The Lame Lame Duck Address

by John Marino

February 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Gov. Calderón gave her final state of the commonwealth address this week.As a lame duck governor not running for reelection, there was the glimmer of hope that perhaps she would announce some bold new initiative. Something, say, to hold down the run-away growth of the commonwealth government, revamp the current tax system or announce a true reform that would bring island town government real political power.

But Calderón played it safe, as safe as any governor seeking reelection. And by doing so, her final budget address summed up the dashed expectations that her administration has come to exemplify -- not only for critics, but for many supporters as well.

Not only was she the only first-term governor in island history to bow out of a chance at a second term, her nearly three-hour speech left many with the impression she was not making the most of her current stint in power either.

It centered not so much on laying out plans for her final year in office as it did trying to paint a favorable portrait of her three years in office so far.

She called her Special Communities program "a miracle," touted her job creation efforts and once again complained about the "financial chaos" left by former Gov. Pedro Rosselló’s administration, as well as generally tough times, with the terrorist attack in New York, the ensuing war in Iraq and a general souring of the U.S. and world economy. And again she highlighted efforts at cleaning up government.

The "big news" coming out of her budget address was that the governor identified funds to boost the salaries of most commonwealth employees by $150 a month. Police officers will get a $225 monthly pay hike, while the commonwealth will hike its contribution to employee medical plans to $100 per month. All this will cost $290 million a year, or more if government keeps growing at its current pace.

No administration, Popular Democratic Party or New Progressive Party, has been able to halt the increase in the already swollen government ranks — which should be a requisite to any pay hike.

The pay hike announced by Calderón applied to 142,000 workers pertaining to the commonwealth government whose salaries were paid for by funds handled by the Office of Management and Budget.

Other commonwealth employees, mostly those working at utilities or other state-owned corporations, will also get their salary hikes, but these will be paid for through the annual operating budget of their employer.

All told, there are about 223,000 commonwealth employees, up from the 217,399 on the books when Calderón took office in 2001. The figure also comprises those employed in island courts and the Legislature. It does not include the estimated 74,000 municipal employees across the island.

The other big announcement centered on an exhaustive analysis of how to implement a tax reform, something that would attack the underground economy and relieve the heavy burden on middle class taxpayers. It’s expected to include a repeal of the excise tax and the addition of a sales tax and, hopefully, a generous decrease in income tax rates.

When asked what guarantee she had that the plan would be instituted by the next occupant of La Fortaleza, Calderón said that the next governor would have a "moral obligation" to enact it.

Unfortunately, the governor is wrong. That would have been the case if she had enacted the tax reform during her term and left the funds budgeted for the tax increase. But she could only complete the latter, and has just gotten around to studying the much more important issue of a complete tax overhaul.

Come next January, whoever sits in La Fortaleza won’t feel obliged to follow the recommendations of a study commissioned by his predecessor. And the fact that Calderón chose to highlight the commissioning of the study in the days before the speech is indicative of the rather paltry agenda the administration has set for itself in its final year in power.

Most of the Popular Democratic Party in attendance dutifully applauded the governor’s speech, but it was not the powerful address the PDP could have used to give it a push in this election year.

Past political ally Carolina Mayor José Aponte did not attend Calderón’s speech. He and the governor have engaged in a very public war of words recently. After he complained that she was inaccessible, denying meetings requested to discuss new municipal reform legislation, she accused him of being temperamental, forgetful and publicly embarrassed him by saying she had seen him break down and cry in her office.

She made a public apology to Aponte during her address by saying how much she respected and appreciated him, which brought loud applause. But she said she would only back one of several municipal reform measures Aponte has been pushing La Fortaleza to support. The rest, she said, she would study in depth during the year.

In her final state of the commonwealth address, the governor admitted she committed mistakes in office, but she did not go so far as admitting that she has lost her way in terms of governing.

That, however, was the subtext of her final budget message.

John Marino, Managing 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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