Most Democrats back a bill passed by the House of Representatives to address the Puerto Rican debt crisis, but Sen. Bernie Sanders is asking for more.
The bill, spearheaded by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and endorsed by the Obama administration, would institute a federal oversight board, with members chosen by the White House and Congress, to renegotiate Puerto Rico’s debt.
With Puerto Rico’s Democratic primary looming, the Vermont senator announced that he plans to introduce legislation next week that would do more, including permitting the Federal Reserve the ability to provide emergency loans while allowing Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy — something that is not currently allowed to do, due to a mysterious 1984 law which also applies to the District of Columbia. Sanders’ proposed legislation would also allocate funds towards rebuilding the islands’ infrastructure while increasing Medicaid and Medicare payments to its residents.
Puerto Rico has long been mired in a debt crisis spurred by hedge funds taking advantage of the islands’ cheap junk bonds and favorable tax policies.
“These vulture funds are getting interest rates of 34 percent on tax-exempt bonds that they purchased for 29 cents on the dollar,” Sanders said. “It has been estimated that as much as half of Puerto Rico’s debt is owned by these vulture funds.”
The legislation reflects Sanders’ campaign’s call to improve the manner in which the federal government treats Puerto Rico, which has suffered due to its second-class status as a territory. Last year, Sanders called for Puerto Rico’s right to receive the protections and benefits granted to states. Puerto Ricans pay Social Security but are not eligible for the program’s Supplemental Security Income, and funding for Medicaid and Medicare for Puerto Rico is much less that would be were the island a state. And while Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they cannot cast a vote for president in the general election.
Sanders hopes his legislation will resonate with the working class people in Puerto Rico in time for Sunday’s primary vote. Both the Clinton and Sanders campaign have held rallies on the island, which sends 60 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Sanders traveled to the island while Clinton opted to send her husband, former president Bill Clinton, to campaign as a surrogate.
“We have got to make it clear to these billionaire hedge fund managers that they cannot have it all,” Sanders said during a speech in Puerto Rico last month. “They cannot receive a 100 percent return on their investment while children in Puerto Rico go hungry.”
Gov. Alejandro Padilla endorsed Clinton on Wednesday, citing their joint support of the bipartisan bill.
Although polling data in Puerto Rico is scarce, Clinton holds a 65 percent to 34 percent lead in a poll conducted in March and April. Notably, Clinton defeated President Obama in the 2008 primary by a similar margin — 67 percent to 13 percent.
The voting process on the island could be problematic, however. A Puerto Rican newspaper has reported that the amount of polling stations available during the upcoming primary has been reduced by more than two thirds. Initially, the territory’s Democratic Party announced that 1,500 polling stations were planned for the primary, but that number has been trimmed to 430, raising concerns that low-income Puerto Ricans will be shut out of the only U.S. presidential vote they will be able to cast in this election cycle.
Photo: A worker takes off U.S and Puerto Rican flag after rally of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Alvin Baez