House members and financial experts said Tuesday a “team of neutrals” is needed to oversee Puerto Rico’s budget and get its fiscal house in order, as the island scrambles to pay its debts and stave off drastic service cuts to its 3.5 million residents.
The U.S. territory’s debt is slated to grow by $27 billion over five years, on top of $70 billion the territory already owes. That sea of red ink is heaping pressure on Congress to swoop in with a legislative recovery package by the March 31 deadline set by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.
Members of the House Natural Resources Committee, including Puerto Rico’s nonvoting delegate, said a financial control board could help the island write responsible budgets and kick-start economic growth, so long as it treats Puerto Rico as a partner.
Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, urged Congress to rely on former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams — as the city’s chief financial officer, he worked with a congressionally mandated control board in the 1990s — and other financial gurus to craft an effective bill.
“If we write it by ourselves, we’ll screw it up,” Mr. Young said during his hearing on Puerto Rico’s woes.
Puerto Rico is cobbling together what it can to meet its bond payments without slashing health care, education and other services. It must pay $400 million to satisfy debts by May 1, with additional payments due in June, according to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who visited the island last week.