Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has just the solution for the decade-long recession and crippling debt crisis his island is facing: U.S. statehood.
Trouble is, Rosselló has little support from Congress for his dream of making the territory the 51st state — and possibly even less from the Trump administration.
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That didn’t stop the popular young leader, elected in January, from traveling to the U.S. Capitol this week to make his pitch as a plebiscite on the island’s political status looms.
Though Rosselló tweeted out pictures of himself with several senior Republican lawmakers from his trip to Washington on Thursday, he acknowledged he had no assurances from Congress or the White House that they would honor the result of a vote that fulfills a campaign pledge of his for statehood.
That did not keep him from vehemently defending the legitimacy of the vote.
“I am appalled that any process that is a democratic process would be considered a political exercise,” he told reporters. “This is a real process, important for the people of Puerto Rico, important for our determination."
His quest has drawn rebukes from critics and political rivals, including opposition parties that have vowed to boycott the June 11 vote. Puerto Rico is mired in recession and a $70 billion debt crisis — which already triggered the largest local government bankruptcy in U.S. history in early May — and desperately needs health care funds.
“It doesn’t make sense to me for anybody in Puerto Rico to be pushing the plebiscite right now,” said Mike Soto, president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan, San Juan-based think tank. Soto supports changing the island’s political status but says, “Time and energy are a zero sum game, so any time you spend on this is time you don’t spend on Medicaid [funding] and other issues.”
The MIT-educated Rosselló, who’s just 38, won his party’s candidacy for the governorship by campaigning for a plebiscite. The controversial measure, which his supporters love, is Rosselló’s equivalent of President Donald Trump’s border wall: A campaign promise whose practicality has been called into question.
The Justice Department must approve ballot language for the vote on whether to keep Puerto Rico’s political status, which at first only included two options: statehood or independence.
Rosselló, joined by the commonwealth’s nonvoting member of Congress Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez, and Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, told reporters and congressional staff assembled on Capitol Hill that the ballot would be consistent with language the Justice Department had required.
“This is a mandate that Congress did,” Gonzalez said, referring to a broader 2014 government funding law passed by Congress that provides $2.5 million for a referendum.
While the bill didn’t actually mandate a vote, it did require the Justice Department to certify language at least 45 days before ballots were cast and allowed that some of the money could also be used for educational materials if Puerto Rico opted for the referendum.
Even if the Justice Department were to approve ballot language, Congress has shown little interest in adding a new state. Republicans worry that Puerto Rico would consistently send Democrats to the House and Senate. And the commonwealth would bring the baggage of a massive debt crisis and sky-high unemployment.
Gonzalez also seemed to indicate that Puerto Rico’s government had a green light from the Justice Department. Rosselló and Rivera Schatz argued that the ballot language was consistent with what the federal government asked for, including the option to vote for remaining a territory.
However, a Justice Department spokesperson emailed POLITICO that, “The Department has not reviewed or approved the current ballot language and any suggestion to the contrary is incorrect.”
Statehood could negate the debt-restructuring law Congress passed last year to provide Puerto Rico debt relief. While Congress was able to allow Puerto Rico a process resembling bankruptcy, states cannot declare bankruptcy.
Bondholders of Puerto Rico’s largest debt class, general obligation debt backed by the full faith and credit of the commonwealth, could then argue that they must be paid in full rather than accept a reduction in payments. That could mean a difference of billions in debt owed by the island.
While it might provide more federal help for health care — an urgent need for the island — becoming a state would also subject Puerto Rico to federal income taxes, adding more of a burden to a struggling economy.
If passed into law Puerto Rican statehood would send two senators and five representatives chosen by the governor to Washington and demand ask that they be seated as full voting representatives of the island.
Rosselló said he and his party were “not asking for a blessing but informing the members of Congress, informing them that we the people of Puerto Rico are taking action, that we have a plebiscite that is consistent with what the Department of Justice has established, and that we expect results and movement right after 3.5 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have taken action.”
Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.