Puerto Rico Relief Bill Cancels $16 Billion in Debt — But Not for Puerto Rico

The House bill cancels $16 billion of the National Flood Insurance Program's debt while loaning Puerto Rico $5 billion -- money it will have to pay back.

UTUADO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 06:  A man walks through a road that has been turned into a river caused by heavy rains after Hurricane Maria passed through on October 6, 2017 in Utuado, Puerto Rico. The neighborhood continues to wait for government aid to arrive almost 15 days after the hurricane hit the island.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A man walks through a road that has been turned into a river caused by heavy rains after Hurricane Maria passed through on October 6, 2017 in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

House Republicans unveiled a $36.5 billion disaster relief supplemental package Tuesday night, intended to pay for relief and rebuilding efforts for the floods, hurricanes, and wildfires of the past several months. It includes money for Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggle with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, though only a fraction of that headline number. In fact, $5 billion of the funds earmarked for Puerto Rico comes in the form of a loan, increasing the amount of money the island will eventually need to pay back.

And in a cruel irony, the bill also contains $16 billion in debt relief — just not for Puerto Rico’s crushing debt.

The full House chamber will vote on the bill from the House Appropriations Committee this week. Here’s a breakdown of the $36.5 billion in aid that the committee proposed:

There’s $576.5 million in U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior grants for wildfire suppression and management. The western U.S. in particular has been rocked by a dangerous wildfire season, including ongoing blazes in Northern California that have killed 17.

Another $18.67 billion is intended to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief fund, particularly for events caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. That means Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands will share that money, as determined by FEMA. The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general gets $10 million of that for audits and investigations of the use of relief funds.

Puerto Rico will get a loan of $4.9 billion out of that same pot, money to be used for maintaining basic government operations. President Donald Trump had previously requested that amount in loan form. With practically no tax receipts collected since last month’s hurricane destroyed the island — 85 percent of homes remain without power three weeks after the storm — Puerto Rico faces a cash-flow crisis. Officials estimate that the government could run out of money and have to shut down on October 31.

This is critical for Puerto Rico, which has had trouble borrowing from private credit markets because of its existing $74 billion debt. But instead of replenishing the coffers with a grant, this is a loan — one Puerto Rico will also need to repay.

The island will get an additional $150 million loan to cover its matching funds for FEMA grants. Cities and states are required to put a small amount of money into sharing costs for disaster relief. That brings the total of loans to the island up to $5.05 billion. The appropriations committee allotted another $29 million for administrative expenses for the loan.

The bill includes a provision enabling the Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury Department to decide to cancel the loan, but that’s no guarantee. And those two agencies set the terms of repayment; while news reports have described a “low-interest” loan, there’s no set interest rate in the text of the bill.

If you’re keeping up with the math, that leaves $13.58 billion of the $18.67 billion in disaster relief. Puerto Rico would have to share that amount with two far more populous states and another territory.

There is one definitive grant to Puerto Rico in the bill: $1.27 billion for “disaster nutrition assistance,” which is basically an extension of the food stamp program for citizens affected by the hurricane. This type of assistance is standard for disaster areas in the continental United States but needs to be enumerated for the territory.

The final $16 billion in the bill goes to the National Flood Insurance Program, battered by claims payouts from the season’s hurricanes, particularly in Houston after Harvey. And this is where the bill takes on an almost comic level of bad optics.

The way the flood insurance program works is that homeowners pay premiums and file claims when they encounter flood damage. Because premiums are too low and people still build in flood plains over and over, the program has not been able to keep up. So NFIP took out a line of credit with the Treasury Department — capped by law at $30.4 billion — to cover claims. Last month, NFIP reached that borrowing ceiling.

Funds to pay claims are expected to run out this month, so the House bill cancels $16 billion of NFIP’s debt. “To the extent of the amount cancelled … the National Flood Insurance Fund are relieved of all liability to the Secretary of the Treasury under any such notes or other obligations,” the bill states. “The amount of the indebtedness cancelled … may be treated as public debt of the United States.”

This is like the famous meme of the guy checking out a girl with his girlfriend standing right next to him, only the guy is the GOP, the girl he’s checking out is the NFIP, and the girlfriend is Puerto Rico. In a bill intended to give relief to Puerto Rico, the island gets a thin amount of guaranteed aid and a vague level of other funding, along with $5 billion in loans. Meanwhile, in the words of President Donald Trump, the NFIP gets its debt “wiped out.”

The difference between NFIP and Puerto Rico is that the Treasury Department holds the former’s debt, while the island owes money to private investors. Still, Congress has the ability to change the terms of Puerto Rico’s current bankruptcy-style process, or even to buy up that debt eminent domain-style for what it deems just compensation, only to cancel it later. And Congress could certainly give Puerto Rico grants rather than another $5 billion in loans to deal with. Meanwhile, creditors will be lining up to try to claim portions of the aid intended for Puerto Rico, a complication Democrats in Congress are working to sort out. Getting their hedge-fund hands on the loan money could legally prove more difficult. 

The House will vote on the bill this week, and the Senate is likely to follow next week. The bill is in line with White House requests for disaster aid and bridge funding for Puerto Rico, so Trump would likely sign it.

Meanwhile, activist groups have turned their focus to Puerto Rico, with environmental groups demanding mass debt relief from Congress and teaming up with community organizations for a national day of action.

Top photo: A man walks through a road that has been turned into a river caused by heavy rains after Hurricane Maria passed through on Oct. 6, 2017 in Utuado, Puerto Rico.

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