Lawmakers grill officials on $94B request for aid
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.