Why the Sanders-Warren Plan for Puerto Rico Is a Model for Climate Legislation

To repair after disasters—and prevent future ones—we can’t be afraid to spend public money on things people need.

Kate Aronoff December 5, 2017

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attends a news conference to discuss 'a comprehensive plan to address the immediate humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and ensure that the islands are able to rebuild in a way that empowers them to thrive on November 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Sen­a­tors Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren last week unveiled a bill propos­ing the cre­ation of a $146 bil­lion Mar­shall Plan” to recov­er and repair the storm-rav­aged economies in Puer­to Rico and the U.S. Vir­gin Islands — by reliev­ing the ter­ri­to­ries’ over­whelm­ing debt and invest­ing heav­i­ly in low-car­bon, storm-resilient eco­nom­ic development.

Building in more democratic control of the Puerto Rican economy could also be a way to head off corporate interests that tend to swoop in post-disaster.

As Repub­li­cans all but aban­don the guise of deficit hawk­ish­ness with their tril­lion-dol­lar-plus tax plan, such ambi­tious spend­ing pro­pos­als could be a mod­el not just for dis­as­ter response, but for Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­cy­mak­ing going for­ward. There are few paths to deal­ing ade­quate­ly with cli­mate change that won’t involve large-scale pub­lic invest­ment. In that, Sanders and Warren’s Mar­shall Plan” could mod­el a way that U.S. pol­i­cy can help pick up the pieces after cli­mate-fueled storms — and help stop Hur­ri­cane Maria-style heavy weath­er from becom­ing more likely.

Many are strug­gling to get clean drink­ing water, and more than 100,000 peo­ple have left Puer­to Rico alone,” Sanders said in a press con­fer­ence with sev­er­al of the bill’s co-spon­sors last Tues­day morn­ing. This is not accept­able, and we are here today to tell the peo­ple of Puer­to Rico and tell the peo­ple of the Vir­gin Islands that they are not for­got­ten, they are not alone, and that we intend to do every­thing pos­si­ble to rebuild those beau­ti­ful islands.”

More than two months on from Hur­ri­cane Maria, up to 60 per­cent of res­i­dents in the U.S. Vir­gin Islands remain with­out elec­tric­i­ty and sev­er­al basic ser­vices, accord­ing to a late Novem­ber report from the Depart­ment of Ener­gy. Large swathes of Puer­to Rico remain with­out pow­er as well.

The plans laid out in the bill are wide-rang­ing. It stip­u­lates that $51 bil­lion would be devot­ed to eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment on the island, and $27 bil­lion would go toward rebuild­ing downed, dam­aged and neglect­ed infra­struc­ture — includ­ing the island’s long-belea­guered elec­tric util­i­ty. An addi­tion­al $62 bil­lion would go to repay­ing Puer­to Rico’s at least $74 bil­lion in munic­i­pal debt. Spe­cif­ic pro­vi­sions cov­er every­thing from grants for local agri­cul­ture to par­i­ty for Med­ic­aid and Medicare pay­ments to addi­tion­al funds for the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs to financ­ing for a rapid scale-up of the island’s renew­able ener­gy capac­i­ty. The plan also hands con­trol of restora­tion pro­grams over to Puer­to Ricans, stat­ing that the peo­ple of Puer­to Rico and their elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives should deter­mine the long-term future of the island.”

Build­ing in more demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of the Puer­to Rican econ­o­my could also be a way to head off cor­po­rate inter­ests that tend to swoop in post-dis­as­ter. We’ve all read Nao­mi Klein’s The Shock Doc­trine,” said Sanders’ cli­mate and ener­gy advi­sor Katie Thomas, who worked exten­sive­ly on the bill. “[Sanders] said we need to do every­thing we can to pre­vent the Shock Doc­trine-iza­tion of this sit­u­a­tion. He want­ed infor­ma­tion on what had hap­pened after Kat­ri­na, when so much of the pub­lic infra­struc­ture was either pri­va­tized or elim­i­nat­ed. We want­ed to be clear that we don’t want any­thing like that to hap­pen in the future in Puer­to Rico or the Vir­gin Islands.”

Accord­ing to Thomas, the bill emerged in part from the Senator’s Octo­ber trip to the island and a series of real­ly pro­duc­tive round­table con­ver­sa­tions with dozens of labor lead­ers, may­ors and lead­ers want­i­ng to rebuild Puer­to Rico back stronger than it was before.” While the bill ini­tial­ly came about as a way to deal with the island’s elec­tric­i­ty grid — vir­tu­al­ly lev­eled dur­ing Maria and in dire dis­re­pair before that — that vis­it and sub­se­quent talks with peo­ple on the island pushed them to con­sid­er a broad­er strat­e­gy, Thomas told In These Times.

Even before Maria hit, the U.S.-appointed fis­cal con­trol board in Puer­to Rico — the body now over­see­ing the island’s finances — had its eye on pri­va­tiz­ing the Puer­to Rico Elec­tric Pow­er Author­i­ty (PREPA), the island’s monop­oly elec­tric util­i­ty. The jun­ta,” as the con­trol board is known col­lo­qui­al­ly on the island, is charged with restruc­tur­ing Puer­to Rico’s debt. The bill that cre­at­ed the jun­ta, PROME­SA, was intend­ed to act as a medi­a­tor between cred­i­tors and the Puer­to Rican gov­ern­ment. While it’s kept the vul­ture funds that hold Puer­to Rico’s debt at bay from demand­ing total repay­ment, that pro­tec­tion has come at the expense of deep cuts to the island’s pub­lic ser­vices and a push to sell pub­lic enti­ties off to pri­vate bid­ders. PREPA was at the top of the con­trol board’s pri­va­ti­za­tion wish list before Maria. After the storm hit, the board took sev­er­al more steps in that direction.

Sanders’ bill would bar the pri­va­ti­za­tion of any pub­lic enti­ty receiv­ing funds from the U.S. gov­ern­ment, effec­tive­ly mak­ing it impos­si­ble to pri­va­tize PREPA for the fore­see­able future.

Thomas also explained that one of the bill’s main pri­or­i­ties is not hav­ing U.S. offi­cials decide what recov­ery looks like in either of the ter­ri­to­ries aid­ed by the bill or pub­lic enti­ties like PREPA. It’s real­ly impor­tant to us that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is not mak­ing deci­sions for the peo­ple of Puer­to Rico,” she said by phone. We didn’t think it was appro­pri­ate for us to say what the future of PREPA should be, because we don’t think that’s an appro­pri­ate role for the fed­er­al government.”

Instead, the bill would entrust the Puer­to Rico Ener­gy Com­mis­sion — the reg­u­la­to­ry body that over­sees PREPA, cre­at­ed in 2014 — with over­see­ing plans for pow­er restora­tion, with its coun­ter­part per­form­ing the same func­tion in the U.S. Vir­gin Islands. Rather than restor­ing PREPA to its sta­tus pre-storm, the bill would fur­ther pri­or­i­tize both get­ting pow­er online as quick­ly as pos­si­ble and tran­si­tion­ing rapid­ly over to renew­able fuels, which are both less expen­sive and more storm resilient for the import-depen­dent island. While an out­age at a fos­sil fueled cen­tral sta­tion gen­er­a­tor can leave thou­sands of peo­ple with­out elec­tric­i­ty, pan­els can often remain online and pro­vide pow­er amidst grid failures.

For David Ortiz, the Lati­no cli­mate action net­work direc­tor for El Puente, expand­ing renew­able ener­gy goes hand-in-hand with expand­ing eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties in Puer­to Rico, where he lives. Ortiz, who con­sult­ed with Sanders’s office on the bill in the lead-up to its release, told In These Times, Eco­nom­i­cal­ly we’ve real­ly been hit, almost destroyed.

What we need to do is be able to think of mul­ti­ple ways of gen­er­at­ing renew­able ener­gy so that folks have access to it,” Ortiz con­tin­ued, be it through small com­mu­ni­ty grids or through rooftop solar. But we also need to pre­pare our work­ers for that shift, and con­tin­ue to have employ­ment and sup­port for them. What we don’t want is for oth­er com­pa­nies from out­side to come into the island, because we’ll con­tin­ue to have more mon­ey go out­side of the island.”

He described going recent­ly to a usu­al­ly-busy part of Old San Juan with his wife and fam­i­ly, and find­ing the nor­mal­ly packed park­ing lot they use filled with just a few cars, and sev­er­al stores in the area’s main busi­ness dis­trict shut­tered. You can’t help but to wor­ry about the future of Puer­to Rico’s econ­o­my,” he told me. Ortiz sees the bill as a real­ly holis­tic approach to deal­ing with the crisis.”

There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly rad­i­cal about the idea of spend­ing pub­lic funds on the kinds of things that get economies back on their feet, from job cre­ation to mas­sive infra­struc­ture invest­ment. Repub­li­cans and even Democ­rats tend to swat down ambi­tious spend­ing pro­pos­als as waste­ful. The faint sil­ver lin­ing of the GOP’s suc­cess with the tax bill is that they can’t claim with any author­i­ty to care much at all about the size of a fed­er­al deficit they just pledged to increase by as much as $2 tril­lion over the next 10 years.

Though sev­er­al details of the ini­tia­tive would be left up to offi­cials in Puer­to Rico, the new Mar­shall Plan’s struc­ture lays out an attrac­tive mod­el for ambi­tious cli­mate pol­i­cy on the main­land — that is, demo­c­ra­t­ic cli­mate action and dis­as­ter response that talks more about what it will do for work­ers and the econ­o­my than for the plan­et. If we have the mon­ey for tax cuts for cor­po­ra­tions and the ultra-wealthy, then we have the mon­ey to make the kinds of pro-work­er eco­nom­ic trans­for­ma­tions the cli­mate cri­sis demands. With Sanders and Warren’s bill, Puer­to Rico and the U.S. Vir­gin Islands could show the way for­ward to a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that isn’t afraid to spend mon­ey on the things we need.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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