WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama signed a rescue package on Thursday for financially strapped Puerto Rico, which is facing more than $70 billion in debt and a major payment due Friday.
Obama signed the bill hours after it won final Senate passage Wednesday night. Obama said there is still tough work to do to get Puerto Rico out of the hole.
“But it is an important first step on the path of creating more stability, better services and greater prosperity over the long term for the people of Puerto Rico,” Obama said as he signed the bill in the Oval Office.
This came as Puerto Rico’s governor signed an executive order on Thursday to implement a debt moratorium on more than $1 billion worth of general obligation bonds.
Puerto Rico faces a $2 billion debt payment due Friday that includes those general obligation bonds. Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla previously said the government did not have enough money to make those payments.
Garcia also signed executive orders on Thursday that expands a state of emergency to four other government agencies, including the island’s largest public university and a retirement system that has been shorted by $40 billion.
“These measures are reasonable and necessary to ensure essential services while the debt is restructured under the legal framework provided by PROMESA,” he said, referring to the acronym for the bill that Obama signed Thursday.
The bipartisan bill was crafted after months of negotiation between Democratic and Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration. The bill creates an oversight board that will supervise some debt restructuring and negotiate with creditors. It temporarily blocks creditor lawsuits.
Puerto Rico will also be allowed to temporarily lower the federal minimum wage for some younger workers.
Obama said the debt crisis has been a heavy burden for the territory, with basic services shutting down and government workers not being paid.
“We’ve got to keep on working to figure out how we promote the long-term growth and sustainability that’s so desperately needed down there, but the people of Puerto Rico need to know that they are not forgotten, that they are part of the American family,” Obama said. “Congress’s responsiveness to this issue, even though this is not a perfect bill, at least moves us in the right direction.”
Associated Press reporter Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this story.