Lawmakers on Wednesday introduced new bipartisan legislation to make Puerto Rico the nation's 51st state by 2021.
The bill, known as the Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018 was presented by Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Jenniffer González-Colón, a Republican who authored the bill and is a nonvoting member of Congress.
“This is the first step to open a serious discussion to determine the ultimate political status of Puerto Rico,” González said. “To sum everything up, this is about equality."
The bipartisan effort is co-sponsored by 36 members of Congress, 22 Republicans and 14 Democrats.
“I’m pleased to be one of the sponsors,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “I look forward to the day 51 is a reality.”
Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., who attended the event and supports the bill, said, “It is more about ending colonialism than about bringing statehood.”
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., said she supports the bill because it's about equality.
“The hard truth is that Puerto Rico’s lack of political power allows Washington to treat Puerto Rico like an afterthought, as the federal government’s inadequate preparation for and response to Hurricane Maria made crystal clear," she said.
At a press conference, González said the bill calls for the creation of a task force composed of nine members of Congress which would look into what changes are needed in order to incorporate Puerto Rico as a state. While lawmakers go back and forth with recommendations and amendments, Puerto Rico would become an incorporated territory.
States like Hawaii spent over five decades as an incorporated territory, while other states like Alabama lasted two years.
As an incorporated territory, people in the island would have to start paying federal income taxes while not being entitled to full statehood political rights.
Puerto Ricans living in the island are U.S. citizens who currently don't pay federal income taxes, but they do pay payroll taxes. They are unable to elect members of Congress or vote for president.
For decades, Puerto Ricans have been divided between support for the island's pro-statehood party, which includes the current administration, and the party advocating the current commonwealth, or territorial status, with a smaller minority advocating independence.
The last plebiscite asking Puerto Ricans if they wanted to become a state took place a year ago. Though 97 percent of people who voted favored statehood, the opposition party boycotted the plebiscite, so it had a historically low turnout of 23 percent.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, a Democrat, and other public officials from the island and the mainland also accompanied González during the announcement.
“The time has come for Congress to chose what’s their position" on the issue, Rosselló said.
In Puerto Rico, the president of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party said the bill was more of a tease, considering its timing. "It's a farse, cultivating this image when Congress doesn't even have six months of 'life' left," said Héctor Ferrer.
Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, told NBC News that the timing is not ideal.
“It’s late in the term, before midterm elections,” said Vargas-Ramos, ”I don’t see how this can get passed.” He explained that its unlikely that lawmakers have enough time to move this legislation through the House and the Senate before midterm elections change Congress’s makeup.
Last week during a meeting with President Donald Trump and other governors, Rosselló said that “we don’t want to be a territory anymore. We want to be a state. We want equal treatment.”
“If Ricardo can guarantee us two Republican senators it can be a very quick process,” Trump replied, sparking laughs across the room.
This is not the first time that González introduces a bill calling for Puerto Rico’s statehood.
In January 2017, she introduced the Puerto Rico Admission bill as an attempt to uphold the results of a 2012 plebiscite in which 61 percent of voters favored statehood, but which was also mired in controversy over the way the questions were asked.
The legislation never made it to the House or the Senate floor.
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