Lawmakers Gone Wild

by John Marino

June 11, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The Capitol has been full of activity lately, as lawmakers rush to impress during this election season in a flagrant attempt to hang on to their seats.

After all -- with a government paid car, driver and cell phone, plus a $60,000 annual salary, made even better by an extra $20,000 to $30,000 in tax free per diem payments annually -- it's not a bad gig. In fact, it's probably one of the best jobs that can be had on this island of enchantment.

But a recent study by a trade group reckoned that it costs the public to keep lawmakers and their staffs afloat some $100 million annually. No wonder the calls for cutbacks at the Capitol are rising to a crescendo.

What do lawmakers do to earn their daily bread?

This past week has been illustrative.

It kicked off with House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrondo and Rep. Jorge Colberg Toro calling for the creation of a new agency to fight the scourge of drug trafficking and the resulting violent crime it produces.

Every one is in favor of doing anything that works to curb crime, especially as the current wave of killings has given Puerto Rico a black eye as one of the most dangerous places in the United States.

But the Popular Democratic Party House initiative does not work to improve the efforts of the Police and Justice departments, the scores of municipal police forces across the island, nor the Drug Control Office, created by the Calderón administration and still trying to find its footing to perform its mission.

The Vizcarrondo-Colberg Toro initiative would create a whole new bureaucracy -- the State Agency Against Trafficking of Drugs and Illegal Firearms. It's not only a mouthful. Operating with fiscal and operational autonomy, the proposed new agency would do much of the work currently handled by existing crime-fighting agencies.

Rather than seeking input from current Police Superintendent Agustín Cartagena, the House duo opted to contract former top cop Victor Rivera, who resigned in December citing money woes, to help develop the idea for a new agency.

The proposal would appear to pose a real threat to increasing government bureaucracy and confusing current crime fighting efforts. But coming at the final stage of a lame-duck administration, just as the reelection campaign is heating up, it's more ridiculous than dangerous.

Also this week, the Senate finally passed a massive revamp of the island's Penal Code, aimed at clarifying criminal laws and bringing them up to date.

One of its main authors called it the most important legislation passed this term. But it was telling that in the same session senators approved the new code, they passed legislation creating a committee to amend it, incorporating a wish list of changes by La Fortaleza.

In several cases, the amendments will toughen crimes and will probably improve the code. But the question remains that after three years of debate, why couldn’t the Calderón administration get it together early enough to insist on the changes when the bill was passing through what has been an arduous legislative process.

It is one of other forward looking proposals -- revamping the tax structure, calling for action on status and legislative reform during the next gubernatorial term and discussing long-term development plans -- that are illustrative of the legacy of the Calderón administration and the PDP-controlled Legislature.

That legacy has most of the PDP-linked politicians seeking reelection talking about pledges of what they will do during the next four-year term, rather than talking about the accomplishments of the one coming to a close.

Almost as busy as island lawmakers has been Comptroller Manuel Díaz Saldaña. Numerous audits have been released in recent days, and more are expected to come as his office works to get those reports already in the pipeline out on the streets before it gets too close to election.

The reports find the usual fiscal malfeasance among island mayors and government agencies. The comptroller charged that the government-owned electric utility overcharged customers millions and should return the money, while the former Cataño mayor, Edwin Rivera Sierra, wasted $11 million on the controversial Columbus monument, booze and incomplete projects.

But one of comptroller's biggest zingers this week was contained in an audit on the Legislature, which found the $3 million it assigned to keep a private Mayaguez law school afloat to be illegal.

Díaz Saldaña said the payments broke constitutional prohibitions against using public funds for private schools. A portion of the money the Legislature granted the school was also used to pay off an old tax debt, which the comptroller also argued was illegal.

But beyond that, the audit also worked to shine a spotlight on another example of a legislative adventure that was wrongheaded from the beginning.

Trying to keep the law school afloat is a dumb idea when Puerto Rico's current law schools produce more attorneys than there are jobs for. And it's morally wrong for the government to help out one school when it is competing against private and public universities for students.

It's just the kind of legislative recipe that lawmakers at the Capitol are making famous once again, as another term comes to a close and Election Day looms just down the road.

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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