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Proposal in Congress Would Set Statehood Vote in '98

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The last time a bill surfaced in Congress that called on Puerto Ricans to vote on whether they want their island to become the 51st star in the American flag, language stood in the way.

The bill was scuttled last year when Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon, R-N.Y., insisted that the measure require Puerto Rico's public schools to teach only in English as a condition for statehood.

Now, there's a new attempt. And again, language is likely to surface in the debate over resolving "the status question."

But granting Puerto Rico a status vote next year is particularly appropriate given that 1998 marks the 100th anniversary of the island's becoming a U.S. territory, says a spokesman for the chairman of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. Mr. Young is a prime sponsor of the proposed United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, HR 856.

"So how do you convert a Latin, Spanish-speaking country into an English-speaking state?" That is a main question, the spokesman says.

The bill would allow island voters to choose commonwealth status, statehood, or independence. If voters opted for anything but continuing as a commonwealth, Congress would have to approve a phase-in plan of up to 10 years. Resolving the island's final status would take many years and multiple votes on the island and in Congress.

It's not the first time Puerto Ricans have gone to the polls to shape their destiny. In 1967, some 60 percent of voters opted to maintain commonwealth status, with only 39 percent favoring statehood, and less than 1 percent favoring independence. The most recent plebiscite, in 1993, showed pro-statehood forces making significant gains: Forty-eight percent favored a commonwealth, 46 percent statehood, and 4 percent independence.

The House bill's language provisions are broad. But one section, which would apply if Puerto Rico opted for statehood, explicitly mentions the schools. It calls on the transition plan to "increase the opportunities of the people of Puerto Rico to learn to speak, read, write, and understand English fully, including, but not limited to, the teaching of English in public schools."

But language is far from the only potential barrier to Puerto Rico's becoming the 51st state. While the island's residents now are eligible for only some federal welfare benefits, a full third of its households receive public assistance. And some argue that Puerto Rico would garner much more as a state.

Some pundits suggest the Republican-controlled Congress does not relish the idea of a new state bringing in two senators and an estimated seven representatives who more than likely would be Democrats. If Puerto Rico became a state, it would be the 26th most populous.

The House Resources Committee easily passed HR 856 in May; the Senate has yet to act on its companion bill, S 472. The controversial matter won't get a full airing in Congress until members return to Washington next year.

But it's clear that Puerto Rico's pro-statehood government doesn't want to take any chances.

In recent months, large government-sponsored ads have run in major U.S. newspapers and magazines touting island reforms in housing, tax policy, health care, anti-crime initiatives, and education. The ads proclaim: "America's latest success story just happens to be in Puerto Rico."


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