Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Puerto Rico Could Learn from New Mexico

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Three stops in Puerto Rico during our recent Caribbean trip brought back more thoughts about the similarities between the Puerto Rico of today and the New Mexico of 100 years ago.
In 1898, when the United States took Puerto Rico in the Spanish American War, the territory of New Mexico was getting its act together for one more push at convincing Congress to approve statehood.
New Mexico, which had been taken in the Mexican-American War 50 years earlier, had been trying since 1850 to become a state. It would take another 14 years to achieve final success but we had figured out a systematic approach.
Our political leaders wanted statehood. They could see many advantages for the state as well as for themselves. By 1898, they were trying hard to look more like mainstream Americans. We built a capitol building with a dome on it. We started building houses out of brick. And we began promoting tourism.
Possibly the most important factor was that our politicians realized they had to work in a bipartisan manner to demonstrate a united front to Congress.
But even though Puerto Rico's leaders continually push for statehood, they aren't doing it in a united manner. Each of several political parties has its own solution for the island's political status.
And they aren't moving the island toward looking more like a part of the United States. Most Puerto Ricans speak only Spanish even though English also is an official language. Nearly every American chain has stores all over the island but signs and billboards are almost totally in Spanish.
That, in itself, would convince many members of Congress that Puerto Rico should not be a state. It runs against the English-Only movement, in addition to the anti-Hispanic feelings generated by our immigration crisis.
But perhaps the biggest problem is political. If Puerto Rico were to become a state, its large population would qualify it for about 10 members of Congress. And it's certainly a possibility that all 10 would be Democrats. Think what that would do to our current delicate balance.
Another problem is that the other political entity advocating for statehood is the District of Columbia, which also is very likely to elect all Democrats. If one of those two were Republican, the chances for both would be better.
Ever since pre-Civil War days, Congress has liked to admit states in pairs. Back then, slave states and free states were paired. Most recently, the admission of Alaska and Hawaii was balanced between Republicans and Democrats.
There are reasons to admit Puerto Rico to the union. The island's residents pay no federal taxes and yet they receive well over $10 billion in federal benefits.
Not only do residents not pay taxes, U.S. corporations don't pay taxes on profits made in Puerto Rico, even though the goods are sold in the 50 states. The federal government loses several billion more on that loophole.
Previous polls and referenda indicate that a large minority of Puerto Ricans want statehood, but most of the people I talk to say they would be crazy to give up the deal they have now.
Many politicians and social activists claim that denying statehood is just another vestige of American colonialism. For that reason, Congress invented a commonwealth status for the territory back in the '50s. No one is real sure what that means because the status can be removed by Congress at any time.
The majority of the population hasn't been convinced of anything yet. They don't want to give up their Spanish language even though English classes are available in every school.
And everyone seems to recognize a good deal on taxes when they see one.
FRI, 4-06-07

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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