Puerto Rico is renewing its push for statehood, buoyed by Democrats’ control of the White House and Congress but battling concerns that Washington would be saddled with the territory’s chronic debt crisis.
Newly elected Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, a Democrat, wants to schedule a special election for May to send bilingual “shadow representatives” to Washington to lobby for statehood. He dismisses opponents who argue that spending nearly $9 million on the election during a pandemic is a poor use of tax money and are threatening legal action to block the move.
“The best investment we can make at the public funds level is to advocate for equality,” Mr. Pierluisi told local media recently.
He said he attended President Biden’s inauguration to make sure the administration and Congress wouldn’t forget about the island.
Mr. Pierluisi said the deployment is one more example of why the territory deserves statehood.
“The service of one of our soldiers is the clearest proof that we deserve Equality,” he tweeted. “That is why our people voted for statehood. We will fight for it until we achieve it.”
A slim majority of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents voted in favor of statehood in November in a nonbinding referendum, 52% to 48%. Many of those opposed would prefer independence from the U.S.
Congressional Democrats support statehood, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, Florida Republicans, have expressed approval. Statehood for Puerto Rico has been part of the Republican Party platform.
As with the push for statehood for the District of Columbia, however, adding Puerto Rico would require 60 votes in the Senate unless Democrats eliminate the filibuster. Democrats now control the 50-50 chamber because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
“It’s all going to depend on whether the filibuster remains,” said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the election law initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s very clear that Democrats believe they would be guaranteed to have two additional Democratic senators, which would give them full control of the Senate.”
Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said this fall that Republicans wouldn’t support statehood for Puerto Rico because such a move would take the U.S. a step closer to socialism.
“After they change the filibuster, they’re going to admit the District as a state. They’re going to admit Puerto Rico as a state. That’s four new Democratic senators in perpetuity,” Mr. McConnell said.
The push for D.C. statehood, meanwhile, is encountering opposition on different fronts.
Members of the West Virginia Legislature wrote to their congressional representatives late last week warning that the state’s representation in the House and the Senate “would be further diminished” if Congress granted statehood to the District.
Apart from the political considerations of granting statehood are Puerto Rico’s financial problems, Mr. von Spakovsky said. The territory entered into a form of municipal bankruptcy in 2017, the largest in U.S. history, to restructure about $120 billion of debt and liabilities after a previous governor said the island’s mounting debts were “not payable.”
“The bankruptcy included at that time $49 billion in unfunded pensions from the state government there,” Mr. von Spakovsky said. “So if they bring Puerto Rico into the union, Puerto Rico is going to want the federal government to assume its huge debt, and it’s just going to get worse.”
He said the island has an aging population exacerbated by an “exodus” of young people, leaving behind high-cost social programs.
Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight and Management Board must submit to bondholders a plan for managing $35 billion in debt by Feb. 10. The plan is expected to cut pensions and social services.
The territory’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican, did not respond to a request for comment. She has said it’s time “to allow the people from the island to get their American citizenship fulfilled and empowered.”
The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on disaster aid to Puerto Rico in recent years. Mr. Trump announced about $13 billion for Puerto Rico last fall to help rebuild schools and electrical systems destroyed in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria, a storm that killed at least 3,000 residents.
Critics accused Mr. Trump of using the aid as an election ploy to win Florida, where many Puerto Ricans have relocated. The state is home to about 1.2 million people of Puerto Rican descent.
Mr. Pierluisi took office on Jan. 2 after winning the first gubernatorial election in Puerto Rico since Gov. Ricardo Rossello resigned in 2019. He stepped down after a political scandal sparked widespread protests.
Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. As residents of an unincorporated territory, however, they can’t vote for president and don’t have a vote in Congress. They generally don’t pay federal income taxes.
The U.S. hasn’t admitted a state since Hawaii became the 50th in 1959.
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