[FACT CHECK] José L. Dalmau, on the Climate Plan: “We have until the next Ordinary Session”

Verdict: Misleading

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Senate President José Luis Dalmau Santiago

Photo by the Puerto Rico Senate

Senate President José Luis Dalmau said he will not act under pressure or in a hurry when evaluating the bill that would establish the government of Puerto Rico’s public policy to address the effects of climate change since the legislative bodies have until June 2025 to approve the final version of the document. This is how he tried to justify the current Legislative Assembly’s inaction regarding the Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Plan to Climate Change that is before its consideration.

The Plan was produced by the Committee of Experts and Advisors on Climate Change (CEACC), appointed by the government in 2019. The document has been before the Joint Commission on Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change of the House and Senate since April for its review and approval.

According to Dalmau, the Plan proposal was delivered very late, and he questioned the intention to “pressure” the Legislative Assembly to “quickly” approve the document before next June 30, when this session ends. Because it is an election year, there will not be  another regular session in August. There could be an Extraordinary Session before the end of this term in which this measure is considered, only if the Joint Legislative Commission evaluates the Plan submitted by the CEACC and presents the bills to the House and Senate that the Plan requires before the end of this session on June 30th.

“They have to allow the Legislative Assembly to evaluate it… The law says how much time the Legislative Assembly has… Do you know how much time it has? Until the next ordinary session. In other words, the session that begins in January 2025 and ends on June 30, 2025. That’s the time that the Legislative Assembly has to evaluate it,” said Dalmau during a turn in the Senate chamber a week after the Committee submitted the plan.

“This law was presented in 2019 and says, in its Article 8, that this Mitigation Plan had to be presented to the Legislative Assembly in one year. In other words, by May 2020, this plan had to be submitted to this Legislature. So, we’re almost in May 2024, they submit the plan and say, ‘there’s a rush, they have to approve it and evaluate it quickly,’ when it took five years to present it,” the Senate President added. “Of course there’s a rush, but the rush was in their court, not ours,” he added.

Article 8 of this Act, approved on May 22, 2019, states that the Mitigation Plan had to be submitted for evaluation to the Legislature within a period of one year. However, the statute was approved just before the political crisis that led to the forced resignation of the then governor, Ricardo Rosselló in the Summer of 2019, so it was not until September of that year that the new governor Wanda Vázquez Garced appointed the six permanent scientist members to the CEACC to be evaluated and confirmed by the Legislature. Their appointments became official on November 22, 2019, but they did not take office until December of that year, seven months after the Law was approved.

“We couldn’t start working until we had the training from [the Ethics Office], which was in mid-December [2019]. It wasn’t until 2020 that we started working (and) without a budget. Sometime between February and March 2020,” said Maritza Barreto, member of the Committee, who is a geological oceanographer. Newly appointed officials are required to take these training sessions.

The CEACC scientists waited to be called to the initial meeting — nine months after the Act was approved — by the person who was to chair the working group, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA, in Spanish) Secretary, since several people held that position between 2019 and 2020. Between November 2019 and March 2020, the DRNA had four secretaries: Tania Vázquez Rivera, who resigned in October, but her departure was effective on November 7, 2019, Armando Otero Pagán and Cynthia Rivera Morales in interim positions and then Rafael Machargo who was confirmed on March 12, 2020, as secretary. The beginning of the Committee’s work coincided with the onset of the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The members of the Committee of Experts work voluntarily, but it was necessary to hire researchers, technicians and specialists to prepare the Plan. So, they could not begin working directly on the plan until 2021 and 2022, when they finally got the funds that made these hires viable, said Carl Soderberg, a member of the group.

The Fiscal Control Board authorized the first allocation of $300,000 in March 2021 and a second allocation of $1.2 million in August of that year, the Office of Management and Budget (OGP, in Spanish) told the CPI. However, recruitment problems delayed the process since there were still resources to recruit in 2022, El Nuevo Día reported at the time.

Anaís Rodríguez Vega, secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources
Photo by the Puerto Rico House of Representatives

Last October, DRNA Secretary Anaís Rodríguez Vega warned during a public hearing that there was a delay in the preparation of the Plan because during the first year the committee did not have an assigned budget and, in the second year, the budget was assigned in an incorrect allocation, which caused a delay in hiring experts.

So, the delay cannot be attributed to the CEACC, but to the government of Puerto Rico.

The Legislative Assembly, under control of Popular Democratic Party (PPD, in Spanish) members Dalmau and House Speaker Rafael “Tatito” Hernández, also failed to amend the Act so that the Committee had more time to work on the plan. The Act was amended twice to extend the term that the legislative Joint Commission had to evaluate and present the plan to both legislative bodies. Originally the Commission had until June 30, 2020.

Meanwhile, while the scientists were doing their work, last year Dalmau announced a legislative initiative to craft an Environmental Code “which will establish public policy for the protection of our natural resources and at the same time, give coherence and order to our laws.”

Its working group, made up of seven members, is supposed to present a first draft of the preliminary bill in April 2024. Ángel Raúl Matos, press spokesman for the Senate president, said the draft was delivered to the Presidency, but did not show any evidence that this was the case, alleging the document is not public.

He assured that before the end of this session a report will be presented to the legislative body. He said it’s a 652-page draft. The intention to present this draft contrasts with Dalmau’s statements about the impossibility of passing judgment on the CEACC report, which has a similar length, and that draft was discussed late last year in the Legislative Assembly.

While the CEACC is made up of proven experts on climate issues and government officials, the working group appointed by Dalmau is led by legislative advisor Jorge Colberg and by the former House Speaker and former Appeals Court Judge Carlos Vizcarrondo, Jorge Fernández Porto — legislative advisor to the Senate — the president of the Builders Association, Vanessa de Mari Monserrate, and the executive director of the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, Liza García.

Do they have until the next Session?

According to the Puerto Rico Climate Change Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Act, the Committee of Experts will submit to the legislature the draft of the Plan, which will be considered as a recommendation. It will be up to the Joint Commission to “study, evaluate, report, make recommendations, amend and approve” the final Plan that will be submitted to the Legislative Assembly for its consideration.

“The Joint Commission will have no later than the end of the next regular session to present the plan simultaneously to both bodies of the Legislative Assembly,” according to the Act.

When the Senate president said he would not give in to “pressure” to approve the Mitigation Plan, he hid behind the fact that this article does not force him to act in this session, but rather gives him a period until the next session. This Legislative Assembly ends on December 31 but will only hold one ordinary session this year. 

According to Yanira Reyes Gil professor at Inter-American University Law School, this Legislative Assembly does not have another session, so it is wrong to say that they have until June 30, 2025, to address the Mitigation Plan, since this Legislative Assembly ends with the four-year term, in December.

Starting June 30, the Legislative Assembly could meet if the Governor calls an Extraordinary Session, Reyes Gil explained.

“They’re abandoning their responsibility. The purpose of this law was to act quickly. They’re dragging their feet,” said Reyes Gil. According to the law professor, if the plan is not approved now, the document would have to wait until January 2025 to be presented again for consideration by the next Legislative Assembly.

One legislature cannot commit another to present legislation on any matter, nor to issue negative or positive reports on any matter, nor to vote for or against any matter. If the Joint Commission does not act, in January 2025 the heads of the new Legislative Assembly will appoint the new members of that commission.

“The reason for this is: every time a Legislative Assembly begins [in Puerto Rico every four years] that reflects the electoral determination of the people. That changes every four years, even if the party is re-elected. How is the new resolve going to be tied to what was decided by the previous determination?” Constitutional Law Professor Carlos Ramos González explained.

“Science is being politicized”

CEACC member Dr. Pablo Méndez Lázaro believes the Senate president is creating a controversy where there is none.

“They’re trying to politicize science. The draft from the public hearings at the communities was delivered in September, so, they’ve had it for seven or eight months,” said Méndez Lázaro, professor and associate researcher at the Medical Sciences Campus and the University of Puerto Rico’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“After so many hours, effort and time dedicated to making this plan, please let’s use it as a planning tool, which is what it is,” Méndez Lázaro said.

Meanwhile, another Committee member, Dr. Rafael Méndez Tejeda, added that the plan is a scientific technical document that they were able to finish after much effort overcoming all the obstacles they found along the way that prevented them from moving forward at the desired pace.

“The Committee is chaired by the DRNA secretary and in that department, there were five secretaries during that time. We worked against all these adversities to solve this from a scientific point of view and, the least we expect is that they would thank us, not scold us in the way they have,” said the professor of the Department of Natural Sciences of the University of Puerto Rico.

If the Legislative Assembly had the will to urgently address the issue of climate change without other political considerations, the Mitigation Plan could be approved before the end of this session, Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, in Spanish) Rep. Denis Márquez Lebron told the CPI.

“There’s time to address it if there’s a will. Many issues here are addressed directly on the floor, without studies and without analysis, and on the other hand, measures are approved every day. This isn’t new to us [the Plan]. The Committee of Experts appeared before the Legislative Assembly last October, there were even two public hearings,” said Márquez Lebron.

Although New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) Rep. Joel I. Franqui Atiles, of the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Commission, recognizes that it is complicated to approve the plan, given that they only have two months, he backs moving forward with legislation in areas where there is consensus.

While Dalmau insists on postponing the discussion of climate crisis and its consequences, 22 municipalities were declared in a state of emergency due to the damages caused by a heavy rain event, at the end of April and early May, which also prompted the cancellation, postponement, and re-routing of dozens of flights at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. The heavy rains were coupled, in a matter of days, with a tornado in Arecibo that recorded 75 miles-per-hour winds and the most recent heat wave with warnings of high temperatures of up to 112 degrees Fahrenheit in towns across the northern part of the island.

The Senate president’s statements are misleading because they imply that the delay in delivering the Mitigation Plan was due to the irresponsibility of the scientists, when in fact it was caused by the delay in their appointments, the pandemic, the lack of budget and administrative obstacles at the DRNA to hire staff to carry out the proper investigations, among other hurdles the group faced.

They are also misleading because this 19th Legislative Assembly does not have until June 2025 to address the Mitigation Plan because it’s in its seventh and last Ordinary Session that ends on June 30, although its mandate ends on December 31. A new Legislative Assembly will start in January, which will have to restart the Plan evaluation process.

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