Law­mak­ers grill of­fi­cials on $94B re­quest for aid

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION - By Frances Robles

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO >> The gover­nor of Puerto Rico and the chief ex­ec­u­tive of its em­bat­tled elec­tri­cal com­pany faced hours of ques­tion­ing Tues­day in Congress, where skep­ti­cal leg­is­la­tors ques­tioned whether to give the is­land an enor­mous aid pack­age on the heels of a botched high-priced con­tract to fix its power grid. Gov. Ri­cardo A. Ros­sello came to Se­nate and House com­mit­tees with a huge re­quest: $94.4 bil­lion to help Puerto Rico “build back bet­ter” af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria de­stroyed or dam­aged 472,000 homes and knocked out the is­land’s elec­tric­ity. He also said Puerto Rico should have more au­thor­ity over its own fis­cal af­fairs and that he had “zero role” in award­ing a highly crit­i­cized $300 mil­lion deal to a small Mon­tana firm to help re­store power.

“If we get more re­sources to re­build, peo­ple will come back to re­build stronger,” the gover­nor said, al­lud­ing to the thou­sands of Puerto Ri­cans who have al­ready left for Florida.

In a re­port sub­mit­ted to Congress, Ros­sello re­quested $15 bil­lion for health care, without spec­i­fy­ing what med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties needed to be fixed. He said the is­land needed an­other $8.4 bil­lion for schools, without not­ing what dam­age the schools had in­curred. The power grid, he said, needs $17.7 bil­lion.

“I’m look­ing at this — $90 bil­lion, $100 bil­lion — a colony on Mars is the same amount,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said at a House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee hear­ing.

Rep. Gar­ret Graves, R-La., asked why Congress should pay so much for Puerto Rico when Puerto Ri­cans are ex­empt from most fed­eral in­come taxes. Leg­is­la­tors also wanted an­swers about White­fish En­ergy Hold­ings, a small Mon­tana firm that got a con­tract with steep markups that sev­eral mem­bers of Congress de­scribed as “price goug­ing.” The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency dis­tanced it­self from the con­tract and the gov­ern­ment was forced to can­cel it af­ter a pub­lic out­cry. Ri­cardo L. Ramos, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Puerto Rico Elec­tric Power Au­thor­ity, known as PREPA, told the Se­nate En­ergy and Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee that he had hired White­fish in­stead of en­list­ing the help of other util­i­ties un­der mu­tual aid agree­ments be­cause he did not have enough sup­plies for even his own crews.

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