Good afternoon to all.
I want to begin by thanking Sherman Wildman for inviting me to speak again with you today. As you might imagine, I am slightly busy these days...but it is always a pleasure to have lunch with such a distinguished group of citizens and I am thrilled to be back here today.
As you all know, I am running for governor. I do so convinced that I can offer Puerto Rico the necessary capability, experience, relationships in Washington, and total commitment to make a difference for the benefit of our people.
This past summer, after almost three years of a slow recovery from the impact of Hurricane María, some unacceptable cases of corruption, and the inappropriate conduct of several senior government officials, our people stood up and let themselves be heard.
This engaged participation of our citizens in our public policy discussion has resulted in a new Puerto Rico that calls for transformation. Gone are the times of apathy or passive citizenship. Now, our people want a government that responds to them, a government that has their back in every proposal or action it takes.
In the midst of that political and social turbulence, I stepped out of the comfort of my private life and answered the call to serve. I was honored to receive the support of so many, and feel that my decision to step forward for Puerto Rico helped set a new tone of stability and confidence in our Island. Aware that times have changed, I set out to listen to our people directly, to pay close attention to what they want and need, and to validate their call for me to return to public service.
Since last September I have visited over 60 municipalities at least once. I have spent time with small business men and women, farmers, public servants, elected officials and thousands of Puerto Ricans who have talked with me in “panaderías”, on the streets and in public squares, and in their homes. It is clear that we all have common goals.
We want a government that puts us first. We yearn for Puerto Rico to have a growing economy, where we can feel safe and live fully, with swift action in the reconstruction from the hurricane and earthquakes, where our government uses our resources efficiently and responsibly without the need for the Junta and without corruption, and where we can achieve equal treatment from our Nation.
Over the next few months I will continue to expand on my vision and on my proposals, which are focused on economic development, a good quality of life for all citizens, fiscal responsibility, a clean, sensible and efficient government, and the fight for equality.
Today, I would like to address the two main challenges I see facing us in this next election, and then will end with some comments about the upcoming plebiscite.
As I see it, the two major issues that concern our people are: how to grow our economy and how to trust our government again. I would like to discuss both of them today.
Governing is the art of prioritizing in order to properly and efficiently use the government’s resources for the benefit of the people, while ensuring that they receive essential government services in a sustainable manner in the short and long-term. In Puerto Rico that means totally reengineering the operations of the government to significantly improve cost-effectiveness, to promote economic activity and job creation on the island, and in turn to increase its tax base and revenues. Nothing improves the fiscal health of a government like economic growth.
Right now, Puerto Rico is operating under the mandate of a five-year fiscal plan that needs to be revised to correctly reflect government resources. As a matter of fact, unlike previous administrations, actual government revenues have been consistently outperforming estimates, even when most of the economic activity related to disaster funding has yet to be realized.
In fact, the disbursement and rapid use of all federal funding related to the disasters needs to be prioritized at all levels. It is not just signing agreements and holding press conferences. Our people need decent housing, safe schools, renewed infrastructure, revitalization of city centers, and reliable electricity, and they need it now. Most people do not understand why after almost three years, most long-term recovery efforts have not even begun. You can be sure that this will be my number one priority because Puerto Rico needs results.
When speaking of the government’s own resources, they must be properly prioritized when developing, approving, and implementing its budgets, ensuring fiscal responsibility, completing a fair restructuring of our debt, and guiding our way to ending the Fiscal Oversight’s tenure. Specific changes to the Fiscal Plan must include ensuring funding for pension payments because our retirees have already seen considerable cuts to their pensions in the previous administration, and cutting more would be akin to being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Causing retirees to fall on harder times will mean other costs to government agencies and a possible downturn of the economy.
Furthermore, the University of Puerto Rico has also suffered from huge cuts and tuition raises. This new reality must be allowed to stabilize, and larger cuts could have irreparable consequences in the University’s ability to provide the quality education our state institution must. This is also the case with municipalities.
We have all witnessed how municipalities have led recovery efforts after both the hurricane and the recent earthquakes. PROMESA demands that the government ensure the funding of essential public services, which means that rendering municipalities inoperable is contrary to the law and to what Puerto Rico and its people need.
Additionally, to be able to use the government’s resources efficiently, Puerto Rico needs a productive and professional civil service. It is vital that we finalize a new employee classification and remuneration plan that aligns and standardizes public employee salaries and brings them to levels that are just and reasonable. This will help us achieve greater productivity in our government, which has seen significant downsizing due to incentivized retirement programs that have caused too many vacancies and lack of capacity in crucial agencies.
At the same time, my government will be proficient in fostering investment and promoting Puerto Rico in all areas of the economy.
We will continue to promote the most productive and competitive sectors of our economy, including manufacturing, tourism, and agriculture, as well as to increase the exportation of our products and services, advancing our much-needed economic development.
Moreover, at this point in time when we are dealing with the coronavirus health crisis, I would be promoting our biotechnology companies to be potentially available to manufacture a vaccine, as well as other treatments and products needed to address the symptoms of this disease. We have a strong medical device manufacturing sector and we need to be proactive to take every opportunity, even a medical crisis such as this one, as a way to advance our economic growth.
I will also promote a comprehensive tax reform that simplifies Puerto Rico's tax system and creates economic activity, ensuring fair treatment of our small businesses, and providing better opportunities for our people.
But more importantly, I will continue to fight for equality for all American citizens in Puerto Rico, because apart from granting the same rights and opportunities, as well as just treatment in federal programs that our fellow citizens have in the states, Statehood will also increase government resources and result in real and far-reaching socio-economic growth for all Puerto Ricans.
But before I speak about those efforts to advance equality, let me speak about the challenge our government institutions face to regain the people’s trust. The events from last summer surely hurt our government’s credibility on the Island. And if we aspire to be in public service, we must be ready to answer to our constituents, we must keep our ear to the ground, and we must take this responsibility very seriously.
The people of Puerto Rico deserve a clean and efficient government.
I come from a family in which serving our people is considered an honor and a privilege. When I have had the opportunity to serve, I have always said yes to Puerto Rico, 4 years as Secretary of Justice and eight years as Resident Commissioner. The best way to regain the trust of our people is to fulfill the responsibilities of the government to serve effectively, to attend to the needs of each citizen and each business quickly, and to be extremely responsible and transparent with the resources of the government, because they belong to the people.
I am committed to totally transforming the public procurement system to ensure the highest level of transparency and competition in the acquisition of goods and services needed by the government, while at the same time achieving the highest productivity and professionalization of public service to significantly reduce spending on contracts. The reality is that Puerto Rico has multiple anti-corruption laws and hundreds of regulations to ensure enforcement.
For decades, the biggest problem our government has had is the lack of execution, a lack of results. That is why my public service has always been centered around giving results to our people. My track record shows that I have given Puerto Rico worthy, honest and effective service.
As Secretary of Justice I increased conviction rates to 96% of the cases tried in our state courts. I had a very close working relationship with the Office of the Comptroller, increasing by 400% the processing of its referrals, and I also increased by 50% the referrals of the Department to the Special Independent Prosecutor. I led a frontal attack on corruption, fighting to eliminate the practice of ghost employees in the Legislature in the 1990s and prosecuting legislators, some of whom were from my own administration.
I also led the fight against crime and drug trafficking, achieving the designation of Puerto Rico as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which represented millions of federal funds to fight crime and earned me the trust of federal officials who recruited me to lobby Hispanic Members of Congress to pass the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill.
As Resident Commissioner, I was part of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee for eight years, earning my peers’ respect, and was appointed to the Ethics Committee, a bipartisan entity tasked with investigating inappropriate conduct by Members of Congress. I also secured billions of dollars in federal funds and tax credits for Puerto Rico under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), worked to ensure that Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories were treated fairly in the federal health reform, which tripled the amount of federal funds assigned to Puerto Rico annually to fund the public health system. Similarly, I worked to advance multiple initiatives from federal agencies to benefit the people of Puerto Rico in the areas of public safety, economic development, education, health and environmental protection, and just treatment for our veterans.
That track record has given me a broad and wide-ranging experience in producing results for Puerto Rico, properly handling public affairs to avoid mismanagement, and to know how to handle any improper action firmly and expeditiously. I have no doubt that I will be able to give the people of Puerto Rico the confidence they demand and the government they deserve. In fact, that is one of the main reasons I chose to return to public service.
Before I end my remarks and tend to your questions, let me say something about the proposed plebiscite to be held in November on election day. Puerto Rico’s status issue has been at the forefront of our political discussion for decades. It has limited our ability to work together to achieve a better future for our Island. The uncertainty and non-permanence of our current status affects not only our rights and responsibilities as American citizens, but also our economy, since we are treated as part of the U.S. for some things and foreign for others.
Even the federal government has acknowledged that ending the status discussion is in our best interest.
Now, locally and federally we have tried different strategies: local plebiscites with multiple options, status bills, and hearings in Congress, all of which have led to no results. Every time we hold a plebiscite with more than one option, someone claims theirs was not on the ballot, or they didn’t like the definition, or they decide to leave ballots blank. All those times we have gotten no action from Washington because there is no clear result and someone can always question it.
That is why I have be promoting a Statehood yes or no referendum for years. It is a simple and clear cut ballot that cannot be questioned. It is also the model used by most of the states that joined our Nation most recently. If a voter favors Statehood, he or she votes YES.
If a voter does not favor Statehood, be it because he or she favors independence, the current status or free association or any other option, he or she can vote NO. That simple.
That plebiscite will yield clear cut results. And if Statehood wins, as I have confidence it will, we should be able to put this issue to rest and get on with working together to improve Puerto Rico’s quality of life, promote a sustainable economic development that fosters job creation, and embark on the future that our people deserve.
That is what I offer Puerto Rico and you can count on me to do the hard work that is required to make this happen.
Thank you all. I am more than happy to take your questions.