Puerto Rican business boosters and community leaders urged Bill Nelson to support changes to the Jones Act but received no response during a Friday sit-down called by the U.S. senator at a Miami health center.
Nelson, who gathered a panel of speakers for about an hour at the Midtown Borinquen Medical Centers of Miami-Dade, visited Miami as part of a brief feedback tour to hear about Puerto Rico’s needs following Hurricane Maria. He was asked to help waive restrictions posed by the 1920 law, which requires ships transporting goods within the country to be built, owned and operated by U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
The law is intended to protect the domestic shipping industry. But critics say its restrictions have hindered the shipping of goods to Puerto Rico, making products on the island more expensive.
“The Jones Act has created some real economic problems for Puerto Rico for many years,” said Luis De Rosa, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of South Florida. “It has made it difficult to make ends meet. That’s un-American.”
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Southwest Ranches Town Clerk Russell Muñiz, one of the panel members, urged Nelson to support legislation that would automatically lift the Jones Act upon a presidential declaration of emergency. After Hurricane Maria hit the island, President Donald Trump waited eight days before waiving the law.
De Rosa told Nelson he’d get plenty of support from Puerto Ricans, many of whom are displaced and headed to Florida as the island recovers from the storm. Nelson, a Democrat, is up for reelection in 2018, and is expected to face a challenge from Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
But the Jones Act is profitable for Florida’s shipping industry. And Nelson, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee, has been a long-time proponent of the law. When someone brought up Sen. John McCain’s legislation to exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, Nelson pivoted.
“Ok. I want to hear some more from you all,” he said, turning and asking a different section of the room to speak up.
Nelson did speak about a bill he filed this week to lift a policy that requires displaced Puerto Ricans and residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands to spend 30 days on the mainland before receiving supplemental Social Security income payments. He hopes Trump will make the change administratively, since passing a bill would take too long to be effective.
“The administration can tee off of that and go ahead and do it administratively and help people in need coming from the island,” Nelson said.
McClatchy reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.