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PUERTO RICO REPORT
The Puerto Rico Legislature: Efficiently Pursuing
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
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
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
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,
Unicameral Legislature anyone?
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email