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The Washington Times

Rossello Opposes Young Federal Tax Proposal Unless Accompanied By All Statehood Benefits

By Sean Scully

March 8, 1999
©Copyright 1999 The Washington Times

Washington D.C. -- Backers of Puerto Rican statehood vow to renew the fight in Congress this year, despite an inconclusive referendum by island voters last year.

"I'd like some people to make a decision," said House Resources Committee Chairman Don Young, who almost single-handedly pushed a bill authorizing a referendum through the House last year.

The Alaska Republican is considering introducing a bill to force residents of Puerto Rico -- now a "commonwealth" rather than a state or territory -- to pay income taxes for the first time since the United States annexed the island in 1898. That might force islanders to choose between independence or statehood, a choice they have consistently refused to make.

The island gets as much as $12 billion per year in federal funds but sends less than a quarter of that back to the Treasury, a House GOP staffer said.

"The question is, how much longer should an arrangement like that go onÉ There should be a process that leads to an acceptance [by Puerto Ricans] of the obligations of being U.S. citizens," he said.

Outspoken opponents of statehood say they will oppose any new initiative by Young.

Statehood advocates "will try everything they can in order to create a consensus -- however artificial -- for statehood," said a lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent, Rep. Luis V. Guitierrez, Illinois Democrat.

Republican conservatives fear that Puerto Rican statehood would create linguistic havoc in the United States because most islanders are not fluent in English.

But even statehood advocates are not fond of Mr. Young's ideas.

"We are more than willing to comply with responsibilities such as [paying income tax] as long as it comes hand in hand with all the benefits of statehood," said Alcides Ortiz, the Washington representative of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor, Pedro Rossello.

Last March, the House passed 209-208 a bill giving the federal government's blessing for Puerto Rico to choose between statehood, independence and the current "commonwealth" status. The Senate never voted on the House bill but passed a resolution pledging to honor the voter's wishes.

The results stunned many in Washington -- half voted for "none of the above." Only 47 percent opted for statehood and less than 3 percent chose independence.

Backers of statehood say the voters were misled by pro-pro-commonwealth forces, who argued for a system -- not listed on the ballot -- under which Puerto Ricans would retain the full benefits of U.S. citizenship, yet not pay taxes.

Sila M. Calderon, mayor of San Juan and a leader of the commonwealth movement, said Mr. Young's effort to force a decision is "a very distorted way of approaching democracy."

The triumph of "none of the above" was a protest against a "distorted" definition of commonwealth offered to the voters. The commonwealth arrangement, established in 1952, guarantees Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship while letting them retain the independence to be uniquely Puerto Rican, she said.

That position, however, is a tough sell in Washington, where Congress claims wide powers over Puerto Rico, including the right to control the terms of citizenship for the islander.

Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship by Congress in 1917. Congressional leaders and statehood advocates say Congress could revoke citizenship unless Puerto Rico is admitted to the Union.

Even if Mr. Young's tax idea passes, the effect would be largely symbolic. With a per-capita income of less than $8,000 --- half the level of the poorest of the 50 states -- most Puerto Ricans are too poor to owe much tax to Washington.

And it's not clear whether Mr. Young will get the issue to the House floor this year. Mr. Young lost a key ally when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich retired last year.

New Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, voted against last year's Puerto Rico bill and might be disinclined to allow another vote.

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