Puerto Rico just took a small step in the direction of becoming the 51st U.S. state.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) submitted legislation Wednesday that would mandate a referendum asking Puerto Rican residents if the island should become a U.S. state in an up-or-down vote. The Senate resolution, called the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act, is an identical companion version to legislation already filed in the House by the island’s non-voting representative, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi.
“In 2012, 54 percent of Puerto Ricans rejected their current relationship with the United States,” Heinrich said in a press release. “We have a responsibility to act on that referendum, and this step is critical in that effort. My home state of New Mexico spent 66 years as a territory before gaining statehood in 1912 -- the longest of any state. Puerto Rico has spent nearly 116 years as an American territory. That’s long enough.”
Pierluisi, of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, has been pushing hard for statehood since a non-binding plebiscite in 2012 showed that most Puerto Ricans were dissatisfied with their position as a U.S. commonwealth. The two-part referendum went on to ask whether voters wanted to become a U.S. state, an independent country, or a freely associated state -- a type of voluntarily limited sovereignty. Remaining a commonwealth was not an option.
Statehood won the largest number of votes, but because commonwealth supporters cast blank ballots on the second question in protest, statehood failed to win a majority of the votes cast.
While some statehood supporters tried to argue that the blank ballots should be discarded from the final tally, their case failed to convince Congress or the White House that the referendum amounted to a statehood mandate.
Whether or not the statehood resolution passes, Puerto Rico’s status will remain a major issue for the near future. The Obama administration included $2.5 million in the Omnibus Spending Bill to conduct a plebiscite aimed at resolving the status conflict.