums throughout her term. If that were the case, she handled it badly. The thing would have been to have Public Affairs Secretary Jorge Colberg Toro to say, not to worry, the governor has an announcement planned on that. It could be a sign of what government officials have said before: the governor does not like to be pressured.

But even if she flip-flopped no one should blame her. With union leaders bellowing loudly about broken campaign promises, and political opponents daring her not to increase the bonus, it was a cinch she’d come through.

Payroll expenses for government employees are going to have to be addressed seriously soon by all three political parties. Even the Puerto Rican Independence Party defended the bonus increases. But big government is not one thing the Puerto Rico government should bring with it into the new century, and all parties should agree on that. A good place to start is to agree that any more public employee increases should be granted through a merit raise scheme. After all, public employees just got hefty monthly pay raises, and the economy stinks.

Drug war needs plan

Gov. Calderón, however, should definitely not succumb to public pressure that is building to not sign into law an integrated plan to fight illegal drug trafficking and use that narrowly passed the Legislature this week. The plan is far from perfect. New Progressive Party lawmakers complained that the Popular Democratic Party majority watered down performance benchmarks contained in the original legislation and many voted against it. With three PDP representatives abstaining from the measure, it just slid by.

The plan has been two years in the making, and it needs to go into effect. There should be stronger performance benchmarks and other improvements are undoubtedly needed. But that the plan can be improved is no reason not to pass it. It is a comprehensive look, from both the enforcement and treatment aspects, of dealing with the drug problem, which only seems to be getting worse. And for that alone, it should be enacted.

In the wake of its narrow passage, voices are being raised to kill it because of its so-called provisions calling for the increased "medicalization" of drugs. Conservative talk show hosts and a media air campaign that hit island airways Wednesday attacked the plan as "immoral" since it "encouraged" addicts in their vices.

What the plan actually does is make it public policy to improve the commonwealth’s dreadful methadone program, which is offered through a handful government agencies to only a small portion of the island’s estimated heroin addicts, and often without sufficient counseling and other important services.

As it is, unless it undergoes a multi-million dollar overhaul and gets a bigger budget from the Health Department, the program could be at risk of losing federal funds. Program officials are confident they will get the money, and save the program, and they’d like to expand the program by allowing private drug treatment clinics to start dispensing methadone.

Rather than the drastic immoral steps that the doomsayers of talk radio denounce, this is a positive response to the drug abuse problem based on a model widely used throughout the United States. In fact, Puerto Rico lags far behind many U.S. States, such as New York and Florida, that dispense methadone to addicts almost exclusively through licensed drug treatment clinics, and reach a far greater portion of the addict population. Counseling and other ancillary services also appear more comprehensive stateside.

The drug problem is real. Cheap heroin is available in every town, addiction is an ill felt across the island and social classes and television personalities are being accused of trafficking. The fact is that the most violent of crime, and the most violent of criminals, rise from the drug trade.

The methadone question is only a small part of the overall drug plan. It promises to literally give a shot to island addicts intent on trying to turn around their lives. Judge its effectiveness, all right, but do some in empirical, not moralistic terms. And above all, give it a try.

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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