- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Forcing Puerto Rico to cut spending to deal with its debt could end up leaving the island territory even more vulnerable to the Zika virus, congressional Democrats warned Wednesday.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, Arizona Democrat and ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Puerto Rico has already started scaling back its health services to deal with $72 billion in bond debt.

He warned Republicans on Capitol Hill that requiring deeper cuts will result in even fewer services, which means even less ability to fight the mosquito-born virus that’s infected nearly 600 island residents, and killed one.

“As Congress considers legislation to help Puerto Rico emerge from this humanitarian crisis, further austerity measures must be off the table,” Mr. Grijalva said in a 12-page report. “A robust public health infrastructure and health care system are essential in fighting threats like Zika and recovering the economy.”

The Natural Resources Committee is trying to break through opposition from both parties and pass a bill designed to rescue Puerto Rico from its debt by imposing a fiscal oversight board and establishing mechanisms for the island to restructure its debts.

Republicans say the holdup is with the Obama administration, which is “still negotiating” the bill. The administration says that’s a smokescreen, and the real hurdle is internal GOP fights.

Conservative critics say the bill rewrites the rules from under creditors without addressing the runaway spending problems that led Puerto Rico to this point, raising the risk of a taxpayer bailout down the road.

Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to temper the reach of a seven-member oversight board that will make sure the local government sticks to its budgets.

“The handful of people on the oversight board would have the authority to make major fiscal decisions in an effort to steer the island toward recovery,” Mr. Grijalva’s report said. “Unfortunately, similar control boards elsewhere have done so by imposing more budget cuts. Given the suffering Puerto Rico has already endured, further austerity could have tragic consequences, especially as Zika gets a foothold on the island.”

The report cited an uptick in malaria and HIV cases after Greece tried to reel in its own debt crisis with austerity measures. Also, it said a state manager’s attempt to save money by switching the city of Flint’s water source to another Michigan river caused lead to leach from pipes, poisoning the drinking water.

A spokesman for Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, declined to comment on the Democrats’ report, saying his office would have to review it.

Though Democrats and the White House have alluded to Puerto Rico’s Zika plight before, they are increasingly using the burgeoning epidemic as a cudgel against Republican leaders who are still whipping support for their debt bill.

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew hit on the Zika theme on Monday, saying Puerto Rican hospitals have laid off workers and rationed services.

“Moreover, despite the intensifying threat from the Zika virus, financial constraints have made it extremely difficult to counteract,” he wrote to congressional leaders. “Unsealed septic tanks, abandoned homes, cemeteries, and piles of old tires, where mosquito larvae grow, for example, must all be treated, but the government is struggling to pay for the work to be done.”

The push comes amid a series of bleak headlines from the island. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday said a Zika patient died from severe thrombocytopenia, a decrease in platelets in the blood.

Three days later, the island missed a $422 million bond payment. Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla decreed a temporary moratorium on debt payments from the Government Development Bank, saying he had to put essential services for the island’s 3.5 million residents ahead of the bond holders.

Puerto Rico faces a $1 billion payment on July 1, ratcheting up pressure on Congress to act.

For his part, Speaker Paul D. Ryan says the bill before the House is the best chance to put the island on a path to prosperity and avoid a taxpayer bailout later.

“Without congressional action,” he said Tuesday, “things in Puerto Rico are going to go from bad to worse.”

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