In a letter to congressional leaders, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew urged Congress to pass legislation to help Puerto Rico grapple with its more than $70 billion in debt.
Lew said he will visit Puerto Rico next week to meet with government officials to learn more about how they are trying to balance the budget. In the letter, he outlined how the Puerto Rican government is managing its money and the toll it has been taking on the 3.5 million Americans on the island.
“Puerto Rico is already in default. It is shifting funds from one creditor to pay another and has stopped payment altogether on several of its debts,” he wrote in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan that was also sent to Senate leaders. "As predicted, creditors are filing lawsuits."
The Puerto Rican government has been trying to pay back creditors by borrowing from state insurance funds, draining pension plans and withholding tax refunds to its citizens. Lew directly asked Ryan to push Congress to pass legislation allowing P.R. to restructure its debts before the end of March so President Obama could sign it into law.
Lew said federal legislation would improve health care policies and tackle Puerto Rico’s 12 percent unemployment rate.
“No administrative authority can put an end to this emergency; only Congress can enact the legislative measures necessary to fully resolve this problem,” Lew writes.
Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C., Pedro Pierluisi made a statement after Lew announced his visit, saying he is looking forward to a meeting with the Secretary.
“Today, Secretary Lew sent a letter to the top two leaders in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate to underscore the urgency of swift congressional action,” he said. “I want to be clear: I am not seeking a hand-out for Puerto Rico, but rather a hand-up. I am not asking for special treatment, but rather for equitable treatment.”
He continued saying U.S. states have the ability to restructure debts, and because Puerto Rico is a territory inhabited by American citizens, they should too.
“I am willing to make principled compromises, but Puerto Rico needs reasonable tools and equitable treatment,” Pierluisi said.
Also in the letter, Lew writes that 10 percent of the population has left since 2006, but the exodus has accelerated in 2015. As many as 3,000 people left the island each week in the first half of 2015.