Sen. Chris Murphy met with leaders of Connecticut’s Puerto Rican community on Monday to discuss his recent trip to the island and share concerns about disaster relief funding that President Trump is blocking from reaching the island.
“This president is hellbent on stopping the funds from getting to Puerto Rico that Congress appropriated,” Murphy said. Over the summer, Congress passed legislation demanding that President Trump release about $10 billion of disaster recovery money they had designated for Puerto Rico. They gave him 90 days to do so.
“That 90 days expired about a week and a half ago, and the president has still not released the money [to Puerto Rico]," he said, noting that Texas and Florida received funds. “It’s the law that when Congress appropriates money, the government has to spend it. He can’t choose not to spend money that Congress has appropriated.”
Murphy said President Trump is using the excuse of political instability in Puerto Rico as a reason to delay releasing the funds, even though governance is now settled under Wanda Vázquez Garced. Regardless, he said that government instability is separate from the disaster relief efforts and that the corruption that has occurred did so at the federal level, not on the ground in Puerto Rico.
“When the president is in violation of the law, your primary remedy is through the courts,” said Murphy, who met Monday morning with local leaders from the state’s Puerto Rican community at the offices of the Community Renewal Team in Hartford. "You can try to increase political pressure, or you can litigate in the courts.”
Although Murphy predicted that Puerto Rico’s governor could win a legal case against the funding delays, he think she is trying to negotiate with the federal government and maintain a positive relationship for now. He said Congress could theoretically apply political pressure as another government shutdown approaches in two weeks.
“We have no funding from the federal government past the 30th of this month,” he said. “We have about two legislative weeks to pass budgets, or pass a continuing resolution. When you’re at those moments, both sides have leverage.”
While Murphy plans to advocate for Puerto Rico during budget negotiations, he said it is difficult to negotiate with an administration that is happy to let the government shut down.
“We know what he wants. He wants the wall. That’s his only meaningful priority in these budget negotiations,” Murphy said. “We’re not giving him money for the wall. That’s not a negotiating point for us. Other than that, there’s not a lot to give him.”
During his trip to Puerto Rico, Murphy returned to the Caño Martín Peña neighborhood. “The Martín Peña neighborhood is the perfect example of the crisis that continues to multiply. That’s a neighborhood that still has 500 blue-tarp roofs for two years now,” he said. "No one in the continental United States would allow for children to be walking to and from school in literal sewage.”
He also met with local leaders and advocacy groups, but noted that much of the process to repair Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is held up by the lack of federal funding and representation in Washington.
“It comes back to representation. I try to pay as much attention as I can,” he said. “If Puerto Rico had two U.S. Senators, they could advocate for changes in [funding laws] very effectively.”
When local Connecticut leaders asked Murphy what could be done by the state to help fund Puerto Rico, he encouraged non-profit and private sector donations, but cautioned against states taking on the federal government’s responsibilities.
“The federal government responds to disasters in the United States, and Puerto Rico is part of the United States," he said. "It’s time to step up.”