The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ

"The 51st state?"

(03/09/98, Copyright Newark Morning Ledger Co., 1998)

Puerto Rican statehood? Sure. Why not? Provided, of course, that it's what the people of Puerto Rico want.

Their claim to statehood, should they choose to exercise it, is a strong one. For 100 years, they have been part of the United States without being one of the United States. That bars Puerto Ricans from voting in our elections or from having direct representation in Washington, two privileges that statehood would bring.

The kicker is that in earlier referendums, the residents of the island commonwealth showed scant disposition to become a state. Statehood was rejected decisively in 1993 in a nonbinding referendum. Statehood proponents say the vote was clouded by language in the ballot question that made it appear there would be substantial benefits for retaining commonwealth status.

Puerto Ricans do not pay federal taxes. It often has been presumed that this was a reason why the anti-statehood forces have always been so strong.

A measure that narrowly passed the House and faces a difficult future in the Senate provides for one more vote. But this one, unlike past others, could trigger a chain of events leading to statehood. The process could take up to 10 years and a second plebiscite vote as well.

First, the present legislation must be adopted. Then the plebiscite must be approved. Then President Clinton, who favors the measure, would submit a plan for statehood to Congress. Then Congress would have to approve the specific plan and so would Puerto Rican voters. So this could hardly be called rushing to judgment.

The legislation has produced some surprising voting alliances in government. Clinton supports it, and so does Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is also a supporter. There are conservative Republicans who oppose the bill, but so does one of the two members of Congress of Puerto Rican ancestry.

Should the measure pass, the cause of statehood would be advanced by decisive backing in Puerto Rico. This could help more than any number of arguments around the edges.

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