- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 8, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is arguably becoming one of the nation’s most influential Puerto Rican politicians, is urging Congress and the Obama administration to step in and help the island commonwealth struggling under the weight of its debt.

Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico, said Wednesday that the situation in her native land was “a fiscal crisis” that required help from the superpower that sits 1,000 miles from its shores.

“My mother still lives there, my family still lives there. I hope to retire there someday,” Mark-Viverito told The Associated Press in her first comments on the matter. “This is very personal to me to see Puerto Rico in this situation.”

Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said last month the island’s $72 billion public debt is unpayable given the current level of economic growth. He is seeking a payment moratorium from bondholders - including the United States - as the commonwealth attempts to emerge from a nearly decade-long economic slump.

Mark-Viverito, a Democrat who was elected to the speakership last year, urged quick action to address the situation, which has become a popular debate topic among the 2016 presidential candidates in recent days.

She advocated Congress allowing Puerto Rico to restructure its debt, giving the U.S. territory the same ability as cities and public corporations under the bankruptcy code. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton advocated a similar strategy earlier this week.

“Congress is not a very friendly place these days,” said the liberal Mark-Viverito, “but we can’t wait.”

She also urged the Obama administration to issue executive orders that would ease the costs of shipping and health care on the island, which is mired in a prolonged economic slump.

“Young people are leaving year after year because there are better opportunities elsewhere,” said Mark-Viverito, who owns property in Puerto Rico and returns several times a year to visit the island where she lived before moving to Manhattan at age 18. “The big picture needs to change.”

Mark-Viverito, whose political clout has grown in recent months as she has become an outspoken voice on immigration and police reforms, said her team has spoken to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and leaders in other U.S. cities with large Puerto Rican populations to rally support and lobby Washington to help.

The White House has said it is not considering a federal bailout of Puerto Rico. Legislation allowing Puerto Rico to use Chapter 9 bankruptcy laws is pending in the House. In the Senate, Schumer and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are planning to propose companion legislation.


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