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Hawaii Senator Facing Election Sponsors Puerto Rico Statehood Vote Legislation

U.S. Senator Brian Schatz yesterday sponsored the Senate bill to require the president of the United States to propose a plan to make Puerto Rico a State if the residents of the territory vote for equality within the nation a second time.

Schatz, who was appointed to the job by Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie to fill out the term of the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye, is seeking election to the post this year.  The Democrat had previously served as Abercrombie’s lieutenant governor.

Abercrombie is an outspoken supporter of equality for Puerto Ricans, as had been Inouye and most of Hawaii’s congressional delegation has since the former territory became a State. The same has been true of Alaska’s congressional delegation.

Hawaii’s two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Representatives Colleen Hanabusa (D) and Tulsi Gabbard (D), have sponsored the House version of the legislation along with Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi (D/statehood), and 130 other members of the House.

Hanabusa is challenging Schatz for the Senate seat. President Obama has endorsed Schatz.

Alaska’s Don Young (R) is another sponsor of the House bill.

Puerto Ricans initially voted for statehood in a plebiscite under local law along with the November 2012 elections. The plebiscite rejected Puerto Rico’s current territory status, sometimes misleadingly called “Commonwealth” by 54% and chose statehood over nationhood, the other possible option, by 61.2%.

President Obama’s Administration supported the vote and his spokesman hailed its results. But congressional action on its statehood petition has been complicated by the opposition of the governor of Puerto Rico very narrowly elected at the time of the plebiscite.

Alejandro Garcia Padilla had supported the continuing territory status option in the plebiscite — which voters soundly rejected. Having lost the plebiscite, he claims that it was unfair and that statehood did not really win the 61.2% of the vote that the Puerto Rico Elections Commission says it won.

Because of the Governor’s objections, Obama proposed and Congress passed legislation authorizing a plebiscite under U.S. Department of Justice auspices that the Governor will not be able to dispute with any credibility.

The current legislation suggests the question for that plebiscite.

Alaska and Hawaii are the two newest States. Their congressional delegations have been particular supporters of statehood because the memory of the powerlessness of territory status and the fight for voting representation in the national government is relatively fresh on the minds of Alaskans and Hawaiians.

The Senate bill was originally sponsored by New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich (D) for similar reasons. Especially motivating him is the suggestion that Puerto Rico should not become a State because of the Latin American heritage of most Puerto Ricans. New Mexico’s population was largely Latin American when that territory became a State, and it still is.  New Mexico and Arizona were the last two States to enter the Union of States before Alaska and Hawaii.

Heinrich’s original cosponsor on the bill was Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).  Wyden was then Chairman of the committee that has jurisdiction over territory status matters and statehood admissions, Energy and Natural Resources. He is now Chairman of the Finance Committee, the other committee of the U.S. Senate most important to Puerto Rico as a territory.

The legislation would authorize Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission to hold a vote enabling Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizens by birth under Federal law, to cast a “Yes or No” vote on statehood, which the bill defines.  In addition to requiring the president of the United States to propose a plan to transition Puerto Rico to equality in Federal program and tax laws over a number of years if Puerto Ricans vote for statehood, the bill would pledge congressional approval of an equality transition plan.

In its definition of statehood, the legislation notes that individuals born in Puerto Rico would become U.S. citizens by virtue of the Constitution of the United States, instead of under laws granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans dating to a 1917 statute.

On June 27, 1959, a similar vote was held in Hawaii on the yes-or-no question, “Shall Hawaii immediately be admitted into the Union as a State?”  The outcome of this vote led to Federal action resulting in statehood.


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