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Fecteau: The 51st State? Not Just Yet

Thursday, June 15, 2017

 

Although voter turnout was low, Puerto Rico, an unincorporated United States territory, voted this past Sunday to become a state in a non-binding referendum. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo ("Ricky") Rossello is seeking full statehood for the island of 3.5 million people, to address its present economic crisis. However, that requires a reciprocal act of Congress, making the chance of becoming a state that more distant. 

Located in the northeastern Caribbean, Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States since 1898. Congress established an elected government on the island, and granted citizenship to those who live and were born on the Island; conversely, Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections or have a representative in Congress (it has a non-voting federal delegation). Unlike the other former 32 territories that became states, Puerto Rico was never set on a track to statehood like Hawaii was in 1959 or bequeathed independence like the Philippines in 1946. 

While statehood may be asking too much, Puerto Rico does need some reprieve from its on-going crisis. Puerto Rico is on the brink of insolvency with $123 billion in debt obligations, a 45% poverty rate, floundering schools, and health and pension systems on the verge of bankruptcy. 

One of the five populated territories – others, including, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa – Puerto Rico exists in political limbo to this day. It is considered a part of the United States, but not afforded the same expanded bankruptcy protections, and federal funding levels due states according to statutory law. 

The issue of statehood for Puerto Rico is a contentious one. On one hand, American citizens may not want to foot the billion for 3.5 million Puerto Ricans, but on the other, Puerto Rico will be left in limbo, politically disenfranchising those that live on the island. While the debate goes on, the sad reality is that Congress will have to address Puerto Rico’s financial woes, one way or another, because it remains a part of the United States. 

Puerto Rico will always be an American problem, whether granted statehood or it remains a territory. This crisis needs to be addressed now, or it may end up costing all U.S. taxpayers more in the long-run with a failed health care system, and debt that it will be unlikely to pay, sky rocking out of control, and then, turning to the federal government for assistance anyway. 

I would like to see Puerto Rico become the 51st state one day, but given the political gridlock in Congress, perhaps that will be a long wait. Thus, an incremental solution would be to change our current laws to ensure territories have the same federal funding levels, and bankruptcy protections afforded to American states. 

While it would be disappointing to those that voted in this past referendum, at least it is a way for Puerto Rico to address its current financial woes. For Puerto Rico, statehood may be far off, but realistic solutions are abundant.   

Matt Fecteau ([email protected]) of Pawtucket, Rhode Island was a Democratic candidate for office in 2014 and 2016. He is a former White House national security intern and Iraq War veteran. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewFecteau

 

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