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Puerto Rico should become the 51st state

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

Here’s a news item from the Nov. 6 general election that probably went unnoticed up here in Minnesota: A majority of voters in the territory of Puerto Rico favored becoming America’s 51st state.

Who knew?

A two-part referendum asked Puerto Ricans whether they want to change their 114-year-old status as a territory, and 54 percent were in favor with 46 percent opposed.

The second part asked them to pick three options: statehood, independence or greater territorial autonomy. Statehood garnered 61 percent.

The referendum, however, was non-binding, and it is unlikely that the divided Congress will begin admitting the island to the union anytime soon. For the Republican-controlled House, approving statehood for Puerto Rico would be like handing electoral votes and seats in Congress over to the Democrats. The political parties on the island are really just different shades on the left side of the political spectrum. There isn’t much of a right wing.

It’s the same political split that prevents Democratic-dominated District of Columbia from getting a voting member of Congress. The district does get three Electoral College votes in presidential elections but does not have a senator or representative in Congress. D.C. almost got a representative in 2009. The plan was to add two members to Congress, with one in D.C. and another among the 50 states that would’ve ended up in presumably conservative Utah. The deal failed, so the U.S. House of Representatives remains at 435 members.

That’s why the license plates of automobiles registered in the District of Columbia say, “Taxation without representation.” They pay federal taxes like anyone who lives anywhere else, but the only representation they have in the federal government is in the executive branch. As you know, federal taxes originate in the legislative branch.

Presently, residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens who cannot vote in presidential elections, have no one representing them in Congress and do not pay federal taxes, which avoids the taxation-without-representation issue. The territory, nevertheless, is subject to U.S. rule. In the 1951 it was allowed to have autonomy over its internal affairs, so it has an elected governor and a bicameral Legislative Assembly.

The push for statehood passed earlier this month after similar efforts failed in 1967, 1993 and 1998 because voters feel becoming a state would bring more jobs to the Caribbean island, pundits said.

In fact, many Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland United States. The island has suffered population loss, and most — yes, most, something like 54 percent now — Puerto Ricans no longer live in Puerto Rico. The ones who move away gain full voting rights when they become residents of a state.

I’ve been to Puerto Rico twice. The name means Rich Port. People there also call it La Isla del Encanto, (the Island of Enchantment) similar to how we call Minnesota the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

I was there for a week as part of an Army exercise in 1990 called Ocean Venture, and I returned in 2004 with my new bride. Our honeymoon cruise began and ended in San Juan, the capital. I also served in the Army with many Puerto Ricans, and they were proud of being from the place but — like my rural hometown in Iowa — everyone they knew was moving away.

I wish the issues of congressional seats and electoral votes weren’t in the way of making Puerto Rico a state. Expanding jobs is a big deal, and being a state could help. It’s silly that politics gets in the way.

Besides, the place seems like it should be a state anyway. It has its own flair, like any state does, but it also has American traditions like baseball, elected government, political speech, capitalistic beliefs and cherished rights and liberties. There are Puerto Ricans all over our pop culture, from Jose Feliciano to Jennifer Lopez and from Joaquin Phoenix to Jimmy Smits.

We’ll see what happens in 2014, but I would bet that before 2022, our country has 51 states.

 

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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