|Nothing makes it feel more like Christmastime in Puerto Rico than the annual war of words that rages between government employees and the Calderón administration over the Yuletide bonus.
This year is an instant replay over the hand wringing last year, which strikes most as totally unnecessary, since in the end, nobody has seriously doubted that Gov. Calderón would appease big labor.
Last year, the issue involved the amount of the Christmas bonus; this year it's who should get it.
The governor came into office, pledging to increase the Christmas bonus for public employees from $500 to $1,000 during her four-year term. Last year, however, the governor balked at cranking up the increase by $125, with administration officials arguing that the pledge did not necessarily mean it would increase by that amount annually, but that the bonus would be $1,000 by the end of the term. Other officials argued that the $25 million the increase would require was just not anywhere to be found.
But the campaign pledge, spelled out in the glossily reproduced Popular Democratic Party platform, specified that the increases would be annually in $125 sums throughout her term.
In the end, the governor found the money and made the payments through executive order. But her indecision over the issue left many scratching their heads. Why did she balk, especially when unions were protesting and opposition politicians were screaming over the issue?
It was one of the biggest examples of Calderón's political mishandling of the issue.
This year is equally bizarre.
The governor announced that she would comply with the entirety of her Christmas bonus pledge this year, but added the caveat it did not cover unionized government workers, which number over 65,000. Many of these workers apparently had negotiated lesser bonuses with their individual agency managers, although many said clauses in those contracts specified that any larger bonus pledge to government workers would supersede the contract provision.
Calderón lamented the fact that she could not give the raises, but then went on to convoke a special session of the Legislature to change the law to allow unionized government workers to be covered. Minority lawmakers from the New Progressive and Puerto Rican Independence parties called foul, saying the governor could have extended the provision with the existing law or apply the $1,000 bonus to all workers through an executive order.
Both this year and last year the governor can be accused of performing an unnecessary agonizing dance before submitting to granting the bonuses. The only logical explanation may be she wanted to call attention to magnanimity in extending the increases. She did this by throwing the spotlight briefly on just how costly they are and how raising them is no cinch for a government with a fat payroll.
The bellowing over the bonus issue this year has somewhat muffled the most important news story in Puerto Rico right now -- whether or not the France-based Ondeo will continue managing the embattled Aqueduct and Sewer Authority.
Several weeks of negotiations over a contract dispute between the government and multinational firm have yet to reach an agreement. The dispute over "unforeseen expenses" and other contract terms could tank what promised to be a positive development, with the company offering cost savings to the government of $100 million in the first year of its 10-year contract.
This week, Calderón said she expected the negotiations to end by the end of the year, meaning Puerto Rico will know whether or not the water utility will continue to be run by Ondeo or falling back into government control.
Competing with union leaders' screams over the bonus issue has been the shouts of many politicians heading into an election year saying that ASA should be administered once again by the government.
What those politicians aren't saying is that fast and easy benefits extended to government employees, such as the Christmas bonus, as well as rewarding political supporters with cushy jobs, is the real problem with the water utility.
Ondeo, for example, has only a few hundred officials, trying to administer an agency in which thousands of unionized government workers still abound. The utility workers are among the best paid in the government, with their bonuses stretching into several thousand dollars. Their ASA union is among the government's most intransigent, making transferring workers or changing their functions all but impossible.
It's not just Calderón's problem. The problem of Big Government will be there for any future inhabitant of La Fortaleza. And while the Popular Democratic Party certainly played its part in extending benefits to public employees for political reasons, it's certainly not its exclusive domain. After all, it was NPP administrations that instituted a mandatory Christmas bonus in Puerto Rico and allowed public employees to enter into collective bargaining agreements.
The days of the paternalistic governor, granting pay raises to public employees, are gone forever, however, or should be. Now that public employees have the mechanism to negotiate a contract with their agency managers, questions of bonuses and pay increases should be left to that mechanism, not political pledges.
All the 2004 candidates need to address the issue. And they need to take a long hard look at ASA. After nearly a decade of private management, the utility still looks bad. But it looks a lot better than it did before the private managers climbed aboard.
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