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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Fleecing And Persuading The Puerto Rican Taxpayer
by Lance Oliver
December 31, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
This time it's Sila Calderón. Last time it was Pedro
Rosselló. Before that it was Rafael Hernández Colón.
There were more before them, and more will follow.
They are all elected officials twisting themselves into moral
loops to try to justify lavish spending of public funds for the
purpose of convincing their citizens that they're doing a great
Calderón lately has been responding to criticism that
San Juan has spent an estimated $5.5 million on advertising since
she took office in 1997. She countered that it was actually about
$3 million, which is a defense along the lines of "Yes, your
honor, I shot the taxpayer in the leg, but just three times, not
five as charged."
The issue arises as Comptroller Manuel Díaz Saldaña
reports that use of public money for partisan political purposes
amounted to a conservatively estimated $1.8 million over the past
10 years, mainly by municipal governments.
In truth, much of the flashy advertising done by the central
government and big municipalities such as San Juan are really
for partisan political purposes as well, and amount to a lot more
Out-of-power opponents who see the spending as excessive quickly
develop bunker mentality once in office and conclude that the
media are horrendously biased against them and therefore the only
way to get the truth to the public is through advertising.
Pedro Rosselló is a good example. As a candidate in
1992, he ran on the party platform promising "to eliminate"
the type of wasteful spending he blamed on Hernández Colón,
including publicity. Instead, he launched a huge campaign of
his own prior to his reelection bid under the theme of "Promise
fulfilled." Funny, he never mentioned the promise about
eliminating wasteful advertising.
Does the government really need to spend millions of dollars
each election cycle to inform the citizens, as Calderón
We're not talking solely about necessary legal advertisements
requesting bids to build a new sewer plant or highway extension.
We're talking about television time and full-color ads in newspapers
that dozens of businesses in Puerto Rico would love to use to
reach their customers. But they can't. They must live within
advertising budgets bounded by reason. Unlike the government,
they don't have the legal right to confiscate money from the people
they serve in order to brag about themselves.
The advertising has insidious side effects generally hidden
from public view. The fountain of money is a constant temptation
to news media who are sometimes all too willing to be corrupted.
In the two years I wrote a weekly commentary for The San Juan
Star, the newspaper refused to print just one piece. It was a
column in which I called Rosselló's "Promise fulfilled"
advertising campaign wasteful.
The owner didn't want the spending criticized. He wanted a
bigger piece of it for himself. Objective news reports, not opinion
pieces, were also either delayed or killed at the Star. Other
media, electronic and print, were noticeably reticent about the
issue, as well.
In a well known case, when the government reduced its advertising
in El Nuevo Día, the newspaper sued to try to regain what
it considered its full share of the windfall. Righteously wrapping
itself in the First Amendment, the newspaper ignored the fact
that the Bill of Rights protects the media from government censorship
but does not entitle it to government subsidy.
A more admirable response would have been for the newspaper
to announce with pride that it was taking less government advertising
money as a sign that it couldn't be bought.
Which leads to what may be the one good hope for change in
this sleazy way of doing business.
What would happen if some enterprising candidate for governor
called a press conference and signed a pledge to eliminate government
advertising and left two lines blank and waiting for the signatures
of the other two candidates?
Think of it as a Puerto Rican version of John McCain and Bill
Bradley signing a pledge to pursue campaign finance reform. Done
in such a high-profile manner, it would be a difficult promise
to forget, as Rosselló did after winning in 1992.
There's thin hope for such a move, however. Calderón
has proven herself a believer in spending the taxpayers' money
to convince them they should be happy with her work, whether they
think they are or not. Carlos Pesquera follows the well worn
and predictable path: criticizing Calderón's spending but
Is there an honest candidate out there willing to face the
voters without a government-subsidized publicity campaign? We
can hope. But it looks like we'll have to wait.
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email