Can Statehood Wait?

The Sun Sentinel, a news site from Palm Beach, Florida, recently posted an editorial titled, “Puerto Rican statehood can wait; economy can’t.” The Sentinel led the piece off with a snappy pronouncement: “Puerto Rico should shed its status as a U.S. territory, either by becoming the 51st state or by establishing full independence. But that is a ‘some day’ goal. Puerto Rico’s more immediate goal must be to shed its status as an economic disaster.”

This is an appealing attitude, and the Sun Sentinel isn’t the only source to take this position. “Never mind about status right now,” the argument goes. “That problem has been around for a century, it’ll still be there when everything settles down and is going well. Concentrate on the economic problems and don’t get distracted.”

The editorial trots out some of the most popular arguments against statehood:

  • “The U.S. Congress won’t allow statehood for Puerto Rico because they’re Republicans and Puerto Rico will elect Democrats.” This is an interesting claim right now when the new Resident Commissioner is a Republican, and Governor Luis Fortuno (R) just left La Forteleza in 2013.  Politics in Puerto Rico aren’t even organized along the national Democrat/Republican divide – it’s PDP (“Commonwealth”) v. NPP (Statehood).  There is little in the way of long-held allegiances to either national party.  It’s also worth noting that conventional wisdom on the political parties that Alaska and Hawaii would presumably support got it completely wrong, as the original hypothesis was that Alaska would trend Democratic and Hawaii Republican.
  • “Maybe Puerto Rico doesn’t want statehood.” Actually, Puerto Rico voted for statehood in 2012. However, there is a federally-funded plebiscite planned for May of this year, which should erase all doubt on this question.
  • “Something must be done, but who knows what might work.” Without a clear, definitive path to economic empowerment, Puerto Rico will continue to face economic crisis.

The status issue is not a distraction from the question of economic growth. Here’s why:

  • Puerto Rico’s territorial status is the main cause of the current economic problems. It may salve the American conscience to think that Puerto Rico got into financial trouble entirely on their own, but providing unique access to triple tax except bonds gave Puerto Rico access to a  rare funding source and encouraged overspending. Puerto Rico also has far less federal support than a state would, a smoke and mirrors tax structure that Congress enacted, and an uncertain political future with related instability.  This is not a recipe for economic success.
  • Policies to encourage economic growth would apply differently to Puerto Rico depending on its status.  Coming up with a policy that would be helpful only if Puerto Rico were to remain a territory would be of limited value if Puerto Rico voted for statehood soon thereafter.
  • Territories historically have done better economically once they become states.
  • The attention paid to a new state of Puerto Rico would encourage investment from nearby countries and link the broader U.S. to possibilities in the region.
  • Many of the solutions being proposed would come automatically with statehood, and would be incompatible with independence. For example, equal coverage under Medicaid and Medicare have been suggested by the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico. These changes would come automatically with statehood. They would require new laws if Puerto Rico remains a territory. They would be impossible for an independent Puerto Rico.
  • There is a fundamental issue of who we are as a democracy that is inconsistent with having a territory

It only makes sense to delay decisions on Puerto Rico’s status if there is some reason to think that Puerto Rico will continue to be an unincorporated territory for the foreseeable future. 54% of voters voted against this in 2012, and the status quo has become less popular since then. Saying that Puerto Rico must continue to be governed as a territory – without their consent – before getting their economy back on track may not be a practical option.

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