Puerto Rico warns its population and economy will plunge
Puerto Rico's governor submitted a revised fiscal plan overnight Thursday that estimates the U.S. Caribbean territory's economy will shrink by 11 percent and its population drop by nearly 8 percent next year. The island is continuing to recover from the crippling impact of Hurricane Maria.
The proposal doesn't set aside any money to pay creditors in the next five years as the island struggles to restructure a portion of its $73 billion public debt. The original plan had set aside $800 million a year for creditors, a fraction of the roughly $35 billion due in interest and payments over the next decade.
The five-year plan also assumes Puerto Rico will receive at least $35 billion in emergency federal funds for post-hurricane recovery and another $22 billion from private insurance companies.
Some analysts view that assumption as risky given that the U.S. Treasury Department and U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency recently told Puerto Rico officials that they are temporarily withholding billions of dollars approved by Congress last year for post-hurricane recovery because they felt the island currently had sufficient funds.
A spokesman for Gerardo Portela, director of the island's Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, said he was not immediately available for comment.
The plan does not call for layoffs or new taxes. Instead, Gov. Ricardo Rossello once again called for labor and tax reforms and the privatization of the island's power company to help generate revenue and promote economic development amid an 11-year recession. He noted that nearly half of the island's 3.3 million inhabitants lived in poverty prior to the hurricane and that Puerto Rico still faces an 11 percent unemployment rate. Nearly half a million people have fled for the U.S. mainland in the past decade in search of jobs and a more affordable cost of living.
"We must work as a government to prevent this from happening, and that's what we're focused on," he said.
Rossello said an original $350 million cut to the island's 78 municipalities will not be immediately imposed as they struggle post-hurricane. Instead, he said they will receive more money than usual in upcoming years.
Rossello also called for reducing several taxes, including an 11.5 percent sales-and-use tax to 7 percent for prepared food. More than 30 percent of power customers remain in the dark more than four months after Hurricane Maria, forcing many to spend their dwindling savings on eating out.
A federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico's finances has to approve of the plan, which it envisions doing by Feb. 23.
"The Oversight Board views implementing structural reforms and investing in critical infrastructure as key to restoring economic growth and increasing confidence of residents and businesses," Natalie Jaresko, the board's executive director, said in a statement Thursday. "Our focus in certifying the revised plans will be to ensure they reflect Puerto Rico's post-hurricane realities."
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