A move is afoot to grant statehood to Puerto Rico, and a possible vote in the U.S. House of Representatives may put the island on a path to becoming the nation’s 51st state.

Democrat Pedro R. Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood delegate to Congress and former co-chair of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in Puerto Rico, is sponsor of H.R. 2499, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act. The act has 181 co-sponsors.

“When I introduced this bill, I pledged to undertake every effort to ensure that the people of Puerto Rico finally have the opportunity to express themselves about the island’s political status in a congressionally authorized vote,” Pierluisi said last week. “Like all the battles I have fought in Congress – from the allocation of (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds for Puerto Rico, to the inclusion of the island in the health-care-reform legislation – I have not rested for a single moment. Today I am pleased to say that H.R. 2499 will have its day on the House floor, and I am confident that the legislation will be approved overwhelmingly.”

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Under H.R. 2499, Puerto Ricans would vote on the issue of statehood yet again. Puerto Ricans have voted against statehood three times since 1967, preferring their present status as an independent commonwealth in association with the U.S.

The last statehood vote, or plebiscite, held on Dec. 13, 1998, failed to yield a majority vote on any of the five options: enhanced commonwealth (0.29 percent), statehood (46.4 percent), independence (2.5 percent), free association (0.06 percent) and none of the above (50.3 percent).

‘Rigging’ the voting process?

The commonwealth status allows the 4 million mostly Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans to benefit from the protection of the U.S., but they are not required to pay federal income taxes on income they earn from island sources. However, they do pay federal payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. They currently do not vote in presidential elections and have nonvoting representation in Congress.

However, some say statehood advocates are “rigging” the voting process to ensure Puerto Rico becomes a state.

In September, the New York Post reported Sen. Jose Hernandez-Mayoral of the island’s minority Popular Democratic Party declared, “Behind this innocuous bill lies a fully thought-out assault on Congress to designate the island the 51st state. … With the commonwealth option out of the ballot, statehood is finally, albeit crookedly, assured a victory.”

Democrat Pedro R. Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood delegate to Congress and former co-chair of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in Puerto Rico, is sponsor of H.R. 2499.

The bill calls for a two-stage vote. In the first stage, Puerto Ricans would be asked to mark one of the following two options:

1) Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of political status. If you agree, mark here XX.

2) Puerto Rico should have a different political status. If you agree, mark here XX.

“The clear hope is that those favoring full independence – which normally draws at most 5 percent of the vote – will combine with those favoring statehood, and outpoll those who want to remain a commonwealth,” explains Eddie Garcia, member of the National Advisory Board of ProEnglish in his column published by the New York Post.

If voters choose to change political status, Puerto Ricans would be offered the following choices in a second vote:

1) Independence: Puerto Rico should become fully independent from the United States. If you agree, mark here XX.

2) Sovereignty in Association with the United States: Puerto Rico and the United States should form a political association between sovereign nations that will not be subject to the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution. If you agree, mark here XX.

3) Statehood: Puerto Rico should be admitted as a State of the Union. If you agree, mark here XX.

He explained that through electoral trickery, the people of Puerto Rico would be forced to essentially choose between statehood or independence on the second vote – possibly resulting in “a minority of Puerto Rican voters producing a false landslide vote for statehood.”

Benefits of statehood

According to the General Accounting Office, half of all Puerto Ricans would qualify for food stamps and federal assistance under statehood.

“So Democrats are drawn to the prospect of a constituency likely to elect more Democrats to Congress,” Garcia wrote. “Many Republicans are eager to sign on to the measure to show that they’re ‘pro-Hispanic.'”

In a recent commentary published by Roll Call, Roberto G. DePosada, former president of the Latino Coalition and senior adviser to the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, explained why he believes Puerto Rican politicians are rallying behind statehood.

“Why would Puerto-Rican-statehood leaders use such strong-arm tactics to force their way into the Union?” he asked. “One reason is that Puerto Rico’s government is deeply in debt and its economy is weighed down by a bloated public-employment sector. Its PNP-led government is desperate. It recently had to furlough 30,000 government workers, and it hopes for a bailout from the U.S. Treasury that it could not hope to get as a commonwealth.”

He continued, “Language in the referendum bill’s rationale is clear: ‘The economic model under the unincorporated-territory (i.e., Commonwealth) political system has collapsed and the government has not been able to guarantee the right to work of thousands of public employees who now find themselves in the unemployment line after being laid off.'”

Additionally, ProEnglish opposes H.R. 2499 because it does not contain a requirement for Puerto Rico to adopt English as its official language as a precondition for statehood.

“If Puerto Rico were admitted as a state it would destroy our nation’s unity in English, and soon transform the U.S. into an officially bilingual country like Canada,” the group warns.

Democrats stand to gain more seats

Ann Shibler of the John Birch Society explains that Democrats would like to see Puerto Rico become a state because they stand to gain more seats in Congress.

“Because of Puerto Rico’s population, they could pick up many electoral votes as well, since more than 22 other states have smaller populations, which could in turn swing an election,” she wrote.

In an article on RedState.com, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said because Puerto Rico has a population of more than 4 million people, it would receive two U.S. senators and six or seven House seats.

“But as long as there is a 435-seat maximum in the House, if Puerto Rico receives six seats, then other states expecting to gain a seat after the 2010 Census would lose representation,” he explained.

Asked whether adding another state would mean substantial costs to the federal government, Hastings replied, “A new state would come with significant costs – spending that would measure in the billions of dollars a year.”

A 1997 Heritage Foundation analysis by Edwin Feulner warned that Puerto Rican statehood would increase entitlement spending on welfare, Medicare and Social Security by an estimated $3 billion per year. Even if Puerto Ricans paid federal income taxes, the tax revenue would not be enough to offset the added expenditures.

“With an average per-capita annual income of about $7,600, few Puerto Ricans would be required to pay any income taxes at all,” Feulner explained.

Today, the median national income is around $17,000.

In a report this week, the Heritage Foundation noted that the legislation allows nonresident Puerto Ricans to vote on statehood. The bill states: “… all United States citizens born in Puerto Rico who comply, to the satisfaction of the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission, with all Commission requirements (other than the residency requirement) applicable to eligibility to vote in a general election in Puerto Rico.”

“Residency requirements may be waived, because Puerto Ricans living in the states would naturally favor statehood for the Commonwealth,” the Heritage Foundation reports. “This provision allows nonresident Puerto Ricans to undermine the will of the residents of the Commonwealth.”

The U.S. Census American Community Survey reports more people of Puerto Rican descent live in the 50 states – more than 4.13 million – than live in Puerto Rico.

Hastings warned that many questions about the legislation have not been answered, and he believes the legislation is not ready for a vote.

“[T]here are a great many implications that aren’t being considered or even discussed,” he said. “Congress owes it to the citizens of the 50 states and to the people of Puerto Rico to have a full, open debate and resolve these questions before voting on this bill. If this doesn’t happen, then representatives should vote ‘No.'”

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