A Misguided Vote

by John Marino

July 1, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Proponents of the unicameral referendum set for July 10 say it is a way for voters to put an end to politics as usual in Puerto Rico.

But the story behind why Puerto Ricans are being asked to vote during a hot Sunday in July, when their minds are occupied with other pressing concerns, such as the fiscal chaos of the commonwealth government, illustrates that the costly referendum is very much politics as usual.

I’m not one to totally rule out the idea that a unicameral legislature might just fit Puerto Rico’s government better than the current bicameral legislature, especially given the small size of the island and the equality in representation granted by both chambers. Nor do I think that it is an attempt by statehood opponents to make Puerto Rico more "separate" from the rest of the United States, with most jurisdictions embracing bicameral legislatures. After all, it was the Rosselló administration that first commissioned a study on the idea.

But the benefits proponents cite — largely greater accountability by lawmakers and reduced government costs — can be obtained with less drastic measures, allowing the bicameral system to live on. And the consequences of such a drastic change — increasing the power of individual lawmakers and removing some of the checks and balances from Puerto Rico’s current government system — have yet to be fully debated and analyzed by the public.

For those reasons alone, the vote should have never been set. There just has not been enough time for voters to responsibly act on the issue. Making the situation worse are the politicians, especially Gov. Acevedo Vilá, who are using the upcoming vote for their own political gain.

The unicameral referendum is one of a host of initiatives aimed at bringing reform of the Legislature. It was passed under the Popular Democratic Party-controlled legislature in the waning days of the Calderón administration, when nobody was paying much attention to what lame duck lawmakers were cooking up.

For most of this year, most political observers, and politicians themselves, fully expected the vote to be scuttled, especially since all three political parties were calling for a status referendum this summer, and Gov. Acevedo Vilá was on record that if there were a status vote, he would not support a vote on a unicameral legislature.

That scenario changed, however, when the governor unexpectedly vetoed the tri-partisan status legislation in April. Since then, he has supported the vote, and recently, he has come out in support of the unicameral option. He even vetoed a new bill designed to delay the unicameral vote.

The governor says he supports the unicameral option because it will send a strong message to lawmakers that the public is unsatisfied with their performance. Public displeasure with the Legislature runs deep, and has been running deep for years. What the governor does not say, however, is that the vote is only one way of sending such a message. He is also silent on the potential dangers of a unicameral legislature, such as making it much easier for lawmakers to pass misguided legislation, since it will only have to clear one instead of two houses. Also, the leader of such a legislature would have power nearly on par with that of the governor..

Ever since former Comptroller Ileana Colón Carlo issued a report in the early 90s establishing that Puerto Rico lawmakers were the least productive and most highly paid legislators in the nation, if not the world, public dissatisfaction with them has been on the rise. A wave of corruption cases only deepened the disapproval, as did reports by government watchdog agencies pointing to overspending on contracts and office staff.

But Gov. Acevedo Vilá’s embrace of unicameralism suits his current political needs, given that the opposition New Progressive Party controls the Legislature. And his pushing the $4 million referendum in the midst of continuing budget talks against a backdrop of a public financial crisis does not appear prudent. There are profound public policy questions, such as how best to overhaul the tax systems, that have been prompted by the government fiscal crisis that are still being aired.

There are many ways for the public to cut the cost of the Legislature and insist on accountability from its members. Voting current members out of office, cutting back on the number of lawmakers, insisting on more frugal office budgets and perks, and perhaps cutting back on the length of the legislative sessions. I would recommend as a first step eliminating at-large lawmakers in the House, but retaining them in the Senate. That would cut some of the fat and maintain the concept that the House is representative of the population while the Senate is representative of regional concerns on the island, much like the U.S. Congress, on which the Commonwealth Legislature is based.

By defining the unicameral referendum as the way to reform the Legislature, the governor is essentially eliminating these other ideas from public discussion.

The good news is his unicameral stance faces substantial opposition not only from the NPP, but also within his own party, with three former presidents and past, and potential future, rival José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral all solidly against the unicameral legislature. Also, a lawsuit by five NPP representatives might yet get the vote killed by the courts. Not only is the referendum bad politics, the suit argues, it is also unconstitutional, since it would result in one legislature attempting to bind a succeeding one to take certain actions.

The bad news is that the suit, even if successful, has come too late to save the public sorely needed money, since the ballots are already printed and the State Elections Commission is well on its way to spending the $4 million the vote will cost.

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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