Published January 08, 2013
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Leaders of the party that recently won control of Puerto Rico's legislature want put the House of Representatives on part-time status for the first time in nearly two decades.
The move would save millions of dollars and make the government of the U.S. territory more efficient, according to members of the Popular Democratic Party who made the announcement late Monday.
Just how long the House of Representatives would meet, and what members would be paid, is still under study by a commission, but the incoming president of the body, Jaime Perello, said the changes will be approved by July 1.
Lawmakers also plan to eliminate their food and transportation stipends and cut other costs by 30 percent reduction, he said.
Like more than a dozen U.S. states, Puerto Rico had a part-time, January-to-June legislature until 1997, when it moved to a full-time body aimed at tackling the island's growing problems.
Since then, pay for Puerto Rican legislators has risen to among the highest in any U.S. jurisdiction at nearly $74,000 a year on average. They also receive as much as $162 a day in food stipends and $1,460 in monthly transportation stipends.
Perello said that $3 million of the money saved will be used to investigate at least 42,000 child abuse cases that were never resolved, and another $1 million will be used to activate the National Guard to help fight crime, while $500,000 will go toward buying new equipment for the island's Institute of Forensic Science.
While the House majority is plunging ahead with the plan, the Senate has not yet agreed.
"The idea of a civilian legislator must be discussed as part of an open and in-depth process, with public hearings and with participation from everyone," said incoming Senate President Eduardo Bhatia, though he has promised to eliminate senators' food and travel stipends.
New Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who was sworn in on Jan. 2, has called for legislative reform and is widely expected to submit a bill calling for both houses of the legislature to work part-time.
Former Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, a member of the New Progressive Party, accused the new majority of "improvising and acting irresponsibly."
Even governing party Rep. Luis Vega Ramos expressed reservations, saying he worries about potential conflicts of interest involving legislators' other jobs. He suggested that cutting the legislature too far "would allow the executive branch to have an exclusive hold on the country's public agenda," and added, "We could unwittingly be upsetting the balance of power."