A new bipartisan bill introduced on Wednesday could turn Puerto Rico into the 51st U.S. state by 2021.
The bill, called the Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018, was introduced by the territory’s resident commissioner, Jenniffer González-Colón, a nonvoting Republican member of Congress.
“This is the first step to open a serious discussion regarding the ultimate status for the island,” Gonzalez said. “To sum everything up, this is about equality.”
The proposed legislation would create a bipartisan task force, the Congressional Task Force on Equality for American Citizens of Puerto Rico, charged with assessing which of Puerto Rico’s laws would need to be changed before granting statehood, and also with recommending economic measures to assist the island during the transition.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, a Democrat who made obtaining statehood a pillar of his campaign, has been pressing continental lawmakers on the issue since taking office in 2017.
“No longer do we want ambiguity. No longer do we want this kicked down the road,” Rosselló said at a news conference. “In Congress, you’re either with us or you’re against the people of Puerto Rico.”
The bill is currently co-sponsored by 36 members of Congress, 22 Republicans and 14 Democrats.
I acknowledge the leadership of our Congresswoman @Jenniffer2012 who has been our voice in Washington DC to advance our commitment to achieve the total equality that only statehood guarantees. pic.twitter.com/y6m0HEwqGc
— Ricardo Rossello (@ricardorossello) June 27, 2018
In June 2017, a vote showed that 97 percent of Puerto Ricans who cast ballots supported statehood. But some questioned the results due to low voter turnout.
Statehood would bring Puerto Rico’s 3.3 million residents, who are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in presidential elections, benefits like low-income tax credits, equal access to federal social programs, a higher minimum wage, and better representation for obtaining disaster relief funding, which some say the federal government failed to adequately provide in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
But statehood would also subject residents to federal income taxes, a possibly unwelcome change in light of the commonwealth’s high unemployment rate and steep local taxes.
Puerto Rico faces more than $70 billion in debt. It’s a complex problem borne over the past two decades from irresponsible borrowing, the phasing out of economic incentives from the mainland, a dwindling population, and the Great Recession. As a result, the economically crippled commonwealth was catastrophically ill-equipped to handle Hurricane Maria.
An aerial view shows the flooded neighborhood of Juana Matos in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Catano, Puerto Rico. (Photo: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
In 2016, Congress passed a law establishing PROMESA, an oversight committee in charge of restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt. Statehood could compromise the territory’s ability to pay off debt because U.S. states cannot declare bankruptcy.
“Puerto Rico under PROMESA has a bankruptcy procedure, and that is not something that a state would enjoy,” Desmond Lachman, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told CQ Researcher. “That bankruptcy protection is very important when the territory is more than $70 billion in debt.”
In a recent meeting with President Donald Trump, Rosselló said, “we don’t want to be a territory anymore. We want to be a state. We want equal treatment,” to which the president replied, in an apparent joke, “If Ricardo can guarantee us two Republican senators it can be a very quick process.”
Still, it’s unclear whether the legislation has a realistic shot.
“It’s late in the term, before midterm elections,” Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, told NBC News. “I don’t see how this can get passed.”