Government Gridlock

by John Marino

April 22, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The era of divided government in Puerto Rico is increasingly starting to look like the era of gridlock.

Little, if anything, appears to be getting done, despite the fact that action is desperately needed if the commonwealth government is to arise from its worst fiscal crisis in decades.

For this, both major parties -- the Popular Democratic Party, which controls the executive branch, and the New Progressive Party, which controls the Legislature -- share the blame.

For starters, Gov. Acevedo Vilá’s Cabinet is woefully lacking, with only four of 37 nominees having been confirmed so far. A fifth appointee, Health Secretary Rosa Pérez Perdomo, was slated to be confirmed on Thursday.

There are at least six key nominees who have a good chance of failing to muster enough support for confirmation, which means that agencies such as Justice and Education may be without a confirmed leader for a good part of this year.

Senate President Kenneth McClintock and House Speaker José Aponte rightly point out that the current Legislature is no longer a "rubber stamp," and they note that the seriousness over which they are taking their roles has already prompted some nominees to withdraw their names from consideration.

One of those is Marie Robert, who last week withdrew from consideration to head the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Corp. While she took sharp criticism over published reports that she racked up a hefty bill on her government credit card during a one-month stay at a San Juan hotel, the truth is the Senate committee doing a background investigation of her had already determined she was unfit for the post, based on her experience running Pridco’s New York office during part of the previous Calderón administration.

That said, it’s time for the NPP Legislature to shoot down those nominees they have in their sites and confirm the others who they believe are qualified.

The lack of confirmed Cabinet chiefs is creating unnecessary instability in Puerto Rico, Chamber of Commerce President Leonardo Cordero said this week. "No private sector industry can operate without executives, much less the government," he said, adding that lack of authority in these posts is creating instability that "directly jeopardizes economic and social plans for the island’s development."

McClintock has already warned the governor that six of his nominees lacked support for confirmation, but Acevedo Vilá has insisted that public hearings be held for the nominees as part of the democratic process.

The governor, meanwhile, is taking his time in filling the Supreme Court vacancy left by the retirement of Baltasar Corrada del Río, who left the court reluctantly last month after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.

During a ceremony in his honor this week at the Senate, he said: "I respectfully suggest to the governor to accelerate the process of identifying candidates so that the process of advice and consent can begin." He added that Acevedo Vilá has known of his imminent retirement since at least January, so there is no good reason why his successor has not been named.

Acevedo Vilá has also extended his "governance by committee" strategy this week, naming a citizen’s panel to draft recommendations on cultural issues. He has already named similar panels to draw up fiscal reform proposals and another to draft recommendations to overhaul health reform.

Surely a part of this stems from the unique position the governor finds himself in, with the opposition party controlling every branch of government except the executive. Creating committees make allies of its members, and the appearance of a group effort may win broader public support for administration initiatives if they are seen as being borne from a product of consensus, rather than an idea from La Fortaleza. The committees are also a convenient political foil, allowing the governor to skirt questions posed on the vital issues the groups are analyzing. And Acevedo Vilá can also distance himself from painful proposals, saying they are the suggestions of an independent committee.

But the strategy also contributes to the view that the administration has no clear handle on Puerto Rico’s situation yet, still formulating policy rather than knowing which course to take and drawing a road map out of the present difficulties. And it’s a mistake for Acevedo Vilá to put off all questions on fiscal reform, especially when his administration has painted such a dire picture of government finances. He is missing an opportunity by not talking more authoritatively now about fiscal reform and a health reform overhaul.

The Senate this week, home to NPP chief Pedro Rosselló, has confronted Acevedo Vilá over another issue the governor is not forcefully addressing — the strike at the University of Puerto Rico over a modest tuition increase. The strike has been dragging on for two weeks, even though only a hardcore group of students are supporting it. Citing UPR’s autonomy, the governor has not directly addressed the need to resolve the situation. ?Meanwhile, a blown semester looms on the horizon, and students and professors worry about the $90 million in research projects underway at the university. The university should reopen, as a majority of students want to return to classes and the tuition hikes won’t really impact needy students, who receive far above the tuition cost in federal student aid every year. But a history of violent clashes during past UPR strikes is in the back of everyone’s minds.

The Senate this week, however, said it would act to restore order if the administration does not, and former UPR officials have called on Acevedo Vilá to order classes to resume. A deadline is quickly approaching which will force the university to cancel either this semester or the summer session. It will be awful if UPR is forced to do either. Clearly, action is needed sooner rather than later if the damage from the strike is to be contained.

The true test of who will break the gridlock, however, will be the party that is credited with enacting a responsible budget before June 30. Both sides can do much to ensure that happens, and both are on record as saying it would be irresponsible not to pass the budget on time. Perhaps both parties would benefit from resolving to put aside their differences to pass a budget on time. The public surely would.

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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