Puerto Rico’s governor unveils budget priorities amid crisis

National News

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s new governor said Wednesday that modernizing government services, repairing roads and increasing the salaries of certain public workers are among the priorities in the U.S. territory’s proposed $10.7 billion budget.

One of the largest investments — $127 million — is slated for the island’s Department of Transportation and Public Works for the maintenance and paving of roads that have severely deteriorated in many parts of an island still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria and a string of strong earthquakes amid an economic crisis that has lasted more than a decade.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi also is allocating $50 million to increase the salaries of an unspecified number of government employees that he says are earning below the average range, in addition to $15 million for the island’s Department of Corrections for the same purpose.

Another $50 million is slated to provide Puerto Rico’s police department, one of the largest in a U.S. jurisdiction, with updated equipment and technology.

In addition, Pierluisi said he plans to launch a $5.5 million pilot program to fight childhood poverty on the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people where more than 40% live below the federal poverty line. The program would see some $100 to $125 awarded per child. Another $15 million would be destined to a pilot program to help recent graduates find jobs and stop an exodus to the U.S. mainland from an island with a 9% unemployment rate that has worsened amid the pandemic.

“It’s an ambitious project, but it reflects the needs of our people,” Pierluisi said in a press conference via Zoom since he’s in isolation after having had contact with the mayor of San Juan, who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

If Pierluisi’s proposals are approved by a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances, Puerto Ricans also could see an improvement in government services, with $5 million set aside for technology and innovation. The proposal comes amid longtime complaints about the bureaucratic process to obtain permits and licenses that critics say has delayed economic development.

Puerto Rico also is trying to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load after declaring it unpayable in 2015 and filing for the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in history two years later.

Juan Blanco, director of the Office of Budget and Management, said the proposed budget is some $700 million bigger than what the board requires, although Pierluisi said he believes the board will recognize the island’s needs. If the board insists on cutting the proposed budget, Pierluisi said his top two priorities are to maintain the current budgets of the island’s 78 municipalities and that of the University of Puerto Rico, the territory’s largest public university.

Blanco said a final budget would be ready by late May.

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