The Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, FL


Associated Press

(09/02/98, Copyright © 1998 The Orlando Sentinel)

DORADO, Puerto Rico - Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott risks losing Republicans' fragile support among Hispanics by neglecting a bill allowing Puerto Rico to vote on statehood or independence, the territory's governor said Tuesday.

"It really disappoints me that he has adopted a position that shows a lack of sensitivity to the important issues of the Hispanic community," Gov. Pedro Rossello said at a meeting of the Southern Governors Association.

Lott, R-Miss., was quoted in San Juan's El Vocero newspaper Tuesday as saying there won't be enough time to consider the bill before the current congressional session ends in October.

The Senate legislation would authorize a referendum to allow Puerto Ricans to decide whether the Caribbean island should become the 51st state.

Rossello, a pro-statehood Democrat, has pushed the bill in Congress for 21/2 years. The measure stalled in the House of Representatives in 1996 because of lawmakers' worries about whether English should be the primary language of government and schools in Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico if it becomes a state.

In March, a slightly different bill passed the House by one vote. The Senate has held hearings on the bill but has put it on hold.

"I think that the issue requires debate, and there is not enough time to hold that debate in the traditional way," Lott said Monday.

Several political issues stand in the way of a referendum.

Some states are concerned that they will lose House seats if Puerto Rico becomes a state, and Republicans are concerned that any lawmakers elected from such a state probably would be Democrats.

Also, two-thirds of Puerto Rico's residents receive some form of welfare, and their per-capita income is half that of Mississippi, the poorest state.

Frustrated by Senate inaction, Rossello has called a nonbinding plebiscite for Dec. 13, when voters among the 3.8 million Puerto Rican residents will choose statehood, independence or commonwealth status.

The governor said Tuesday that he will continue lobbying Congress for a binding plebiscite.

"The Senate had just as much time as the House, and the House passed a bill," he said.

Rossello was speaking at a meeting of governors from 17 U.S. states.

The group also urged the federal government Tuesday to stop adding to its list of endangered animals, saying such action is hurting development.

The Interior Department wants to add 16 species to the 437 on the Endangered Species List and is considering 24 others in 17 Southern states. The governors said some of the species under consideration were discovered recently, and scientists are still unsure how rare they may be.

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