***VIDEO RELEASE*** Menendez Denounces GOP Budget, Demands Equal Treatment for Puerto Ricans in Disaster Relief Bill

***VIDEO RELEASE*** Menendez Denounces GOP Budget, Demands Equal Treatment for Puerto Ricans in Disaster Relief Bill

Menendez: We need people saved, not bondholders paid

WASHINGTON, D.C. –Following a vote on the final passage of the Republican budget resolution, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) spoke on the Senate floor denouncing the GOP plan that would add $1.5 trillion to the debt in order to pay for massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. He also called on the U.S. federal government to offer equal treatment to Puerto Ricans in the pending disaster relief bill to help the island rebuild after Hurricane Maria.

 “I’m concerned that the package we’re considering now is both inadequate in scope and unfair in treatment.  Inadequate, because it’s just a fraction of what Puerto Rico needs to recover.  Unfair, because it treats the people of Puerto Rico different than Florida and Texas,” said Sen. Menendez.  “…[U]nlike Florida and Texas, the majority of Puerto Rico’s assistance is coming in the form of a loan. While there are a lot of things the people of Puerto Rico need from their federal government, one thing they absolutely don’t need and simply cannot afford is billions of dollars of more debt.

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As 3.5 million Americans anxiously wait in the dark and wonder when substantial help will arrive to Puerto Rico, the Senate will soon vote on a disaster relief bill that includes a $4.9 billion loan for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of a $36.5 billion package to help recover from hurricanes and wildfires.

 “And while disaster loans are normally used to keep people safe and start the recovery process, this legislation gives the Secretaries of Treasury and Homeland Security the authority to control how Puerto Rico spends the money,” Sen. Menendez continued.  “So if Secretary Mnuchin decides that some – most - or even all of the loan should be used to pay off his friends on Wall Street, there’s nothing Puerto Rico can do to stop him.  What a tragedy it would be if instead of helping our most vulnerable citizens, this loan was used to pay off vulture funds.  We need people saved, not bondholders paid.”

 Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

“Mr. President, I rise today in shock.  In shock that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have passed a budget that throws away years of rhetoric about fiscal conservatism.  The Senate just passed a budget that adds $1.5 trillion dollars trillion to our national debt.  A budget that slashes senior’s healthcare by $473 billion dollars.  Decimates the Medicaid program with cuts of over $1 trillion over the next decade.

“In total, the Republican budget would cut more than $5 trillion over the next decade from education, health care, affordable housing, child care, nutrition assistance, transportation and other programs that all Americans rely on. 

“So the question many New Jerseyans will be asking me is why?  Why did the Republicans in Congress add a trillion and a half dollars to our national debt while slashing the Medicare program?  Why did Senate Republicans vote to eliminate the State and Local Tax Deduction that would disproportionately hurt middle- and working-class families in New Jersey? The answer is simple…to provide massive tax breaks to corporate interests and the special interests.  This has been the Republican agenda for as long as I can remember. 

“What I find most galling is this budget plan is meant to set up a reconciliation process to pass the Trump Tax Plan.  A plan which, by their own admission will raise taxes on some middle class families.  Think about that -- the Republican party is not only adding $1.5 billion to the debt to pay for massive takes breaks for the wealthiest among us – they aren’t even guaranteeing that middle-class taxes won’t go up.

“What the Republican budget proposal fails to realize is that budgets are not just about numbers.  Budgets are about people -- their hopes, their dreams, their expectations for a better life for themselves and their children.

“So my view is this budget sells America short. It is not what the American people believe our collective values should be.  Hard working families want us to work together and pass a budget that addresses their concerns.  They want safe communities, not a budget that threatens to cut the firefighter grants stretching local budgets even thinner.  They want peace of mind when they reach their golden years, not a budget that raises their healthcare costs.  They want a tax proposal that cuts taxes for the middle-class and working people, not one that gives more tax breaks to the folks that have been rigging the system against us.

“People are willing to do their part, if everyone is sharing in the sacrifice, but the Republican budget fails the test.  It fails to recognize that we are all in this together and should benefit together, sacrifice together – each of us working together for the betterment of all of us.

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“Another area where it’s critical that we come together, not as 50 separate states, but as the United States of America, is to help the 3.4 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico.  And I have serious concerns the disaster relief package currently being considered by Congress falls short.

“Tomorrow will mark one month since Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction, despair and suffering.  One month later and still, 88 percent of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico don’t have power. One month later and still one-third of the island lacks access to clean, safe, drinking water.  And outside the city of San Juan, the situation is even worse, as nearly two-thirds of people still remain without water.

“I want to pause for a moment and let that sink in.  Think about it.  An entire month without clean water – water to bathe, to cook with, or to simply drink.  How many of us can even imagine such an existence?

“More than half of the island’s cell towers are down, which is not just an inconvenience, it’s a threat to safety.  Imagine the sense of isolation and desperation, when your power is out, you’ve run out of potable water, with none on the way, and you can’t even call for help.

“As bad as it looks on TV, the situation on the ground is tragically worse.  And I’m concerned that the package we’re considering now is both inadequate in scope and unfair in treatment.  Inadequate, because it’s just a fraction of what Puerto Rico needs to recover.  Unfair, because it treats the people of Puerto Rico different than Florida and Texas. 

“While all three areas were devastated by natural disasters, only Puerto Rico is being required to pay back federal disaster assistance.  That’s right, unlike Florida and Texas, the majority of Puerto Rico’s assistance is coming in the form of a loan.

“While there are a lot of things the people of Puerto Rico need from their federal government, one thing they absolutely don’t need and simply cannot afford is billions of dollars of more debt. 

“And this isn’t a normal disaster loan - no.  Just like everything else with Puerto Rico, this loan comes with a major stipulation.  While disaster loans are normally forgiven according to a standard formula under the Stafford Act, this package overrules longstanding law and leaves the decision entirely in the hands of the Secretaries of Treasury and Homeland Security. 

“And while disaster loans are normally used to keep people safe and start the recovery process, this legislation gives the Secretaries of Treasury and Homeland Security the authority to control how Puerto Rico spends the money.  So if Secretary Mnuchin decides that some, most, or even all of the loan should be used to pay off his friends on Wall Street, there’s nothing Puerto Rico can do to stop him. 

“So instead of being treated like the rest of the country, Puerto Rico is left at the mercy of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin.  They’re at the mercy of someone who made his fortune off the backs of seniors and hardworking families who lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis.  Do we really think that someone who callously rejected the pleas of struggling families to save their homes and instead put them on the fast track to foreclosure is going to suddenly change his ways now?

“Does anyone really believe that he is going to put the people of Puerto Rico first?  What a tragedy it would be if instead of helping our most vulnerable citizens, this loan was used in whole or in part to pay off vulture funds.  We need people saved, not bondholders paid.

“We need a response that answers Puerto Rico’s call.  Instead of continuing to treat Puerto Rico like a foreign country, making them start a tab with the U.S. Treasury while they’re vulnerable and pleading for help – we need to treat them just like their fellow American citizens in Florida and Texas. 

“We need to provide unconditional assistance – real dollars to rebuild roads, the electrical grid, and get people back in their homes and businesses.  We need to address the massive Medicaid cliff, which is forcing even more doctors and nurses off the island and threatening the health of the people of Puerto Rico.  And we need strong protections to make sure the disaster relief stays with the people of Puerto Rico and goes where it’s needed most. 

“M. President, I grew up believing the United States was the greatest country the world has ever seen.  I still believe that today as strongly as ever.  But ultimately, our response is not just about the people of Puerto Rico, but about us all.  It’s about our values, who we are as a people, as a nation.  How we respond to this crisis will test the collective conscience of our nation – it will define us.”

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