Puerto Ricans likely to oust dozens of lawmakers

January 19, 2012 - 4:35 AM
Puerto Rico Punishing Politicians

In this photo taken on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2012, Senator Juan Eugenio Hernandez Mayoral attends a regular session of the Senate at the Capitol in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A voter referendum will ask the people of the U.S. island territory if they want to amend their Constitution and fire dozens of members of their Senate and House of Representatives as a cost-savings measure, reducing the size of the legislature by almost 30 percent. The answer is almost certain to be a resounding yes. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Lawmakers in Puerto Rico have been accused of corruption, cocaine use and domestic violence, feeding scorn among a public already seething over a dismal economy and rampant crime.

Now, it may be payback time.

Voters on the U.S. island territory are being asked if they want to amend their Constitution and fire dozens of members of their Senate and House of Representatives, cutting costs and reducing the size of the legislature by almost 30 percent.

The answer is almost certain to be a resounding yes in the technically binding referendum.

"They should all be kicked out," said Miguel Garcia, a 58-year-old engineer, after the governor recently signed the bill authorizing the Aug. 19 referendum. "They don't do anything ... They think the people are blind."

It's a popular sentiment on the island, where local politics, especially the endless debate over Puerto Rico's relationship to the U.S., is an obsession.

In good times and bad, disdain for politicians is widespread. But Puerto Ricans have perhaps more reasons to complain given the number of scandals involving lawmakers and salaries that make them more highly paid than most of their U.S. counterparts. Their incomes put them in the upper echelon in an island where nearly half the people are poor and unemployment hovers around 16 percent in a recession-battered economy.

Add to the mix last year's record number of homicides, high costs for water and power and crumbling schools, and you get an electorate in a sour mood. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have left in recent years in the largest exodus in decades.

"The government does not respect the people's wishes," said Pedro Villanueva, a 65-year-old retiree who voted in favor of a previous failed effort to eliminate one house of the legislature and make it unicameral. "The government does whatever it wants."

The legislation authorizing the referendum was passed by both houses, which are dominated by Fortuno's pro-statehood party. The idea of the referendum appealed to voters in an election year.

The measure would reduce the Senate from 27 seats to 17 and shrink the House from 51 seats to 39 starting in 2017. Fortuno says it would make the legislature more efficient.

In a November poll by Gaither International, one of the Caribbean's leading market research companies, 81 percent of respondents said they would go to the polls and vote in favor of the cuts. The survey of 1,150 people had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The majority of lawmakers from the opposition Popular Democratic Party oppose the proposed changes.

Sen. Cirilo Tirado said the cuts will make lawmakers less responsive to the people.

"It does not resolve anything," he said, arguing that the money saved would just be spent elsewhere.

"People have to understand that it's not just about eliminating legislators because 'I'm mad with the legislative assembly,'" he said. "They are going to lose representation before the executive system ... It is a danger to democracy."

Tirado said it would be easier for big business interests to sway a smaller legislature. But he agrees with those who say the salary and stipends that legislators receive are excessive.

Puerto Rican legislators receive $74,000 in base salary, behind only what legislators in California and New York make. The speaker of the Puerto Rico Senate makes nearly $111,000. Legislators also receive between $152 to $160 as a daily food stipend.

That pay irks Jaime Mendez, a 48-year-old truck driver who moved with his wife back to Puerto Rico from New York four years ago.

"They don't vote and they don't do anything," he said.

The Senate's budget is $38.2 million, while the House of Representatives spends $47 million. The government has not said how much would be saved if the referendum passes.

A series of scandals also has damaged lawmakers' reputation.

In January 2009, former Sen. Jorge de Castro Font pleaded guilty to corruption for trading political favors for cash and services.

In early 2011, former Rep. Luis Farinacci stepped down after he was accused of domestic violence against his wife. A jury found him not guilty in June, and despite pledges to run again, Farinacci disappeared from the political scene.

Last February, House Majority Whip Rolando Crespo resigned after he said he tested positive for cocaine in a surprise and mandatory drug test.

Just this month, Rep. Jose Luis Rivera Guerra was referred to the ethics committee after acknowledging to reporters that he stole water and power from the government for his private residences.

"Voters are very mad with the government. And with good reason," said Noel Colon Martinez, an attorney and political analyst who once ran for governor as member of the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

But he argued that the referendum "does not address the real demands that the people are making of the legislative assembly." He favors a vote on having a part-time legislature with lower salaries and benefits.

The vote for a unicameral legislature in 2004 passed with 84 percent, but legislators challenged the vote in court and ultimately won their battle in the island's Supreme Court. Some voters fear this vote too will be bypassed, while others says nothing will improve even with a smaller legislature.

"I don't believe in politicians very much," said Laura Guzman, a 58-year-old administrative assistant. "Obviously not many of them are qualified. Bigger, smaller, if the people don't change, things will stay the same."