Advocates were deeply concerned that the deal to avoid another government shutdown did not include $600 million in additional funding for Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), the island’s version of SNAP/food stamps. The money was supposed to be included as part of a package to provide more than $14 billion in disaster aid to victims of hurricanes, wildfires, typhoons, and volcanoes across the U.S. and its territories in 2018. Funding for Puerto Rico’s NAP benefits was temporarily increased following hurricanes Irma and Maria, but without action by Congress, some 1.4 million Puerto Rican people will lose some or all food assistance by the end of March when the additional funding runs out. The $600 million would sustain the additional assistance for the rest of the year. It was included in the spending bill (H.R. 268) passed by the House, but not in the Senate. Advocates have been pressing the Senate to agree to the House version and feared that leaving it out of the spending bill would seriously reduce the chances of averting the precipitous drop in Puerto Rico’s NAP benefits.
As previously reported in the Jan. 22 Human Needs Report, the Trump Administration called the $600 million for Puerto “excessive and unnecessary” in its official Statement of Administration Policy. President Trump previously tried to illegally withhold disaster relief money from Puerto Rico by directing funds away from Puerto Rico disaster relief to Texas and Florida, and reportedly told Administration officials last fall that he “did not want a single dollar going to Puerto Rico, because he thought the island was misusing the money…” Congress had appropriated. Newly elected Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), responding to the large Puerto Rican population in Florida, announced his support for including the $600 million in nutrition funding, saying he would play the role of Senator for Puerto Rico. His colleague Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) also supported including the funds, but apparently neither was successful in persuading Senate leadership to go against President Trump’s wishes. This controversy led to separating the entire disaster package from the spending legislation. While the senior Democratic appropriator Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) predicted that a disaster package might pass the Senate separately this week, its adoption remained in doubt.