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Statehood Bill Would Ignore Citizens’ Will

As of last week, 3,883 bills have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 110th Congress, and although each is important, many fly under the radar. One of those is moving through the legislative process so stealthily that many Members of Congress, and certainly Americans generally, are unaware of it. The Puerto Rico Democracy Act (H.R. 900) — which directs the United States toward adding the 51st state, whether Puerto Ricans or the country wants it — requires close scrutiny.

On Tuesday, H.R. 900, co-sponsored by Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño (R-Puerto Rico) and Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), is scheduled to be marked up by the House Natural Resources Committee. While many of my former colleagues in Congress have the best intentions regarding Puerto Rico’s future relationship with the United States, there is confusion about the effect of H.R. 900 on Puerto Rico. Before Congress approves what is, effectively, a mandate for statehood, its implications must be fully understood.

The Puerto Rico Democracy Act establishes a controversial two-stage referendum to determine our status. Despite the bill’s name, this voting structure is hardly democratic, as it seeks to override more than five decades of preference by the Puerto Rican electorate for continuing our commonwealth relationship.

Statehood has never won a previous referendum in Puerto Rico. A poll conducted this past summer by Gaither International for Caribbean Business and WOSO in Puerto Rico yet again confirmed that a majority of Puerto Ricans still do not want statehood. H.R. 900 provides the process to overcome these hurdles.

The first stage of the referendum would create a merged category that joins statehood, independence and other less-discussed alternatives. This “catch all” grouping would be pitted against the commonwealth option. By adding up every small faction of Puerto Rican voters, the statehood advocates who designed this process hope to build a sliver of a majority to knock out the commonwealth.

The second referendum stage would then place only statehood and independence on the ballot. Puerto Ricans treasure our relationship with the United States and are proud of our U.S. citizenship, so this process all but assures statehood.

My obligation as governor of Puerto Rico is to ensure the well-being of our 4 million citizens. The people of Puerto Rico — and of the United States — deserve a process that answers important questions about Puerto Rico’s status in a transparent, fair and unbiased manner. By forcing a predetermined outcome, H.R. 900’s structure, created by statehood backers, accomplishes none of these goals. Rejecting the Puerto Rico Democracy Act is not about political preferences, it is a matter of right and wrong.

Facing the significant concerns of a number of Members of Congress about the two-stage structure, backers of H.R. 900 are preparing a “substitute” H.R. 900 bill. After an identical first stage, this “wolf in sheep’s clothing” would turn to a standing White House Task Force on Puerto Rico for guidance on developing the process’ second stage. This White House Task Force does not have a single Puerto Rican member. It has never held open forums or hearings in Puerto Rico to hear the voice of the people. Even worse, it is the same body that created the misguided two-stage vote in the first place, under the direction of a political appointee who has publicly expressed a desire to make Puerto Rico the 51st star on the American flag. I question the task force’s motivation to create an unbiased proposal this time around and its understanding of our 4 million citizens’ sentiment.

A national poll of Democrats and Republicans by Fox News and Opinion Dynamics this past summer indicated that only 30 percent of the country supports statehood, with half of Americans believing that we should continue our commonwealth partnership. The country has an opinion on this issue, and before the statehood bill moves further, that opinion should be heard. It is time to build consensus on Puerto Rico’s future rather than drive forward with this troubling legislation that relies on building a false majority. Statehood for Puerto Rico should be a nationwide discussion, engaging Americans in an informed evaluation of the best proposals.

Puerto Rico and the United States have enjoyed a special relationship for more than a century, with benefits to both sides. Before wholesale changes are made, we must be confident that the process for decision-making will generate the outcome desired by the people, not just desired by one political group. There are simply too many questions about H.R. 900; for that reason, I encourage the Natural Resources Committee to reject it Tuesday.

Aníbal Acevedo Vilá is governor of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

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