WASHINGTON WATCH: June 22, 2021
THE LONG GAME: Republicans weigh options after SCOTUS ruling on ACA; Congress creates Juneteenth holiday
In a major—perhaps final—setback for Republicans intent on dismantling Obamacare, the Supreme Court turned aside the latest attempt to kill the Affordable Care Act. The justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that the 18 GOP-led states and two individuals who brought the case did not have standing. After the ruling, President Biden tweeted, “With millions of people relying on the Affordable Care Act for coverage, it remains, as ever, a BFD.” Some Republicans, meanwhile, signaled that they will weigh legislative options to address issues like affordability of health care, even if they do not seek an outright repeal of the law. The top three House Republicans, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY), said in a statement:“(T)he ruling does not change the fact that Obamacare failed to meet its promises and is hurting hard-working American families. Now, Congress must work together to improve American health care.” Congress voted overwhelmingly to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday and President Biden swiftly signed the bill into law. The holiday commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas were notified of their freedom, about two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The legislation was championed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and sponsored in the Senate by Ed Markey (D-MA). It is the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Day in 1983, and the twelfth overall.
Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.
Spotlight on Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands move closer to disbursement of nearly $2 billion for power grid reconstruction
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is set to take its next step in allocating funds assigned to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, by publishing a federal register notice for $1.93 billion in funding. This register notice will outline the rules governing the use of the funds, which is intended to be spent on fixing Puerto Rico’s battered power grid. Part of the funds will be assigned to the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose power grid also requires substantial intervention.
Community Development Block Grant—Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds were initially assigned in the year following Hurricane María to help fund reconstruction efforts on the Island. However, various rules set by the Trump Administration delayed the disbursement of the funds. In April, the Biden administration relaxed the rules. According to HUD, 90 percent of those funds have now been committed.
Puerto Rico coronavirus statistics for June 21
According to the Puerto Rico Health Department, 272,334 people are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, an increase of 1,701 since June 14. This points to a decrease in the rate of new cases, as the increase between June 7 and June 14 was 2,037. The death toll is currently 2,540, with 10 of those registered in the last week. Comparatively, 11 people died from the virus between June 7 and June 14.
Beginning on November 7, the Health Department changed the way it recorded cases, splitting them between confirmed cases (as determined by molecular diagnostic testing), probable cases (as determined by antigen testing) and suspicious cases (as determined by serological, non-diagnostic testing). Viewed through that prism, Puerto Rico has had 122,807 confirmed cases, 16,946 probable cases, and 132,581 suspicious cases since the virus arrived on the Island.
According to the Puerto Rico Health Department and its Puerto Rico Electric Immunization System (PREIS) a total of 1,579,479 people on the Island have been fully vaccinated, while 1,926,835 have received at least one dose. So far, 3,410,277 doses have been distributed, an increase of 126,571 since June 14, when the number was 3,283,706.
Loss of matching funds force municipalities to cut work hours for city employees
Local mayors are warning of the risks stemming from the elimination of the municipal Matching Fund, which is funded by municipal property taxes and is distributed among Puerto Rico’s municipalities. Since 2017, the Fund has been reduced by $44 million per year; it is expected to run out by 2024. Before the cuts began, the fund was worth $350 million.
According to reports, municipalities find themselves scrambling to meet payrolls. Nine municipalities— Guánica, Maunabo, Cabo Rojo, Utuado, Yauco, Florida, Guayanilla, Las Piedras y Patillas—have been forced to cut work hours for thousands of their workers, and subsequently their income, sometimes by as much as a third.
Recently, some mayors have found relief thanks to federal measures such as the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, which have provided much-needed additional income. Post-María reconstruction is also expected to add additional funds to municipal coffers. However, these are non-recurrent funds, and eventually municipalities will face more difficult choices when the federal payments stop. “When the federal aid runs out, in 2024, there’s not going to be a small or midsize municipality that will endure the crunch. All will have to close,” said Luis Javier Hernández, mayor of Villalba and president of the Puerto Rico Mayors Association.
Group to advise governor on sports betting industry
Governor Pedro Pierlusi announced that a new group has been created to advise his office on the potential benefits of implementing sports betting in Puerto Rico. An estimated $40 million in annual revenue could be generated for local governments by the sports betting, electronic games and fantasy sports industries, with half of the revenues going toward retirement funds for public employees. The advisory group will include Orlando Rivera, director of the Gambling Commission of Puerto Rico, and five other members.
View From The White House
The Biden Administration announced Thursday that it will invest $3.2 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan to develop and manufacture antiviral medicines for COVID-19.
Building on an executive order signed by President Biden in January, the Department of Education announced Wednesday that Title IX protections should apply to transgender students, a reversal of Trump-era policies.
A Monmouth University poll showed that President Biden’s approval rating among all voters had fallen off by 6 points (to 48 percent) over the past two months, but had risen among Republicans by 8 points (to 19 percent) over that same period.
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