U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, along with five cosponsors in the Senate, introduced a comprehensive plan Nov. 28 to address humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and ensure the islands not only recover, but are able to rebuild in a way to thrive.
The Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act is cosponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
In the House, the legislation will be co-sponsored by Reps. Stacy Plaskett, D-V.I., Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y., and Darren Soto, D-Fla.
More than two months after Hurricane Maria, much of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands remain devastated. More than half of Puerto Rico is still without power. In both territories, clean drinking water is difficult if not impossible to find in many areas and thousands of people are still living in temporary shelters.
The legislation introduced today would instruct the federal government to immediately address these humanitarian crises by mobilizing all necessary resources and assets to restore power, provide clean drinking water and food, safe shelter and access to health care. And, it would do so without forcing the territories to take on more debt.
The Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act emphasizes local control and sustainable rebuilding of the territories and instructs Congress to address Puerto Rico’s debt — a major impediment to a just and full recovery. And, it ensures that any federal disaster funding provided to the islands is protected from Wall Street vulture funds and acted upon with local input and local workers.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz offered her support for the bill: “The bill that Sen. Sanders has introduced in the United States Congress is a comprehensive plan that provides the blueprint for the transformation of Puerto Rico. While dealing with all major areas of immediate concern: energy, health and education it also sets the foundation to make Puerto Rico a more equitable, just and fair society for all. Senator Sanders also shows a great deal of respect and faith in us when claiming that the recovery or Puerto Rico must be in Puerto Rican hands. The bill comes from Sanders’ commitment of listening first hand to the hopes and aspirations of our people and must be given serious consideration by Congress.”
“It is unconscionable that in the wealthiest nation in the world we have allowed our fellow citizens to suffer for so long. The full resources of the United States must be brought to bear on this crisis, for as long as is necessary,” said Sanders, who visited Puerto Rico in October. “But we cannot simply rebuild Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands the way they were. We must go forward to create a strong, sustainable economy and energy system in both territories and address inequities in federal law that have allowed the territories to fall behind in almost every measurable social and economic criteria.”
The bill addresses seven components necessary to rebuild and move the islands forward:
1) Debt and Privatization: Puerto Rico’s debt must be addressed to ensure the territory can recover with dignity. Congress must also prevent the privatization of public institutions to benefit creditors in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico is struggling with an unsustainable $74.8 billion of debt, much of which is held by Wall Street creditors, with an additional $49 billion in unpaid pension obligations. The territories’ recovery should not add to existing debt.
2) Resilient and Renewable Energy: Instead of simply rebuilding an antiquated, centralized and inefficient system dependent on imported fossil fuels, the bill ensures the electric grids will be rebuilt to be more renewable and resilient, to provide less expensive electricity and create local jobs.
3) Medicaid and Medicare Parity: The health care systems in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were inadequate before the hurricanes made landfall, in large part because they receive far fewer federal dollars compared to states. The bill makes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands eligible for the same Medicare and Medicaid benefits as the rest of America.
4) Rebuild and Improve the VA Hospital and Clinics: Appropriates necessary funds to the VA for veterans in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
5) Improve Public Schools, Colleges, and Childcare Facilities: In addition to rebuilding damaged schools and childcare facilities, we must face the fact that many of these facilities were inadequate before the storms hit. Hundreds of public schools in Puerto Rico have been closed because of austerity policies and schools in the Virgin Islands are struggling to prepare students for college and future careers. The bill appropriates necessary funds for services and facilities for public Head Start, elementary, secondary and higher education.
6) Invest in Infrastructure and Spur Economic Development: Underfunded infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands contributed to the severity of the damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In addition to rebuilding damaged facilities, the legislation would make significant investments in the islands’ physical infrastructure to spur the local economy and create jobs.
7) Environmental Cleanup: Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have significant environmental contamination related to the hurricanes, prior pollution and a legacy of military bombing exercises on Vieques. The legislation would provide grants to the EPA, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense for environmental remediation.
"This bill from Sen. Sanders is crucial because it will emphasize the importance of input in the recovery process by local impacted communities along with ensuring public participation in an open and transparent oversight process. This legislation will also promote long-term economic development, environmental safeguards, and rights of the local communities affected and to chart the path to recovery for the Virgin Islands. Ensuring the input of local communities as well as local and municipal powers in the recovery effort of the Virgin Islands is critical to a balanced response that fully meets the needs of impacted communities of the territories. It is imperative that we learn from the shortcomings from these disasters that have created a humanitarian crises the echoes of which are still being felt in the Virgin Islands," Plaskett said.
"The principles and the legislation being announced today provide a framework not just for finally getting control of the ongoing crisis — but ensuring we invest to build Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands back better. This will lay the groundwork for making Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands whole," said Velázquez.
"The people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands suffered one of the worst disasters our country has ever experienced, and Congress has done the minimum expected of us. Congress must rise to the occasion and implement this new Marshall Plan to help our fellow American citizens rebuild and recover," said Gillibrand. "We must all pledge to stand with these families until the islands are rebuilt and fully back on their feet."
"This bill provides the help that the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands desperately need. It tells millions of U.S. citizens: we have not forgotten you. Congress should pass it right away -- the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are counting on us. I was glad to work closely with Senator Sanders on this far-reaching bill so that we can aid our fellow U.S. citizens and help them along a path to full recovery," said Warren.
"The people of Puerto Rico have been living in a nightmare for far too long," stated Soto. "We talk about power to the people. The people of Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands need power! I am proud to co-introduce the Just Rebuild Puerto Rico & the U.S. Virgin Islands Act of 2017, legislation that will help them get the lights back on and their economies going again. As we look to rebuild the islands, we have an opportunity to become an energy model for the 21st century if we invest right."
"The people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have waited far too long for a comprehensive effort from the federal government to recover from these devastating storms and to rebuild in a way that makes them stronger for the future. The Administration and Congress must stop delaying, and pass real, meaningful relief so that these Americans can begin the process of long-term recovery," Markey said.
“The devastating effects of this historic natural disaster calls for a historic response. Our bill has the makings of a Marshall Plan – providing vital funds to rebuild islands’ housing, electricity, health care, and basic government operations. Relief is not enough. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands must rebuild with resilience to better withstand future disasters, and we must meet our moral obligation to help fellow American citizens in need,” Blumenthal said.