Puerto Rico Water Projects Approved… Committee Approves Fortuno Head Start English Program… Army Fort To Continue As Reserve Facility… Joint Senate-House Committee To Resolve Transportation Issues… Department Asked If New Veterans Hospital Should Be Built… Coast Guard Asked To Consider Increasing Resources In Puerto Rico… House Committee Approves El Yunque Wilderness Bill

May 20, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Puerto Rico Water Projects Approved

The U.S. House of Representatives late Thursday passed a bill that would appropriate $4 million for health-related improvements to the San Juan metropolitan area drinking water system.

The funds would fulfill a Bush Administration request for a special $8 million grant for the system.

Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila ("commonwealth"/D), while Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in the States, had initially failed to obtain any of the funds the first year that they were proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the first $4 million was appropriated last year when the EPA asked the Congress for the funding a second time, then seeking only half of the total amount.

Next week, the House is expected to approve a bill that would appropriate $39.8 million for four other Puerto Rico water projects. $38 million of the funds are for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects, including $20 million for the Puerto Nuevo River, $14 million for the Portugues and Bucana Rivers, and $4 million for the Arecibo River. The $4 million for the Arecibo River was $200,000 more than proposed by the Corps.

The bill approved by the Appropriations Committee Wednesday would also provide $1.8 million for Corps improvements to the San Juan Harbor.

The legislation, providing even a bit more than the Bush Administration proposed (the $200,000 additional for the Arecibo River project) with Republican Luis Fortuno (statehood) as Resident Commissioner in the Republican-controlled House, presents a sharp contrast with water project funding bills while Acevedo was Resident Commissioner. Then, Administration-requested water projects for Puerto Rico were regularly substantially cut at the same time that the Congress appropriated much more for water projects than the Administration requested for the nation as a whole.

Committee Approves Fortuno Head Start English Program

The U.S. House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee Wednesday approved an amendment to expand English language education in the Head Start pre-school program for children of low-income families.

The amendment would broaden the teaching of English to children whose native language is not English. It would also require the U.S. secretary of education to report on the effort.

Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in the States, Luis Fortuno (statehood/R), was the primary sponsor of the amendment. The other two Committee members of Hispanic heritage, Democrats Ruben Hinojosa (TX) and Raul Grijalva (AZ), joined him as sponsors.

Public support came from the National Council of La Raza, one of the nation’s largest Latino organizations. Thirty-four percent of children in the Head Start program are of Hispanic heritage.

Puerto Rico receives a substantial amount of Head Start’s budget, more than $249 million a year, 3.6% of the total program. The territory has about four percent of the nation’s low-income population although it has only one and one-third percent of the overall population.

The Committee approved the amendment in agreeing to favorably report a reauthorization of the $6.7 billion a year program.

Army Fort to Continue as Reserve Facility

The House Armed Services Committee Wednesday agreed to permit some improvements to the Army’s Fort Buchanan in the San Juan metropolitan area.

The action partially repealed a moratorium on improvements to the base related to the closure of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, which had been centered on Vieques, PR.

Initially reluctant Committee leaders said that Resident Commissioner Fortuno had convinced them to accept the provision.

The action came days after the Senate Armed Services Committee agreed to totally repeal the ban as requested by the U.S. Defense Department. The difference between the Senate and House committee versions is that the Senate committee version would permit construction of new facilities at the base where the House committee version would not.

The head of Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila’s ("commonwealth/D) offices in the States, Eduardo Bhatia, suggested that Democratic senators Hillary Clinton (NY) and Bill Nelson (FL) were responsible for the Senate committee action. But Fortuno pointed out that it had been proposed by Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA) and Readiness Subcommittee Chairman John Ensign (R-NV). And the provision was requested by the Bush Administration.

The House and Senate committee provisions were contained in bills that the panels approved that would establish policies for the Defense Department for fiscal year 2006, which begins October 1st.

The committees acted after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proposed only slight reductions in personnel and spending at Ft. Buchanan in recommending major changes in U.S. military basing that would reduce capacity up to 11%. An earlier Pentagon list of changes that would have reduced capacity almost twice as much had proposed closing Ft. Buchanan.

Acevedo aide Bhatia suggested that Puerto Rican lobbying was responsible for the ultimate recommendation regarding the base but Rumsfeld said that the recommendations were made on purely military considerations and that he had merely accepted the military’s recommendations.

Ft. Buchanan is the only Army base in the Caribbean region and the deployment facility for some 16,000 Army reservists in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin islands.

That military considerations alone were responsible for the decision regarding Ft. Buchanan was borne out by other recommendations -- closing bases strongly supported by Republican senators, for example. In the starkest example, the Defense Department recommended closing a major Air Force base in South Dakota that was a significant issue in last year’s defeat of Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle by John Thune (R). Thune had suggested that he would be able to save the base. Daschle’s defeat was a major 2004 election objective of the Bush Administration and the national Republican Party.

The Defense recommendations would cut nine military and 47 civilian jobs at Buchanan. There are currently about 112 military personnel stationed there and close to 600 civilian jobs.

The recommendations would also consolidate most Army Reserve and National Guard activities at the fort:

  • The Reserve centers in Humacao and Bayamon would be closed, cutting 26 military positions in Humacao and 25 military and one civilian position in Bayamon.
  • They would also scale back operations at the Reserve center in Aguadilla, cutting 10 military personnel slots.
  • Another 43 military positions would be cut from Camp Euripides Rubio, Puerto Nuevo.

House Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Joel Hefley (R-CO) reiterated this week that he was reluctant to lift the moratorium on improvements to Buchanan because the Government of Puerto Rico had broken its agreement with the federal government regarding the Vieques range.

The moratorium was originally enacted into law in 2000 so that the activities conducted at Buchanan in an area of relatively expensive land could be relocated to the Roosevelt Roads naval base in the less expensive area of Ceiba, PR if the Vieques range closed. The closure would have freed-up facilities at Roosevelt Roads.

The 2000 law largely approved an agreement regarding the Vieques range reached between then Governor (and now Senator) Pedro Rossello (statehood/D), then President Clinton, and the U.S. military. It immediately ended training with live ordnance at Vieques and it provided for a referendum on the island in 2001 that was expected to end training with non-explosives May 1, 2003.

Rossello’s replacement, Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth"), however, denied the existence of the agreement, broke its terms and, with then Resident Commissioner Acevedo, lobbied for an end to training with non-explosives in 2001.

The lobbying failed to end the training before May 1, 2003 but the Navy decided to close Roosevelt Roads in addition to the Vieques range. Calderon’s actions convinced the Navy that it could not rely upon the commitments of the Commonwealth government and that Puerto Rico was not a hospitable environment for its operations.

The environment created by Calderon also helped convince the Army’s Southern Command to move from Ft. Buchanan to Texas, just a few years after it had been brought to Ft. Buchanan by Clinton and Rossello. The location of a major Army command at Ft. Buchanan gave it an important active military mission that would likely have kept it off even the initial Pentagon base closure list.

The Defense Department base closure and realignment list will be refined by a commission designated by leaders of the Congress and the president. Its decisions, due September 8th, are to be approved or disapproved by President Bush by September 23rd. The Congress will then have 45 days to reject the recommendations or they automatically take effect.

Despite the presidential and congressional roles in the process, the Defense Department’s recommendations are expected to carry great weight and the commission’s decision is expected to be the final word on the matter.

Hefley’s statement contradicted the latest criticism of Resident Commissioner Fortuno by Bhatia. The Acevedo aide had said that Fortuno was wrong to link reluctance to lift the moratorium to Calderon’s anti-Vieques range efforts.

The moratorium has held up more than $100 million in improvements to Ft. Buchanan. A partial lifting would permit at least a third of 28 projects that were put on hold to go forward.

Joint Senate-House Committee to Resolve Transportation Issues

A committee of representatives of the Senate and the House will try to resolve differences between their house’s versions of a six-year surface transportation bill. The Senate passed its version of the bill Tuesday. The House passed its version in March.

The bill is leftover business from the last Congress. The six-year period it covers began on October 1, 2003 and lasts until September 30, 2009, fiscal years 2004 through 2009.

Among the major differences are that the House bill directs funding for specific projects — including 17 in Puerto Rico proposed by Resident Commissioner Fortuno — while the Senate version would leave the decision-making on specific projects to the U.S. Transportation Department.

Both bills would provide $780 million for the Puerto Rico Highway Program: $115 million for fiscal year 2004; $125 million for the current year; $130 million for each 2006 and 7; and $140 million for each 2008 and 9.

The $45 million in Fortuno projects include:

  • $5 million to "build the central missing segment of PR Route 10 to complete one of only two highways crossing Puerto Rico North to South;"
  • $3,690,000 for buses in San Juan, including $3 million for security cameras;
  • $6 million for PR Routes 111 in Moca, 835 in Guaynabo, and 5 in Bayamon;
  • $3 million to repave streets in Old San Juan;
  • $2 million for the ferries from Fajardo to Vieques and Culebra;
  • $600,000 for a bus terminal in Bayamon;
  • $175,000 for trolley buses in Yabucoa;
  • $3 million for buses and facilities in the Caribbean National Forest (El Yunque).

Another difference for Puerto Rico between the bills is that the Senate bill would grant Puerto Rico and the U. S. Virgin Islands the full amount of taxes on rum produced in the two territories and foreign countries during calendar years 2005 and 6 versus $10.50 per proof gallon of the $13.50 tax. The additional $3 would total about $60 million a year for Puerto Rico. The territory would receive an estimated $303 million in federal rum taxes this year without the increase.

The Senate bill would cost $11 billion more than the House bill, which would cost $284 billion. The House amount is the maximum that the Bush Administration has said it is willing to accept.

Department Asked if New Veterans Hospital Should Be Built

The House Appropriations Committee Wednesday directed the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department (VA) to advise it on the feasibility of building a new veterans hospital in Puerto Rico. The department was given until September 30th -- the last day of fiscal year 2005 -- to submit the report on the project estimated to cost $500 million.

Directives by the Congress’ appropriations committees are considered virtually mandatory by federal agencies even though they are not law.

The directive responded to the efforts of Resident Commissioner Fortuno. The territory’s representative to the federal government met last week with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs "Jim" Nicholson on the issue.

In issuing the directive, the committee delayed the spending of $90 million to improve the existing hospital approved when now Governor Acevedo was resident commissioner. $75 million of the $90 million was for a new 314-bed tower at the hospital. The other $15 million was to study the impact of an earthquake on the 35-year old facility.

Acevedo had tried to obtain support for a new hospital but failed. Fortuno argued that it would make more sense to build a new hospital than spend the $250 million needed to improve the existing facility.

The Appropriations Committee action would redirect the $90 million towards the cost of a new hospital if the VA determines a new facility to be feasible. It also provides for the money to be spent on improving the existing facility if not.

Either facility would serve the 150,000 veterans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Although the committee directive responded to Fortuno’s request, Acevedo aide Bhatia tried to give the governor the credit for it. He had an advantage over Fortuno in announcing the committee action to Puerto Rico reporters because he was in San Juan at the time.

Coast Guard Asked to Consider Increasing Resources in Puerto Rico

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Wednesday approved legislation that would require the Coast Guard to consider increasing its deployment in Puerto Rico. The measure would also ask the agency to consider increasing its presence in Louisiana and Michigan.

The provision regarding Puerto Rico was sponsored by Resident Commissioner Fortuno, who said he believes the Coast Guard resources allotted to the San Juan Region to be insufficient. The region spans waters ranging from the Dominican Republic to Venezuela in guarding against illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

The $8.7 billion bill would set policy for the Coast Guard and calls for a number of changes in the agency’s operations.

House Committee Approves El Yunque Wilderness Bill

The House Resources Committee Wednesday approved Resident Commissioner Fortuno’s bill to designate 10,000 acres of the Caribbean National Forest as a "Wilderness Area" -- protecting it from almost all uses.

A ‘companion’ bill introduced by Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer, both Democrats from New York, has already been approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

This is the ninth year that Puerto Rico resident commissioners have tried to get the bill approved. It has progressed in previous Congresses but never passed both houses of a Congress.

The El Toro section of the Forest is the home of the endangered Puerto Rican parrot.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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