Statehood for Puerto Rico a long way offJune 19, 2017 8:46am

June 16-- An editorial from the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board

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Puerto Rico's latest vote on statehood was met with a communal shrug, with most citizens either not caring or well aware the non-binding vote meant little.

Most likely, they realized that no matter the outcome, Puerto Rican statehood remains a long way off.

There's virtually no chance a Republican Congress and president would welcome a debt-ridden, dysfunctional state into the union. To be considered for a star on the American flag, Puerto Rico must first shed its status as an economic disaster.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello came into office last November promising to call the question on statehood. And last weekend, 97 percent of voters on the Caribbean island cast ballots in favor.

But don't be fooled by the 97 percent. Only about 23 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, an historically low turnout, indicating the island remains divided on the issue.

In fact, the low voter turnout-and the margin of victory-stoked skepticism, even among Puerto Rican members of Congress.

"Not even Putin gets 97 percent of the vote," Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, told the New York Times. "We're going to take that seriously?"

During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump said the people of Puerto Rico deserved the right of self-determination. "The will of the Puerto Rican people ... should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status for Puerto Rico, including statehood."

But after the weekend's vote-the fifth referendum on whether citizens want statehood, independence or to retain the island's current status as a commonwealth-the White House was non-committal, saying "only Congress can change Puerto Rico's status."

In truth, Puerto Ricans are divided on the question, too. Some actually prefer independence from the United States. Others prefer to remain a territory. As such, they don't pay federal income tax, though they do pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. However, they don't get to vote in U.S. presidential elections, though they do get to vote in primaries and send delegates to the political conventions. They also get one nonvoting member of Congress.

"The time has come for equality for Puerto Rico, for our veterans who have served courageously, and all who live there," said the island's congresswoman, Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon.

Moreso, it's time for a program to reform Puerto Rico's economy.

The island's unemployment rate is 12.4 percent. About 60 percent of its children live in poverty. It recently announced it could not pay the $123 billion in bonds and unpaid pension debts it owes. According to the New York Times, the island of 3.5 million people owes approximately $34,000 for every man, woman and child.

Spending on social programs also remains high. A majority of its residents receive Medicare or Medicaid. And the high poverty rate means many of its citizens seek welfare assistance.

The economic crisis has spurred an exodus to the United States, with about 90,000 residents a year moving to states such as Florida and Texas.

By law, Congress must make the next steps toward statehood. But who wants to marry a failing state?

The statehood question remains a distraction. Yet Gov. Rossello is not giving up.

"We won't rest until the colonial status question is solved," he said, according to the Miami Herald.

To solve the question, Puerto Rico must first get its house in order.

(Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O'Hara, Andrew Abramson, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.)

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(c)2017 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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