Puerto Rico Daily Sun
By Stefan Antonmattei
After considerable figurative arm twisting, House Speaker Jenniffer González obtained the necessary 36 votes required to pass the legislation that will reduce -- by 2017-- the number of representatives and senators in the Puerto Rico legislature. Sixteen legislators voted against the measure. The Senate has already passed a similar bill.
The New Progressive Party bill calls for a referendum in which voters would decide if they want to amend the Constitution and reduce the number of legislators from 78 to 56, in the House from 51 to 39 members, and in the Senate from 27 to 17 (11 district senators and six at-large senators). The measure will now go to a House and Senate conference to resolve any differences. The bill would become effective on Jan. 2, 2017.
At a time when the Puerto Rico legislature has a very low approval rate from potential voters, the leaders of the Popular Democratic Party called on Thursday for a change in the work ethic of the island’s representatives and senators. The statements were made earlier in the day against the NPP proposal to have a referendum, probably in March 2012, to amend the Constitution to reduce the number of members in the legislative body.
“The NPP legislators live in a marble bubble and do not represent the common citizen,” said PDP President Alejandro García Padilla at a press conference at party headquarters.
“Their proposal is completely cosmetic. The measure, which would be implemented in 2017 — six years from now — would reduce the number of members but not the budget for payroll and benefits. What they are doing, indeed, is getting a salary increase at the same time the common citizen gets a 12 percent hike in the electric bill — when they were promised a reduction.”
García Padilla said his party would vote with the NPP majority if they included the following amendments: a single regular legislative session (instead of two), a change in the member compensation, the introduction of the citizen legislator, and an effective date of 2013, not 2017.
“If the NPP is unwilling to consider these measures, the PDP will do so [upon winning the next elections],” said García Padilla. Rep. Héctor Ferrer, PDP vice president, said that “since 2009, the PDP has presented many of these proposals before the House of Representatives [HB 3556 and 3557]. If they [the NPP] truthfully want to transform the legislative assembly, today, we present once again legislation to do so and there are no excuses to not have them approved.”
The NPP is now expected to introduce a bill to create a new electoral redistribution. The measure would add two new members, one appointed by the House and another by the Senate to the committee that maps representative and senatorial districts. The current structure includes two persons nominated by the governor and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
“This is the NPP poison pill and will result in nothing more than legislative gerrymandering,” said Ferrer, who added “they are cheating” with regards to how the electoral redistricting would favor the NPP.
The House needed exactly 36 votes to pass the bill. The NPP delegation numbers 37, but several representatives had gone on record against the measure, including David Bonilla, Elizabeth Casado, Eric Correa, Waldemar Quiles, Rafael “June” Rivera, and Ángel “Gary” Rodíguez. According to press reports, Quiles and Rivera voted in favor of the measure.
Guaynabo Mayor Héctor O’Neill, a former two-term senator (in 1988 and 1992), called the bill “cosmetic.” Although the mayor favors a reduction in membership, he says the bill should also include the return of the citizen representative who only receives a per diem and not the $73,755 annual salary legislators currently receive. According to O’Neill, the bill should also include term limits and a reduction many of the benefits received by legislators. O’Neill became mayor in 1993 after the death of then Mayor Alejandro “Junior” Cruz.
García Padilla said at the press conference that “the proposal by the NPP does not reduce legislators’ salaries nor the many benefits like car allowance and per diems, it does not reduce the legislative body from two [Senate and House] to one — as was approved in a referendum in 2007 — and does not make the legislator a citizen representative.”
The car stipend alone is estimated to cost the taxpayer more than $1 million a year while the amount paid in salaries nears $6 million annually. On average, a member of the legislative body earns nearly $150,000 a year between salaries, benefits, and stipends. The average salary for a Puerto Rican employee is about $15,000. According to the 2009 Puerto Rico Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census, the average family income in Puerto Rico was $31,355.
According to García Padilla, Puerto Rico has the second most expensive legislature — only California spends more on its legislative body—but it is number 45, out of the 50 states plus the territories, for the amount of representation. “The problem is the quality of legislator. We are seeking to give Puerto Rico a better legislator, a citizen legislator with a culture geared towards civil service,” said García Padilla.