Lizzie O’Leary: When I interviewed you about a year ago, I asked you a question that I want to ask you again. Who is in charge of the recovery? Is it you? Is it the fiscal-control board, or is it the bankruptcy judge here in New York? Because you can’t do things with your hands tied in terms of money. So who’s in charge?
Ricardo Rosselló: Well, we are in charge. You forgot one important element there, which is the federal government. The truth of the matter is that the federal government, whether it be FEMA in a direct way or HUD, plays a significant role in disbursing funds.
The truth of the matter is that it is the disbursement of these funds that’s going to drive the recovery.
O’Leary: You were pretty careful in your criticism of the president initially, and that seems to have changed. How would you describe your relationship now?
Rosselló: My job as governor of Puerto Rico is to get the best and most resources for my people. In my view, that can’t be done by just kicking and screaming. It needs to be done with a willingness to sit down with folks at the table and look for the best opportunities for your people.
O’Leary: You’ve called him a bully, though.
Rosselló: Right. Well, here’s the thing. In the onset, we sat down and discussed the path forward. Then the communications started dwindling between the president and myself, and we started running into a lot of obstacles, which provoked slow disbursement of funds to Puerto Rico.
I don’t want to get overly technical, but every state has the power to disburse funds from FEMA. In Puerto Rico, we didn’t. We have to wait for FEMA to do it. And that provoked a slowdown.
So much so that 18 months after Hurricane Maria—if you compare us with 18 months after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana—for every recovery project that we have going on, they had 32.
I want to sit down with the president again and have a conversation like adults to see how we can help the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. This is not a political matter; there shouldn’t be any other consideration but helping U.S. citizens.
O’Leary: I want to talk with you about kids on the island. A study just came out showing that the number of kids under 5 fell by 42 percent in the past decade. Another study, conducted after Maria, found that 30 percent of kids feel that their lives or the lives of the people they love are at risk. You just had your secretary of education step down after a pretty bumpy year. Why on Earth would any parent want to keep raising a small child on the island?
Rosselló: Because we’re making significant changes. This has been a chronic problem in the past, and as a matter of fact, the data now show that people are seeing that we’re making those changes.
Transformations are often messy, but they have an important goal. With education, for example, prior to our administration there was no accounting. You couldn’t see how a dollar spent was actually impacting the children here. But we changed that. We established accountability structures. We established a per-pupil spending so that it is fair and just. We established school choice with vouchers and charters as alternatives.