CHN: Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Others Wait for Needed Disaster Aid

Months after hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida, the need for additional funding to help these communities rebuild is still great. On Nov. 17, the Trump administration submitted a request to Congress for an additional $44 billion in aid for these areas. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle quickly denounced the request as being inadequate; Puerto Rico’s governor, for example, has requested an additional $94.4 billion in aid for the territory alone. No funds were included in the request for victims of the wildfires in California; direct Medicaid assistance for Puerto Rico was also left out of the administration’s request. Even worse, the Trump proposal required cuts in other programs to pay for the disaster relief, including another two years of cuts to Medicare (2 percent Medicare cuts were previously imposed for years as part of the way Congress paid for deficit reduction, or offset other spending increases).

Congress increased the amount of disaster aid above the White House’s requests with the first two aid packages, but it remains to be seen if they will do so again with this third package. While this third disaster aid package was expected to move in December, no progress has been made on it so far. It is expected that it could be attached to the stopgap spending bill that will move later this month. Advocates are concerned that the delay will hurt U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, many of whom are still without power, water, adequate food, and shelter. Recent news stories have documented as many as 1,000 additional deaths in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria as compared with death reports over the same period a year before. Most of these deaths have not so far been attributed to the storm, but these unusual deaths from infections and other conditions seem related to the lack of power and other problems at health facilities that continue long after the hurricane. Congress has already approved $51.75 billion for hurricane-hit areas in the two previous disaster aid packages passed in September and October.

On Nov. 3, 28 Democratic senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT), on Nov. 3 sent a letter to White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney with their wish list for what should be in a third disaster aid package. The list included funding for housing assistance, food assistance, public health assistance and Medicaid support, and infrastructure repairs, as well as assistance with Puerto Rico’s existing debt crisis. They also insist the relief come in the form of emergency spending, without requiring cuts in other spending areas to offset the funds. Offsetting the funding would break longstanding congressional practice and contradict the definition of emergency spending included in the law.

In another blow, Puerto Rico’s Treasury Secretary recently warned that a provision in the House tax cut bill could cause the territory’s government to lose as much as one third of its revenue. Representatives from Puerto Rico are reportedly trying to keep the change, which would impose a 20 percent excise tax on goods purchased there, out of the final bill that’s being negotiated between House and Senate leaders. Puerto Rico already faces a $74 billion debt and $100 billion in damage from Hurricane Maria.

Budget and Appropriations
disaster aid