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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 job.

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 money.

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 stated?

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 defending Rosselló's.

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 at:

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