As the Republican primary drags on, the candidates will face primaries in the U.S. island territories in the coming weeks. In Puerto Rico, 23 delegates are at stake. While Puerto Rico often doesn’t receive much coverage in U.S. news outlets, the case of government reform there provides a valuable case study that American governors seeking to reduce the size of state governments should note. Since taking office in 2009, Governor Luis Fortuño has led the territory in reducing the number of employees by nearly 16 percent.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
While Puerto Rico has been hit hard by the economic recession and struggles with a current unemployment rate of 16 percent, Fortuño has made the difficult decisions necessary to preserve the territory’s ability to borrow money and to resume on-time payments to government suppliers and employees. In this Reason TV video, he explains that he had to borrow to meet payroll his first month in office, but succeeded in bringing its bond rating back from the brink of junk status.
In his work with government streamlining efforts in Puerto Rico, Mercatus’ Maurice McTigue stressed the importance of of shrinking the size of government relative to the economy. Any elected official can attest that the process of achieving these changing growth rates is painful, but Fortuño is in the process of leading just that sort of change:
Source: Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico
The lesson to draw from Puerto Rico is that an important reason to avoid unsustainable levels of government spending is to avoid the pain of cutbacks once a government gets to a point where spending cuts are no longer an option. In March, 2011, Standard & Poor’s raised Puerto Rico’s bond rating for the first time in 28 years, marking an objective change in confidence regarding the island’s economic prospects.
A general strike is being called in response to Governor Luis Fortuño’s decision to layoff 17,000 government workers in order to avoid a budgetary crisis. Puerto Rico faces a budget deficit of $3.2 billion.
It’s a bold move, considering that 25 percent of all those employed in Puerto Rico work in the government sector. The move is part of a larger plan to deal with Puerto Rico’s poor economic growth, growing public sector, and the lowest credit rating in the U.S. (now at BBB-).
While the unions argue that layoffs will drive up the unemployment rate, what is striking about Puerto Rico is the long-running anemia of its private sector. Stephen Davis and Luis Rivera-Batiz find in a 2005 study that employment rates in Puerto Rico are 55 to 65 percent of US employment rates. The employment shortfall is concentrated in the private sector, in particular for labor-intensive jobs.The authors cite several causes:
High minimum wage requirements,
Tax incentives for capital-intensive activities,
Regulatory barriers, and
A business climate that rests on being able to secure favors from the government.
In other words, economic policy — heavily reliant on government transfers — has discouraged private sector growth making the government sector a leading provider of jobs.