York Daily Record

"Give Puerto Rico chance to decide"

(03/15/98, Copyright 1998)

Not even the residents of Puerto Rico are united in a desire to join with the 50 United States of America.

So it came as no surprise when the U.S. House of Representatives split down the middle on the question of inviting Puerto Rico to become the nation's 51st state.

The vote Wednesday was a slim 209-208 in favor of a referendum. What was unexpected were some of the goofy reasons given for denying islanders a choice.

Ranking right up there was concern about Puerto Rico's willingness to drop its participation in the Miss Universe pageant.

But Rep. Bill Goodling's excuse for not inviting the Latin island to the big dance came close. The York County Republican demurred because he didn't want to "rush into anything."

Granted, Mr. Goodling is trying to appear as conservative as possible, faced as he is with Charlie Gerow's primary election attack from the right. But the question of statehood for Puerto Rico dates so far back it precedes the tenure of the long-term congressman's father in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Just how long a courtship would Mr. Goodling consider circumspect? Of the many valid reasons to deny Puerto Rico a 51st star on the flag, the fear of "rushing into something" simply doesn't wash.

Neither does his claim that the bill "is not good for everyone living in this country." What bill is?

Statehood wouldn't be good for everyone living on the island of Puerto Rico either. The General Accounting Office estimates Puerto Rico's 3.8 million inhabitants could expect to pay $48 million in taxes for a star on Old Glory.

Under the current commonwealth system, in effect since 1948, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. But they do not pay federal income taxes and cannot vote in presidential elections.

Considering traditional low voter turnout and most Americans' feelings toward the IRS, many state residents might envy this trade.

If the Senate OKs legislation similar to that passed by the House, Puerto Rico would hold a referendum this year on the territory's status. Voters would have three choices.

They could decide to remain a commonwealth, as they did in 1993. They could seek statehood. Or they could decide to go it on their own as a separate and independent nation.

Statehood has the backing of President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minority Leader Richard Gephart.

What remains to be seen is if it has the backing of the Puerto Rican people. They should have the chance to decide.

If in the unlikely event they opt for independence, the United States should respect those wishes for self determination.

If Puerto Rican voters choose statehood, Congress should re-address its concerns, including that of admitting a state where the primary language is not English.

When U.S. troops landed on Puerto Rico in 1898, Gen. Nelson A. Miles told islanders the United States had come "to bring protection ... to promote prosperity, and to bestow ... the blessings of the liberal institutions of our government."

One hundred years later, a plebiscite on statehood is hardly "rushing into" such blessings.

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