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Can the governor act without a new budget?

BY CARLOS ROMERO BARCELO of Caribbean Business

June 17, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

For several weeks now, we have been hearing and reading in a large sector of the electronic media and the written press, particularly in El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora, that the government in Puerto Rico is "paralyzed" because of the ongoing dispute over who is to be president of the Senate. Stories, articles, editorials, and commentaries in newspapers and on radio and television claim the economy is stalled because of the ongoing dispute in the Senate. Many individuals and organizations have been influenced by this media campaign and have been driven to make public statements that have no basis in reality.

To say the government agencies and departments are paralyzed and the economy in Puerto Rico stalled because of the ongoing dispute in the Senate not only is absurd, but pure unadulterated demagoguery.

In the first place, the Senate is a legislative body, not the executive branch. There is in effect a budget that was approved last year and is valid until June 30. If, by June 30, a new budget for 2005-06 hasn’t been approved, then, according to our Constitution, the present budget will remain in effect.

Article VI, Section 6 of Puerto Rico’s Constitution reads as follows: "If, at the end of the fiscal year, the appropriations necessary for the ordinary operating expenses of the government and for the payment of interest on and amortization of the public debt for the ensuing fiscal year shall not have been made, the several sums appropriated in the last appropriation acts for the objects and purposes therein specified, so far as the same may be applicable, shall continue in effect, item by item, and the governor shall authorize the payments necessary for such purposes until corresponding appropriations are made."

It is clear the government can continue to carry out its responsibilities pursuant to an existing budget. If the Planning Board fails to take action on projects presented for approval, it isn’t because of the ongoing dispute in the Senate; it is because the governor isn’t doing his job in ordering the executive branch to carry out its responsibilities.

If the Regulations & Permits Administration is stalled or acting too slowly, it has nothing to do with the Senate. It is the governor’s failure to put his team to work. If the Transportation & Public Works Department isn’t doing its job adequately or effectively, it has nothing to do with the Senate.

If the Education Department is failing in its mission and the Health Department isn’t doing its job, it has nothing to do with the Senate. To make the executive branch work properly and to do its job is the responsibility of the governor.

However, instead of motivating and supervising the members of his cabinet, Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá complains the government is paralyzed because of the ongoing dispute in the Senate. When his cabinet members and agency directors hear their governor claiming the government is paralyzed and blaming New Progressive Party (NPP) senators for the paralysis, they are afraid to carry out their duties and responsibilities because, if they did, their governor would be lying.

They probably think the governor is more interested in blaming the NPP, than in succeeding in his job. As a result, they are afraid to move and begin to look for excuses for their lack of action. They then join the chorus that blames the ongoing dispute on the Senate.

If the previously mentioned weren’t enough, making up and drafting budget appropriations and expenditures is traditionally the House’s responsibility, not the Senate’s. The House holds budget hearings and drafts the appropriation bill or bills, together with the authorization for expenditures, because only the House can originate bills to raise revenue. The Senate traditionally only approves, disapproves, or amends budget proposals.

Another false charge against NPP legislative leaders is they are late in preparing and drafting next year’s budget. This isn’t true. As a matter of fact, the House has been diligent in holding hearings and requesting necessary information from an uncooperative executive to prepare the budget. The executive, however, has been anything but diligent in providing the requested information. In many instances, the department secretaries or agency directors have failed to appear at legislative hearings to respond to questions from the legislators. The House not only is on schedule in the process, but even more advanced than most Popular Democratic Party (PDP)-dominated Houses have been since 1981. As a matter of fact, during my second term (January 1981-January 1985), when the PDP controlled the House, the budget wasn’t approved until after June 30 during two of the four years.

In 1981-82, I signed the budget on June 30, 1981. In 1982-83, the PDP-dominated House didn’t approve the budget until July 30, 1982. In 1983-84, the PDP-dominated House didn’t approve the budget until Aug. 26, 1983. Finally, in 1984-85, the PDP-dominated Legislature never approved the budget. Nevertheless, the government never was paralyzed.

In the years when the budget was approved late, I motivated my cabinet and all agency directors to work with existing budgets until the new budget was approved. During our last year, until the change in administration in January 1985, we worked with the previous year’s budget.

Even with all the obstruction by the PDP-dominated Legislature and the harassing investigations, we worked and carried out our duties and responsibilities. The government wasn’t paralyzed and, even though we went through very difficult economic times, we kept working and improving government services.

During my administration, from 1977 to 1985, the price of oil went from $11 to $42 a barrel. Never in our history has there been such an increase in the price of oil during such a short period. The prime interest rate also went up to as high as 21%. Even with these obstacles and difficulties, my government never was paralyzed.

In the eight years from January 1985 to January 1993, when Rafael Hernández Colón was governor, with a Legislature controlled by the PDP, he never signed a budget before June 30. In 1985, he signed the 1985-86 budget on July 9. In 1986, he signed it on July 19. In 1987, he signed it on July 2. In 1988, he signed on July 1. In 1989, he signed on July 30. In July 1990, he signed on Aug. 19. In 1991, he signed on Aug. 10. In 1992, he signed on July 10.

So, what is all this fuss about a paralyzed government because of an ongoing dispute in the Senate? The government’s paralysis and the economic stagnation have nothing to do with the ongoing dispute in the Senate. The problem is Acevedo Vilá’s inability or incapacity to govern. Unfortunately, we have to suffer 3_ more years.

Carlos Romero Barceló is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000), and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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