Senate Should Allow Puerto Rico Plebiscite
(03/06/98, Copyright 1998)
The Senate should follow suit on House of Representatives approval of a bill authorizing a plebiscite on statehood for Puerto Rico. New Mexico's senators ought to take the lead in having this measure considered due to important similarities between our state and the island.
Currently there are no plans to take action in the Senate, but when the bill is considered, it will probably face strong opposition. The House passed the measure by a razor-thin margin -- 209 to 208. Support for authorizing a referendum on the island has made some strange bedfellows. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader, found themselves on the same side, supporting the bill.
But on and off the Spanish-speaking island there exist strong emotions about whether it should remain a commonwealth or achieve statehood. The last vote on Puerto Rico's status was in 1993, when residents by a very slim margin voted to maintain their current commonwealth status. This, many believe, is the best of both worlds -- American citizenship and military draft responsibilities, but no federal taxes or votes in federal elections.
Critics opposed to statehood fear language differences would be too great to overcome. This was also a concern back in 1912 when New Mexico achieved statehood. Today Spanish is still spoken in New Mexico, but English is unquestionably the dominant language in the state.
The new bill authorizing a vote differs from the measure passed in 1993. That bill defined the commonwealth in liberal terms, promising additional federal benefits that this bill does not include. Should the residents of Puerto Rico choose statehood, it would benefit the United States, much like Hawaii, a unique state with tremendous tourist appeal. Puerto Ricans are the ones who would decide their fate under this proposal. But the U.S. Senate first needs to approve that option.