San Juan – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello made headlines in the territory when he defended the island’s request for more Medicaid funding after President Donald Trump blasted the proposal as a “bailout.” But behind the scenes, the governor worked closely with the Trump administration to win more fiscal support.
Rossello spent time in Washington D.C., sitting down with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on three separate occasions as well as taking an opportunity to discuss the island’s needs with CMS Administrator Seema Verma. The governor also sat down with White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn and shared a phone call with Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Although the Medicaid spending was a sticking point for some Republicans in Congress, Rossello and his allies successfully negotiated a $295 million payment in the Congressional budget agreement.
The governor does not have a relationship with Trump. He briefly met the president at the National Governors Association meeting at the beginning of the year, but did not sit down with him individually. But he told reporters that he was open to the idea of meeting with Trump to talk about the fiscal reforms he is seeking in Puerto Rico.
“I don’t see how having a relationship with the President of the United States can be negative, and I would welcome the opportunity,” he said Saturday during a meeting in his office with reporters. Rossello acknowledged, however, that Trump “has many things on his plate” and might not have the time.
Rossello admitted that if Trump continued to view the Medicaid funding as a bailout, he would probably not support their request for funds. He argued that without the extra funds, the island’s health care infrastructure would face crippling setbacks, forcing more citizens to flee the territory for states like Florida and New York to seek health care, costing the United States even more money.
“The American citizens of Puerto Rico deserve to be treated fairly. Health and civil rights are not partisan issues,” he wrote.
That made front page news in Puerto Rico.
Despite the tweets, Puerto Rico officials are anxious for access in the new administration. The government sought the services of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s consulting firm Avenue Strategies that he founded with Barry Bennett, Ben Carson’s former campaign manager. Bennett is familiar with Puerto Rico politics as Ben Carson traveled to the island during his presidential campaign and endorsed their statehood effort.
Rossello said he met with Lewandowski, praising him as “quite knowledgeable” about the issues facing Puerto Rico, but said that “the jury’s still out” whether they will continue to pay for his services. However, he appeared positive about the results.
“So far we’ve gotten to meet with certain officials in the administration, they’ve even put into writing some of the things for Puerto Rico that are critical,” he said, citing a positive letter from Secretary Price about their Medicaid needs. Rossello explained that Lewandowski’s firm never promised a personal sit-down with Trump, but he again specified that they remained open to the idea.
Currently, Puerto Rico faces a $70 billion budget deficit, a crisis that led to PROMESA, and the appointment of fiscal oversight board to help solve the solution. Although the island faces possibly bankruptcy, Rossello hopes that the territory’s government can negotiate with creditors for a solution.
Rossello appears eager to look fiscally responsible after over a decade of financial mismanagement by his predecessors that he described as a “Ponzi scheme.” Last week, he delivered a speech about his reform agenda at the Heritage Foundation conservative think-tank in Washington D.C..
“We have to change the narrative in Puerto Rico,” he said, highlighting his administration’s new focus.
After taking office in January of 2017, he signed bills cutting government spending, reducing government agencies and streamlining services. Many of his reforms have not been popular on the island, but are a necessary step to restoring financial sustainability.
“I am a Democrat, but if you see my policies, at least on the fiscal side of things, you’d be hard pressed to find a more fiscally aggressive agenda,” he told reporters.
On Monday, Rossello faces a huge May Day protest, prompting him to deliver a speech to the people of Puerto Rico — urging them to remain peaceful.
“We will help people protest against me so long as they let other people carry on with their work and don’t make them feel insecure,” he said.