July 29, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
PRFAA! Is It Worth The Cost?
The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) is trembling beneath a "Sword of Damocles," dangerously poised above its institutional head. Just as with the mythological courtier to an ancient tyrant, this far-flung mainland extension of the Puerto Rico Governors office is, like Damocles, learning the lesson of the tenuous nature of power. The Roman legend recounts the tale of a deadly sword dangling above Damocles, supported by a single horse hair, ready to drop for the kill. The 13 offices and hundreds of PRFAA employees see their fate written in the ink of the current budget bill passed by the Puerto Rico Legislature in San Juan.
PRFAA, headquartered in Washington and, until recently, operating twelve regional offices, has seen its requested allocation of $10.2 million reduced by 70% in the new Commonwealth budget approved by the legislature. On Thursday, Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá said that he will veto the budget bill, forcing the government to operate within existing budget amounts that are even less than what the legislatively approved budget provides. No matter how the final budget battle ends, it seems certain that the Governors presence on the mainland, traditionally fostered by PRFAA, will shrink dramatically.
Although the Governor is scrambling to find money to keep it afloat, at least temporarily, the long knives of the Legislature are out for this very visible and very active mainland Puerto Rican entity. Even if Gov. Acevedo manages to stitch together funds from other sources to keep his mainland public relations operation going in the short run, smart money says that PRFAA is in for a rough four years.
New Progressive Party (NPP) Senate President Kenneth McClintock has stated that the roughly $3 million authorized in the pending budget legislation is adequate to maintain the Washington office and a limited regional presence. He points to the example of the Washington office of the State of Texas that gets by with an annual stipend of $1 million. Obviously, many of PRFAAs cultural and grass roots activities would need to be curtailed under the slashed appropriation.
Already, PRFAA employees in the California, Texas and Ohio offices have received pink slips and the office in Orlando, Florida home of the fastest-growing mainland Puerto Rican population has been put on notice that it may need to close or severely cut back on its activities. The future of offices in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Coral Gables, Florida, are still in doubt.
PRFAA argues that since nearly half of all Puerto Ricans reside on the mainland, it is important for the Commonwealth to be represented within the major population centers in order to advocate for Boricuas and partner with local groups for their social and economic betterment. The office also touts its work with the U.S. Congress and Executive branch, lobbying for favorable legislation and federal administrative policies for Puerto Rico.
Opponents say that representing the island in Washington is properly the function of the Resident Commissioner, an elected official. They further point out that it is inappropriate to use tax revenues derived from Puerto Ricans living on the island for the benefit of those living in other jurisdictions. If PRFAAs work was limited to obtaining public and private assistance for Puerto Rico, it would not be facing its present difficulties. In fact, much of the organizations work benefits those who self-identify as Puerto Rican but have little or no actual contact with the island and who pay mainland state and local taxes. The welfare of many PRFAA clients is more appropriately the responsibility of the jurisdictions in which they live and not that of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The animus existing between the Puerto Rico Legislature -- dominated by members of the NPP -- and PRFAA gained momentum during the administration of PDP Governor Sila Calderon. She greatly expanded the organizations role by launching a $12 million-plus voter registration project run by the PRFAA regional offices. The initiative became controversial when local politicians accused it of partisanship. Scandal touched the project when Chicago authorities turned up thousands of fraudulent registrations certified by PRFAA contract employees. Overall, the initiative appeared to be more an effort to give Ms. Calderon leverage with Congress and the White House and to boost her sagging approval ratings on the island.
The results of the 2004 elections presaged trouble for PRFAA, especially since the Resident Commissioner and the Governor were of different political parties, both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland. Although both have been tactful about the issue publicly, PRFAA Director Eduardo Bhatia and Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño have often worked at crossed purposes. The two men ran against each other for Resident Commissioner in the last election and it seems that the campaign rivalry pushed westward to Washington after the vote was in and Fortuño prevailed.
The specter of a well-funded PRFAA office dominated by PDP functionaries -- constantly undermining the work of Puerto Ricos NPP Resident Commissioner, painted a "bulls eye" for NPP legislators to target on PRFAAs budget line.
Clearly many of PRFAAs programs have merit and reflect positively on the culture and people of Puerto Rico. A glimpse at the organizations website (www.prfaa.com) describes projects in the arts, education and community development, all targeted to Puerto Ricans in the mainland communities in which they live. What is ironic is that PRFAA is providing to Puerto Ricans in the fifty states free services that are presently unavailable to island residents.
With a staggering budget deficit facing the island and so much needing to be done at home, it is not surprising that San Juan legislators see better uses for the $7 million dollars that they have stripped from PRFAAs operating funds. Likewise for a governor who is asking island residents to sacrifice, as he did in his official address on Constitution Day, justifying funds for concerts, parades and fashion shows on the mainland is a stretch.
Where do you come down on PRFAA? Should the Puerto Rico Legislature restore PRFAAs budget to its budget request of $10.2 million, hold firm on its new budget funding of $3 million, cut the budget even more or eliminate the effort altogether?
Please vote above!