Opinion

The time for action on Puerto Rico is now

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It has been four months since Congress and President Barack Obama came together in an exceedingly rare bipartisan moment to enact PROMESA. For me and many other Puerto Ricans, this was not so much a proud moment, but rather a realization that the island’s economy had finally hit rock bottom.

With no other path forward, PROMESA, despite its faults, was the only option to stop the bleeding and what has become an exodus to the mainland. In the end, PROMESA secured overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both the House and Senate – a rarity in this day and age. Republicans and Democrats came together to help Puerto Rico restructure its debt so that the 3.5 million Americans that live there can have hope for a brighter future.

Now that we have moved on to the implementation stage, I have watched closely to see what PROMESA would become. So far, we have seen the appointment of the members of the oversight board and the initial submission by Gov. Alejandro García Padilla of the required fiscal plan. At this juncture, however, the jury is still out on whether the legislation will ultimately be successful. PROMESA’s effectiveness rests on whether the board will actually use all of the tools that Congress provided. Whatever the outcome is going forward, the board members will own the results and the legacy – for better or for worse – that comes with their immense responsibility.

The most powerful tool that the board has at its disposal – and the reason I voted for PROMESA – is the authority to restructure the island’s debt, a level of authority that Puerto Rico did not have prior to the law’s enactment. For many, this was the major selling point of the legislation – as it is the only way the island can reduce its outstanding obligations across all classes of debt, with no special interest carve-outs. If the board chooses not to employ the restructuring powers it was given, a debt spiral could consume the island, resulting in a humanitarian crisis, a further exodus to the mainland and civil unrest. With the expiration of the stay-on litigation as early as Feb. 15, 2017, the board must act now and begin the process of restructuring the island’s debt as soon as possible. Doing so is the only way to restore opportunity and dignity to the 3.5 million citizens that call the island home.

While the board’s decision to permit restructuring will be the most critical and closely watched announcement, there are other issues that bear our collective attention. Foremost is whether the board will steer the island toward austerity – as the European Union did to Greece – or to a more progressive economic model. Gov. García Padilla’s fiscal plan is promising, and I hope that the board embraces a vision where working-class families are not left behind.

In January, a new governor of Puerto Rico will take office and with that comes perhaps the greatest uncertainty. The new governor must work in a cooperative spirit with the board. PROMESA recognizes the importance of this relationship and for this reason vests the initial authority for establishing the fiscal plan and annual budgets with the governor. Without a productive partnership between the island executive and the board, the ultimate goal of revitalizing the island’s economy will be undermined.

But let me be clear, the board is now on the clock. Its seven members have come from all walks of life and are providing us with their time, knowledge and expertise. For this, we are all grateful. Make no mistake; the time for action is now and they will be held accountable for their decision of whether or not to use all of the potent tools that are included in PROMESA. This will be their legacy. Will they choose to help the island, its families, its children and those that have been forced to move to the mainland? Or will they chart a course toward austerity while sitting on their hands and failing to use the tools they were provided? Only time will tell, but we are all watching – and the clock is ticking.

Nydia Velázquez represents New York’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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