Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vazquez is seeking a Nov. 3 referendum that could potentially make the bankrupt territory's billions in public pension payments a constitutional obligation.
In a televised address, Ms. Vazquez called a special session of the Legislature and said she was proposing a measure that would trigger an Election Day referendum in which voters would decide to elevate public pension payments to a "first rank" priority. If the measure passes, pensions and debt payments would have to be made before other government expenses, including contracts, judicial sentences and operational costs, she said.
Ms. Vazquez said that many public workers had spent a lifetime paying into the pension system, only to face uncertainty in their retirement after it went broke.
"This is not a bonus, this is not a gift, this is justice," she said.
Staggering under $74 billion in debt and $50 billion in unfunded pension obligations, Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy in 2017. Since then it has been working its way through a debt restructuring plan that includes some cuts to those with the largest pensions.
Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said he fully backed the measure, "so that in the future it's understood that we can't pay our creditors and forget about our retirees."
The proposal is likely to raise objections from the federally appointed board that oversees the U.S. commonwealth's budget and finances, but Ms. Vazquez downplayed its role. "This is for the people of Puerto Rico to vote on," she said.
Along with the pension measure, Ms. Vazquez proposed a raft of other bills to be considered during the legislative special session, including aid to earthquake victims and health-care regulations.
Ms. Vazquez, who is running for re-election on Nov. 3, is facing a tight primary race Aug. 9 from within her own New Progressive Party.