Business Making Campaign Noise

by John Marino

June 4, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The most positive aspect of this election season has been the general backlash against politicians.

The backlash includes the potential rise of a "fourth party" political movement, the community and advocacy groups trying to corner candidates on the important issues of the day and the increasing stature of the independent voter, that rare breed in Puerto Rico that votes according to a candidate’s capabilities and his or her stance on issues, rather than blinded by party colors. The independent voter will be most directly heard on election day, deciding the difference between the Popular Democratic and New Progressive parties.

But the big noise so far this year has been coming from business, both big and small. Business has been making waves not so much for hefty campaign contributions, but for its public calls for action by politicians on very specific issues.

Major business groups – from the Chamber of Commerce to the Wholesalers and Marketing Chamber to the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association – have already entered the campaign by calling for specific actions to spur business activity and improve the economic landscape. They have also gone further by mapping out government reform proposals and by calling to kill specific legislation the groups view as hostile to business. And they have called candidates on the carpet to respond to their proposals.

Lawmakers have been a particular target, and the groups’ criticisms have been part of a chorus that have shamed island representatives and senators into pledging to cut perks, such as government paid cars and drivers, cell phones, and tax-free attendance pay.

MIDA, as the wholesaler’s group is known, started the trend by releasing a study indicating that Puerto Rico’s legislature is among the best paid and least productive in the United States. Its recommendation: a return to the concept of the part-time lawmaker, a huge scaling back of their perks, the end of discretionary pork barrel spending and the formation of a unicameral legislature.

The move has prompted lawmakers to pass at least some legislative reform measures, which will scale back perks, although not immediately. And it has gubernatorial candidates releasing specific pledges on the issue. And a bill that would spark a referendum among voters on the question of a unicameral legislature is currently being discussed, although the date of the vote is slated for next year, safely beyond the elections.

Last week, the PRMA, the Chamber and the Hotel and Tourism Association released a paper calling for 20 pending bills in the Legislature to be killed because of the threat they posed to Puerto Rico’s business climate.

The bills, carved towards the interests of special interest groups in an election year, are a lethal brew promising increased regulation, uncertainty and burdensome red tape for island businesses, both large and small.

One measure would rewrite Puerto Rico’s anti-monopoly law, making it more restrictive than federal regulations, and a threat to offshore investment. There are also measures to pad Puerto Rico’s already generous consumer laws through the enactment of a Consumer Bill of Rights, to grant the Labor secretary to rewrite minimum wage and employment workplace issues by decree every three years and a review of already generous vacation and sick pay provisions.

Other measures would tax offshore loans and force casino players to report winnings on the spot to Treasury. Then, of course, there is Labor Secretary Frank Zorilla’s recommendation to extend full-time worker benefits to part-time workers and proposals to expand unionization of public employees to the Courts Administration and elsewhere in the already bloated commonwealth government.

Prior to its convention last week, the PRMA released a flurry of proposals it wants gubernatorial candidates to embrace. These include allowing business to use a wider range of flex-time scheduling, particularly important for the tourism and manufacturing industries, incentives such as research and development grants and more involvement from the business sector in the public education school system.

It’s good that business is being so vocal about what it expects from government officials and offering ideas to resolve problems instead of just criticism. The increased activism can only work to place these important issues at the center of political debate. And it shows a wonderful side to entrepreneurs, that they can put aside competitive interests and join together for the collective good.

For too long, the interchange between business and politics was too often just a simple commercial transaction, where businesses donated money to candidates in the expectation of receiving government contracts when the candidate takes office.

That surely will continue to happen. But business now views candidates as much more than simply the best way to get a contract. It is now insisting that they do things to improve Puerto Rico’s economic landscape and investment climate.

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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