Demonstrators call on Congress and the White House for relief for victims of Hurricane Maria, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on October 18, 2017. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Seventeen months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory is again at odds with the federal government involving aid that provides food for many people on the island.
Since the hurricane arrived in September 2017, Puerto Rico has been receiving an extra $1.2 billion in block grant funds -- on top of the $2 billion it gets for the Nutrition Assistance Program.
However, the Trump administration has balked at continuing to pay for the aid, even though it was approved by the House last year. Now, a Senate version of the bill has omitted the money.
"This funding is excessive and unnecessary," the White House said in a policy statement last month. "USDA has been working closely with Puerto Rico to develop and implement a plan to return the [food program] to normal operations after providing significant additional resources immediately after the 2017 hurricanes.
"There is no indication that households need ongoing support at this time or that Puerto Rico requires additional time to return to normal NAP operations."
Javier Balmaceda, the author of a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told UPI the administration is wrong about what the people of Puerto Rico need and how much progress the island has made in the last 17 months.
"These funds are absolutely essential for Puerto Rico," he said. "Puerto Rico is not requesting funds for some luxurious project. These are funds for very basic needs.
"Puerto Rico is still very much recovering from the hurricane. That much is clear. It's been a slow process to disburse all of the recovery funds."
Balmaceda said funding at the increased level has not only helped 1.3 million islanders receive key aid, but it also helps another 100,000 who hadn't received relief aid but are directly affected by the hurricane.
If the money is eliminated, needy Puerto Rican families will see their monthly NAP benefit fall from $649 to $410 per month -- a significant difference on an island where many live in poverty.
"Those two things get reverted completely if the funding is taken away," Balmaceda said. "The cut to those already using the program would be one-third [what they receive] at a time where then need it the most while still recovering."
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, former Florida governor, has introduced an amendment to restore the emergency funding.
"The most important thing to every American is action over words," Scott said in a report by The Orlando Sentinel last month. "In Florida, we took aggressive action to support Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican community since before Hurricane Maria even made landfall, but our work isn't done. Puerto Rico does not have a voice in the United States Senate. I intend to be that voice."
Balmaceda said he hopes Scott, along with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Puerto Rico congressional delegate Jenniffer González Colón, a Republican, will give the bill the bipartisan push it needs to secure funding.
Scott's support is not the first time he's broken with Trump over Puerto Rico. When Trump disputed a study last September that said nearly 3,000 died from Hurricane Maria -- a figure that's now accepted by the Puerto Rican government -- Scott sided with the island.
"I've been to Puerto Rico seven times and saw the devastation firsthand," he said then. "The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart-wrenching."
Balmaceda said he's "baffled" by the administration's claim that the funds are excessive and unnecessary -- saying the money is just as important today as it was when the government approved it 17 months ago.