"Puerto Rico
Rep. Young pushes a plebiscite"

(08/03/97, Copyright 1997)

Alaskans know well what it's like to be a handmaiden of the federal government. So it's appropriate that an Alaskan is helping lead the fight in Congress to give the country's longest held colony, Puerto Rico, more say over its future.

Rep. Don Young is a chief sponsor of the bill officially sanctioning a referendum giving island residents three choices: remain a "commonwealth," opt for statehood, or pursue complete independence. The vote Rep. Young envisions would not automatically implement any change, though. That decision would still rest with a future Congress.

For the past half-century, a majority of Puerto Ricans have been content to enjoy the territory's special status short of statehood. Residents have no voting member in Congress and can't vote for President, but they also pay no federal income tax. In three votes

since 1952, Puerto Ricans have favored commonwealth status.

The last vote, in 1993, was a squeaker. It was the first time Commonwealth status failed to get a 50 percent majority.

As happened in Alaska, a growing number of people in Puerto Rico think that ending colonial status is the key to real economic progress. Despite long-standing federal tax breaks designed to boost corporate investment, Puerto Rico is still twice as poor as Mississippi, the nation's worst-off state.

Some folks in Congress don't want to increase the odds for Puerto Rican statehood. They think Puerto Rico is too poor, too far away, too ethnically different. (Sounds mighty familiar to Alaska ears.)

Puerto Rican leaders have responded by trying to develop greater self-sufficiency. They are cutting the commonwealth's high local taxes, selling off government-owned enterprises and expanding the teaching of English as a second language. They cooperated with Congress when the federal government phased out the island's special corporate tax breaks last year.

Puerto Rico has a local government, but the federal government still decides the important questions while denying the island full representation. Congress may not be ready to admit Puerto Rico to the Union right now, but it certainly won't hurt to ask the island's residents their opinion about their own destiny.

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