Calling on the federal government to bring its "full resources to bear" on the crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.-I) unveiled a $146 billion recovery package for the U.S. territories on Tuesday, two months after Hurricane Maria left destruction across the islands.
Sanders and the Democratic co-sponsors of the new bill argue it is necessary to treat the recovery as the emergency it is, but that rebuilding the islands' battered infrastructure should not mean simply returning to things as they were.
"It is absolutely without any sense at all to rebuild Puerto Rico's antiquated, centralized, and inefficient electric grid that was dependent on expensive and dirty imported fossil fuels," Sanders said in a press conference where he introduced the bill, adding that with the nickname "La Isla Del Sol," the island could be leading the way in the use of solar power and other sustainable energy.
"Before the storm Puerto Rico only had two percent of its electricity coming from sustainable energy," remarked Sanders. "Beyond rebuilding damaged facilities, our bill makes a major proactive investment in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands' infrastructure."
The bill—formally called The Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act—was referred to as "a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico" by Ramon Luis Nieves, former lawmaker on the island. It would give $62 billion to the territory to help it pay off its debts, $51 billion for economic development, and $27 billion for infrastructure.
Sanders noted in his press conference with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and other coo-sponsors, that more than two months after Maria made landfall, "half of the people there—American citizens all—still have no electricity, many are still struggling to get clean drinking water and more than 100,000 people have left Puerto Rico."
But despite the dire situation, Trump has requested just $29 billion for Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas combined, to help with the recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma as well as Maria.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been sharply critical of the president's approach to Puerto Rico's recovery, expressed her approval of the bill in a statement:
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The bill that Senator 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.
In addition to humanitarian relief and improved infrastructure, Warren stressed the need for full, true debt relief. As President Donald Trump brought up in the days after the storm, Puerto Rico's debt exceeds $70 billion, brought on partially by a lack of tax revenue after Congress repealed a tax break for businesses on the island in 1976. This caused companies to flee and take the economic growth Puerto Rico experienced following World War II with them.
The island fell further into debt as "vulture" hedge funds saw an opportunity to buy up the island's debt, only to sue its government when it defaulted on paying the funds back—forcing Puerto Rico to file for bankruptcy four months before Maria hit. Similar firms swooped in following Hurricane Maria.
"Puerto Rico needs full debt relief," Warren said. "This is critical. The vulture funds that snapped up Puerto Rican debt should not get one cent from the island. Not one cent."
Warren also criticized Trump's callous and insufficient response to the island's crisis, and urged him and Congress to support the bill.
"From the start, President Trump's response to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands has been too little, too late. I've been telling President Trump, 'Do your job.' Well,this bill is an opportunity for President Trump to step up and do his job."
The senators' press conference was broadcast on Facebook Live: