by Ananta Pancham
Dec. 22, 2008 -- Looking to put the decades-old issue of status to bed once and for all, representatives of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood party are turning to the federal government for a push in the right direction -- and the fate of their attempts might just rest on V.I. Delegate Donna M. Christensen.
In late 2007, HR 900 -- sponsored by New Jersey Rep. Jose Serrano and dubbed the Puerto Rico Democracy Act -- made it through the House's Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, which Christensen chairs, but has not been voted on by the House or U.S. Senate. Still, one Puerto Rico official says the bill, which calls for a federally mandated referendum, is not dead in the water just yet.
Bolstered by support from Puerto Rico's governor-elect Luis G. Fortuno, the bill will resurface once the nation's economy is more stable, and could possibly make its way back into Congress and Christensen's hands.
Though she is unsure whether she will continue to sit at the helm of the Insular Affairs Subcommittee when Congress reconvenes next year, Christen said the issue of status has always been an important one for Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, both unincorporated U.S. territories.
"I think the people of the territory should continue to track the progress of this proposal as it makes its way through the House," she said during a recent interview. "It might give us some ideas, and help us decide what we want to do as the question of status keeps coming up."
Congress's stamp of approval on Puerto Rico's referendum proposal could have some positive effects for the Virgin Islands, according to Puerto Rico Sen. Kenneth McClintock, recently on St. Thomas for a government conference.
"When the (federal) government passes a new economic-stimulus package, there could be some Office of Management and Budget-sponsored proposals in there that could go under the radar, and impact both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands," he said. "For example, the rum tax cover over that the territories benefit from -- that should be approved automatically, but it isn't, so we'll be able to keep a closer eye on that."
Much like the Virgin Islands, issues such as voting rights and citizenship are also concerns for the citizens of Puerto Rico, McClintock said.
"If we were to become a state, we would cease being participants in the military affairs of the nation without being able to participate in the election of the commander in chief," he said. "We would also get automatic equal protection in all federal benefits, like Medicaid, which we have been struggling with."
Puerto Rico has sent more "active-duty forces" to the Middle East on a per-capita basis than all the U.S. states -- except Nevada -- put together, according to an article in the International Herald Tribune.
Puerto Rico's congressional representatives could also help to pull Virgin Islands' issues to the forefront, McClintock said.
"We would suddenly have two U.S. senators and six U.S. representatives who would know what being part of a territory is all about," he added. "Those persons clearly comprehend what it's like to be a second-class citizen, and would therefore be more amendable to territorial issues."
The support for the bill is there, and continues to build not only on the local level, but on the national level as well, McClintock said. The first step in that process began with the drafting and approval of the territory's constitution, which showed that an island with "funny names, a funny language and funny-looking people" was able to take on Congress, he said.
This year, the Democratic Party's official platform -- dubbed "Renewing America's Promise" -- pledged the support of the White House and Congress to "work with all groups in Puerto Rico to enable the question of Puerto Rico's status to be resolved in the next four years."
Though local referendums held in 1967, 1993 and 1998 showed the Puerto Rican public favored maintaining the territory's commonwealth status, Fortuno's election and a recent poll taken by members of Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party shows a 15-percent increase in support for a federally mandated referendum, according to McClintock.
"So, the logical question is, why don't we experiment with it to see if it works?" he said.
Recent stats also show about a 10-percent increase in the number of voters leaning toward statehood -- as opposed to the 46 to 48 percent of citizens who supported the idea during the referendums, McClintock said.
"This definitely suggests that things are getting better for us," he said. "Don't worry -- we're not going to lose our language. With the millions of Hispanics living in the U.S. -- including the four million in Puerto Rico -- it's just not possible."
But before a new bill gets introduced -- and McClintock says there's no set timeline for when that will happen -- Puerto Rico's government also has some housekeeping to do, including balancing its budget and making sure the territory staves off any further economic downturn.
"Seven out of the past eight years we've had a budget deficit, despite the fact that our constitution strictly prohibits it," McClintock said. "Our outgoing administration recently spent over $10 billion, even though we were only collecting about $7.5 billion in revenues."
While it's no easy task, as soon as the territory gets itself on better financial footing, it will be time to get back to Washington and lobby for the referendum proposal.
"We have to really dig ourselves out of the hole in the next couple of years, so we can get this proposal passed as soon as we can," McClintock said. "We're ready to go up and lobby, and in the meantime, we're trying to maintain excellent relationships with all the players involved, like Delegate Christensen. And we will be sitting down with her in 2009 when the new legislation is drafted and sponsored."
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