|There might not be enough money to fix the Forensic Sciences Institute, to properly fund the commonwealth agency overseeing private schools or to install a telecommunications system at public schools to help hard of hearing kids learn, but Gov. Calderón found $6 million this week to continue the administrations voter registration among Puerto Ricans living on the mainland.
The governor, in an interview with the Associated Press Washington Bureau, announced the initiative during a trip to Washington, D.C. this week. "We cherish our democracy, and we practice our democracy," Calderón said, citing a voter participation rate of 83 percent in Puerto Rico. "It is a pity that people who vote so eagerly and so enthusiastically at home, come here and they don't even register. It seems they do not feel connected to the political process. They don't feel the link between their vote and their conditions in life."
It needs to be stated clearly. There is nothing inherently wrong with Gov. Calderón's voter registration drive. There's an argument that it can boost Puerto Rico's political clout, just like hiring high-priced lobbyists in Washington, so its money well spent.
Moreover, by registering mainland Puerto Rican residents to vote, the drive can also more directly have a positive impact on their lives a good deed regardless of any political clout it might buy.
But given the sorry state of commonwealth government finances, which administration officials have been complaining about since taking office two years ago, the announcement of the voter registration drive presents a credibility problem for the administration.
Sure it may be a good cause. But critics rightly point out that there are many more good causes right here at home that are not being attended to.
The fact that Calderón trumpeted the voter drive - and the doubling in financial resources in the effort to a total $12 million -- to stateside media, while highlighting her push for greater trade and tax incentives for industry while in Washington for local reporters, only adds to the appearance that she is talking out of both sides of her mouth.
Its time-honored tradition for Puerto Rico politicians to say one thing in Washington and another thing in San Juan. And Calderón certainly did that this week. Its one reason why most local media outlets completely missed the fact that the administration was spending $6 million more to register stateside Puerto Ricans.
Calderón had announced a $6 million registration drive last year, but given recent administration cries that there was simply no money for a variety of needs in Puerto Rico, its no wonder the administration downplayed the additional $6 million expense to continue it this week to San Juan reporters.
A months-long battle between the administration and union leaders only recently was settled by an infusion of federal funds as part of a Bush administration relief package for states struggling with budget problems. Prior to that, Calderón had insisted that there was simply no money to pay employees raises at the Family and Education departments despite a negotiated agreement between the agencies and their workers to give the raises starting July 1. Citing the budget crunch, administration officials were insistent on holding off the increases until January.
Administration officials also have been steel-like in their refusal to grant more resources to government agencies, citing the commonwealth's stretched wallet.
The Forensic Sciences Institute needs $1 million or $2 million to clear its backlog of key criminal tests that are holding up the prosecution of main suspects in horrific crimes. The case of Daisy Berríos, an expectant mom killed just before her due date, is one example. The main suspect, implicated by a variety of circumstantial evidence, is a police officer who has yet to be brought to justice because forensics tests are still pending. The woman was killed two years ago.
Just last week, Office of Budget and Management Director Melba Acosta spoke out against a measure to install text telephones that would have helped 974 hearing-impaired students across the island. The reason -- its $70,000 price tag, according to an Associated Press report.
"The central government cant take on additional fiscal responsibilities because the recommended budget for fiscal 2003-2004 has already been completely distributed," Acosta said.
Meanwhile, the budget of the General Education Council, which licenses private schools on the island, has been slashed in half since Calderón took office. It claims it lacks the resources to take action against nearly 100 schools operating with no licenses or expired licenses.
There are other complaints about the voter registration drive. Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock, a prominent Democrat, has accused the administration of selectively registering Puerto Ricans in key areas in an attempt to influence particular races. For example, he charged that the registration drive in Florida was aimed at currying favor with Gov. Jeb Bush and his more powerful brother in the White House President Bush.
But the main complaint is this how can the commonwealth have the money to register stateside voters and not have enough to attend to real needs back home?
Perhaps, the commonwealth should let the Democrats and Republicans try to register stateside Puerto Ricans.
Then it could use the $6 million to fix the grave problems at the Forensic Sciences Institute, the General Education Council and improve the education of hearing-impaired school children on the island. And there would be a lot left over for other necessary improvements back 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