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The Puerto Rico Legislature: Efficiently Pursuing Inefficiency

by Lance Oliver

October 29, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

In its ongoing and creative efforts to waste time and taxpayer funding, the Puerto Rico Legislature has spent several days of the current session arguing about handing out electronic cards instead of checks to people who receive benefits through the Nutritional Assistance Program, known as PAN for its Spanish acronym.

The House devoted most of Wednesday to this threat to the commonwealth. So what's the big deal about a card?

The card in question works basically like the card you probably use at your bank's automatic teller machines. Gov. Pedro Rosselló's administration decided to issue such a card to recipients of PAN benefits. The card offers several advantages.

One, it is much cheaper than issuing monthly checks. The government stands to save thousands of dollars by switching to card.

Second, it reduces the chance of theft. Many PAN recipients are elderly. Others, simply because they have low incomes, live in less-than-safe neighborhoods. Getting a check and cashing it made them more vulnerable to robbery.

Third, the card provides more flexibility. It could also be used by the government to issue emergency funds after a hurricane, for example, instead of the slower and more costly process of issuing and delivering checks. Money could be credited to a recipient's card instantly and electronically.

For all these reasons, the federal government is also shifting toward electronic transfer of benefits. The food stamp program will eventually be all electronic, many Social Security recipients now get direct deposit of funds instead of a check in the mail, and even the Internal Revenue Service is encouraging electronic filing.

Puerto Rico, which loves to be in the forefront, could actually be ahead of the curve this time. Already, Puerto Rico banks are ahead of their U.S. counterparts in the percentage of transactions handled electronically, instead of on paper. The government seemed about to join the crest of the wave.

Until the Legislature put on the brakes. "Colmados," the small corner stores where many spent their PAN dollars, might not have a telephone line or wouldn't be able to afford the machine that handles the transaction, they feared. Legislators didn't want restrictions on how recipients could spend the money. They fretted that some might be inconvenienced.

While the Rosselló administration continued with its plans to launch a pilot project with the card in the Bayamón region, the House approved a much-amended version of the bill after its long debate on Wednesday. Still to be seen is what the Senate will do and whether Rosselló will even accept the amended version.

One amendment allows recipients to opt out of the program after 120 days. I hope this goes through. I'd like to see just how many people, after four months, would rather stand around waiting for a check in the mail instead of using a card they will find more convenient.

Already, it turns out that a majority of the stores checked by the government in the Bayamón region already have the point-of-sale terminals needed to handle the new PAN card. They have those machines because using an ATM card instead of cash or checks has become popular and common in Puerto Rico among nearly all economic levels of society.

Most merchants who did not already have the point-of-sale machine were interested in getting one. So much for worries about the merchants being inconvenienced.

And as for legislators' fears that some recipients might be restricted by the government from buying certain things with their PAN funds, what exactly are they worried about? Do they think they are protecting constituents' constitutional rights to buy cigarettes instead of baby formula? Exactly what is the pressing issue?

As usual, of course, the explanation for this waste of time has more to do with posturing and power struggles than about doing what's best for PAN recipients or, least of all, what's best for the society and taxpayers as a whole.

Puerto Rico, like the United States, becomes more and more a patchwork of special interests, leaving nobody to worry about the big picture and take stands based on what's in the best interests of the whole, not the vocal minority of the moment.

Unfortunately, Puerto Rico also has a surplus of legislators with time on their hands, thereby guaranteeing someone will jump whenever one of those special interest groups, real or imagined, squawks.

Unicameral Legislature anyone?


Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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