Will Puerto Rico Become The 51st State? Not So Fast

PHOTO: PR

Ricardo Arduengo/AP Photo

Puerto Rican voters this week backed a ballot measure that endorses U.S. statehood. This is the first time that a majority of Puerto Ricans went with a pro-statehood ballot referendum after three previous tries in the last 45 years.

That type of landmark vote would appear to suggest that statehood is on the horizon, but a number of political and economic realities stand in the way.

President Barack Obama and members of Congress have said that Puerto Ricans would have to make their preference clear for statehood in order to move forward. In March of last year, the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status recommended that President Obama and Congress support "any fair, transparent, and swift effort that is consistent with and reflects the will of the people of Puerto Rico. If the process produces a clear result, Congress should act on it quickly with the President's support."

Yet, Tuesday's vote may be an illustration of a people who remain divided over the island's status rather than united around one option. Based on the first question of a two-part ballot, just more than half (54 percent) voted to change the island's status. In the second question, 61 percent said they favored statehood, while 33 percent voted for sovereign free association (more autonomy from the U.S.) and 5 percent backed independence.

The most telling result to some was that roughly 466,337 who voted on the first part that asked about changing the island's status didn't vote on the second part of the ballot measure that asked about their preferred status. Some observers chalked up the discrepancy to confusion over the language of the referendum, but others said it was a clear demonstration that Puerto Ricans remain undecided on how they would change the island's status.

"The ones who remained silent on the status question spoke volumes," said a Puerto Rican political insider, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Rocio Velez, a pro-statehood political analyst, pushed back on that assertion, saying that she's heard many Puerto Ricans on and off the island calling members of Congress to push for statehood in the wake of the vote.

"We can't really say that it wasn't the majority of the people," she said. "I think it's an example of democracy at its best."

Even if the numbers are taken at face value, the road ahead could remain difficult.

Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuño lost reelection on Tuesday to Alejandro García Padilla, whose Popular Democratic Party wants the island commonwealth to maintain its current relationship with the United States. Puerto Rico will still have a statehood advocate representing it in Washington, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, but a split political leadership could complicate a sales pitch that argues the island is united around statehood.

Regardless, Pierluisi said Tuesday that he would present the result of the referendum to the Obama administration with the hopes of moving forward on statehood.

"The ball is now in Congress' court and Congress will have to react to this result," Pierluisi said, according to the Associated Press. "This is a clear result that says 'no' to the current status."

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to admit new states to the union. But Congress does not appear to have the appetite to take up something as momentous as adding a 51st state of the union with questions surrounding the validity of the referendum, a deep partisan divide, and a long to-do list that includes the fiscal cliff, the federal budget deficit, and immigration reform.

In an interview with Puerto Rico's most influential newspaper El Nuevo Día, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) predicted that Congress would not give Puerto Rico's status serious attention. Gutierrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and supports changing the island's status, criticized the ballot measure for lacking "transparency" and even suggested that status was put on the ballot as an effort to drum up support for the pro-statehood Fortuño, who is also a Republican.

There are also suggestions that the GOP-controlled House would be hesitant to grant statehood to Puerto Rico because it could help tip the balance of power in Congress. With nearly four million people, Puerto Rico would be granted two senators and approximately six new representatives to the House if it becomes a state, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report. Predicting the partisan breakdown is an inexact science, but many believe that most representatives would be Democrats.

GOP consultant Javier Ortiz, who has strong ties to the island and supports statehood, rejected that characterization.

"I think that there is plenty of understanding in the Republican leadership that it is unlikely that Puerto Rico is unlikely to be all Republican or all Democrat," said Ortiz. "The more likely scenario is that there is a broad cross section of those who support both parties."

But another significant sticking point is how the size of Congress would change. Lawmakers would need to work out whether the size of the House of Representatives would increase, of if seats would be reapportioned from other states and assigned to Puerto Rico. It's safe to say that debate would cause some controversy.

The offices of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not immediately respond for comment. The White House declined to comment.

On top of the thorny political issues are fiscal and economic concerns that have long lingered around questions about Puerto Rico's status.

If Puerto Rico were to become a state, it could result in up to $7.7 billion per year in additional federal spending on the island for social programs, Medicaid, tax credits, and other items, according to a 2010 report released by Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee. That number could make congressional Republicans wary, considering they've recently pushed to slash federal spending.

Puerto Ricans pay no tax on income earned on the island. But they would owe taxes on that money if the island were to become a state, which could offset federal spending, argue statehood supporters.

But there are other economic concerns as well. If it becomes the 51st state, Puerto Rico would easily be the poorest. The poverty rate on the island is 45 percent, according to the 2010 Census, over twice as high as the current poorest state of Mississippi. The unemployment rate in September 2012 was a whopping 13.6 percent.

That's not to mention the issue of language. Puerto Rico has two official languages, English and Spanish, but the latter is the predominant language on the island. Fortuño's push to make the island functionally bilingual by 2022 was met with significant controversy on the island and sparring over language would likely dominate a statehood debate in Congress.

While the statehood referendum was a historic event for Puerto Rico, it's far from certain the island's status will be resolved any time soon.

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In addition, some experts believe that the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution could give Congress the ability to establish a financial control board for Puerto Rico, similar to how it navigated Washington, D.C. out of trouble in the 1990s.