Will Puerto Rico Become The 51st State? Not So Fast

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to admit new states to the union. But Congress does not appear to have the appetite to take up something as momentous as adding a 51st state of the union with questions surrounding the validity of the referendum, a deep partisan divide, and a long to-do list that includes the fiscal cliff, the federal budget deficit, and immigration reform.

In an interview with Puerto Rico's most influential newspaper El Nuevo Día, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) predicted that Congress would not give Puerto Rico's status serious attention. Gutierrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and supports changing the island's status, criticized the ballot measure for lacking "transparency" and even suggested that status was put on the ballot as an effort to drum up support for the pro-statehood Fortuño, who is also a Republican.

There are also suggestions that the GOP-controlled House would be hesitant to grant statehood to Puerto Rico because it could help tip the balance of power in Congress. With nearly four million people, Puerto Rico would be granted two senators and approximately six new representatives to the House if it becomes a state, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report. Predicting the partisan breakdown is an inexact science, but many believe that most representatives would be Democrats.

GOP consultant Javier Ortiz, who has strong ties to the island and supports statehood, rejected that characterization.

"I think that there is plenty of understanding in the Republican leadership that it is unlikely that Puerto Rico is unlikely to be all Republican or all Democrat," said Ortiz. "The more likely scenario is that there is a broad cross section of those who support both parties."

But another significant sticking point is how the size of Congress would change. Lawmakers would need to work out whether the size of the House of Representatives would increase, of if seats would be reapportioned from other states and assigned to Puerto Rico. It's safe to say that debate would cause some controversy.

The offices of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not immediately respond for comment. The White House declined to comment.

On top of the thorny political issues are fiscal and economic concerns that have long lingered around questions about Puerto Rico's status.

If Puerto Rico were to become a state, it could result in up to $7.7 billion per year in additional federal spending on the island for social programs, Medicaid, tax credits, and other items, according to a 2010 report released by Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee. That number could make congressional Republicans wary, considering they've recently pushed to slash federal spending.

Puerto Ricans pay no tax on income earned on the island. But they would owe taxes on that money if the island were to become a state, which could offset federal spending, argue statehood supporters.

But there are other economic concerns as well. If it becomes the 51st state, Puerto Rico would easily be the poorest. The poverty rate on the island is 45 percent, according to the 2010 Census, over twice as high as the current poorest state of Mississippi. The unemployment rate in September 2012 was a whopping 13.6 percent.

That's not to mention the issue of language. Puerto Rico has two official languages, English and Spanish, but the latter is the predominant language on the island. Fortuño's push to make the island functionally bilingual by 2022 was met with significant controversy on the island and sparring over language would likely dominate a statehood debate in Congress.

While the statehood referendum was a historic event for Puerto Rico, it's far from certain the island's status will be resolved any time soon.

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