To thrive economically, Puerto Rico needs strong leadership | Commentary

August 8, 2019

Orlando Sentinel
Op-Ed: Sen. Rick Scott
August 8, 2019

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Puerto Rico 10 times as both Florida’s governor and senator. I’ve met with many families and job creators who call the island home.

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen many Puerto Rican families move to Florida for the chance at a more prosperous future — but they deserve that future on the island.

Just like Florida families, Puerto Rican families want great jobs, they want their kids to get a world-class education and they want to live in safe neighborhoods.

Puerto Rico has an opportunity to usher in a new wave of leadership that will focus on turning around the island’s economy and investing in the island’s future.

Some of Puerto Rico’s recent leaders have neglected to provide Puerto Rico the opportunity to harvest the immense opportunities the Island provides.

This has taken its toll on the island’s economy and its people. Since 2010, more than 500,000 people have left Puerto Rico, a population decline of more than 14%.

Families are leaving Puerto Rico because they can’t get jobs. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is 8%, more than double the rate on the mainland. Puerto Rico’s poverty rate stands at 44%, more than triple the national average. More than 40% of Puerto Rican families are on welfare.

Many of those leaving Puerto Rico have flocked to Florida, where we’ve created more than 1.7 million jobs in the last eight years.

Many of those jobs come from tourism — for every 67 tourists that visit Florida, another job is created. In my eight years as governor, we increased our tourism from ???82 million tourists to 126 million tourists in 2018. By contrast, just 6 million tourists visited Puerto Rico in 2018.

Puerto Rico has an abundance of opportunity to invest in its tourism industry. It’s a beautiful island, with wonderful people, fascinating history and great weather. If Puerto Rico can increase the number of annual tourists by 5 million, that could be another 75,000 jobs for families on the island.

Puerto Rico could also profit from the wave of retiring Baby Boomers. In the last 40 years, the population of Florida has grown by more than 11.5 million people. Many moved to Florida to retire or bought second homes to spend the winter. In the last 40 years, the Villages — a planned retirement community in Central Florida — has grown from zero to 125,000 people, creating about 30,000 jobs for Sumter County residents. We have similar developments all over Florida, with new projects being started each year.

Making the island a destination for retirees could be a significant opportunity to create jobs for Puerto Rican families.

Florida has 15 seaports. As governor, I focused on port infrastructure and developing trading relationships all over the world. As a result, we increased trade and trade-related jobs by more than 300,000 in just the last eight years. With Puerto Rico’s location, it has a similar opportunity to build its trade economy and create jobs.

I recently spoke at a conference of manufacturers in Puerto Rico. With the right tax structure and regulatory environment, Puerto Rico has an opportunity to build their manufacturing economy to compete with anyone.

There are many opportunities for Puerto Rico to invest in its economy and its people. I’m certain that many hard-working people there have better ideas than I do about opportunities for economic growth. But they need strong, responsible leadership to have a chance to see the future the people deserve.

As the new U.S. Senator from Florida, I am committed to fighting for Puerto Rico in Congress and making sure families on the island have their shot at living the American Dream. I vowed to be Puerto Rico’s voice in the U.S. Senate, and that will never change.

That means advocating for short-term needs like disaster aid and demanding accountability from their leadership. But it also means helping prepare for the future, and helping Puerto Ricans build a bright future for generations to come.