Sen. Bernie Sanders will unveil an extremely pricey legislation to help Puerto Rico recover after a series of hurricanes flattened the American territory nearly two months ago.
Sanders, a self-avowed democratic socialist from Vermont, is proposing a $146 million plan to resuscitate Puerto Rico’s beleaguered infrastructure. His goal is to have the 70 percent of the island running on solar and wind power within a decade, but some analysts believe the idea is a too ambitious.
“More than two months after Hurricane Maria, in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, most of the homes in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are still without electricity. This is beyond belief,” Sanders told reporters Tuesday.
The bill’s stated goal of hooking Puerto Rico to a green energy-based grid is in-keeping with Sander’s status as an anti-fossil fuel environmentalist. He campaigned for president during the 2016 election on a platform prohibiting all forms of oil production.
“Congress must work with the people of Puerto Rico to fundamentally transform its expensive, antiquated and unreliable system,” Sanders noted. Nearly 80 percent of the island’s electric grid is still inoperable, and 28 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without running water.
One Puerto Rico politician is calling Sanders’ proposal a type of Marshal Plan, a $13 billion (in today’s dollars) American initiative instituted during the 1940s to help Western Europe recover after World War II.
“This is the closest we have to a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico,” Ramón Luis Nieves, a former member of the Senate of Puerto Rico who has testified to Congress about the hurricane’s damage, told reporters. Nieves is not the only Puerto Rican politician to voice tacit support for the measure.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is also backing the bill, that also calls on Congress to consider retiring the island’s crippling debt and would give the island billions in additional federal funding for transportation, health care and education in the hopes of preventing mass emigration from the mainland. The corruption on the debt-riddled island could cause the bill’s ultimate demise.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which governs the island’s grid, has come under fire for what critics have deemed an ineffectual response to the hurricane. PREPA drew intense scrutiny for awarding a no-bid $300 million contract to Whitefish, a small Montana firm.
Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy in May and recently closed 200 schools to save $7 million, while simultaneously issuing 107 consulting contracts since January to questionable recipients, according to a report in September from The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Island officials spent more than $256 billion in federal funds from 1990 through 2009, but only collected $74 billion in tax revenue. The U.S. territory is required to prioritize its payments to creditors unless the funds go to essential services.
About $4.7 million in consulting contracts went to companies with ties to government officials, more than $800,000 of which were public relations groups. Consulting contracts totaling nearly $389,000 were awarded to the marketing firm KOI Americas, that is owned by Edwin Miranda, a friend of former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño.
Republicans are generally supportive of privatizing Puerto Rico’s bloated and corrupt public utility. But Sanders’s bill, which would put $13 billion into rebuilding the island’s grid, explicitly prohibits public infrastructure receiving federal aid, such as the electrical grid, from being transferred to private ownership.
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