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Puerto Rico Governor Approves Referendum in Quest for Statehood

If U.S. Congress ultimately were to approve Puerto Rico as the 51st state, the island could receive an additional $10 billion in federal funds a year

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    Statehood advocates wait for the arrival of the governor at Puerto Rico's capitol in San Juan, on Jan. 2, 2017.

    Puerto Ricans are getting another shot at voting on statehood after the island's governor on Friday approved a non-binding referendum to determine the U.S. territory's political future. 

    The referendum will be held on June 11 and gives voters two options: statehood or independence/free association. If a majority chooses the latter, a second referendum would be held in October and will ask voters to choose between the two. 

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    "Colonialism is not an option for Puerto Rico," Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. "It's a civil rights issue ... The time will come in which the United States has to respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy." 

    Backers say the referendum could help the island overcome a decade-long economic crisis as it struggles to restructure nearly $70 billion in public debt and faces a federal control board pushing for more austerity measures.

    If U.S. Congress ultimately were to approve Puerto Rico as the 51st state, the island could receive an additional $10 billion in federal funds a year and its government agencies and municipalities would be able to file for bankruptcy, something that both local and federal laws currently prohibit.

    Statehood supporters say it additionally would grant the U.S. territory more equality: Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who are not allowed to vote in presidential elections and their representative in Congress has limited voting powers. The island also pays Social Security and Medicare taxes, but receives less benefits than U.S. states.

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    Roughly half a million people have left Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland in the past decade, leaving the government with a shrinking tax base as it struggles to find new sources of revenue despite increasing taxes and utility bills.

    Puerto Ricans have voted in four previous referendums that have resulted in no action from U.S. Congress, which has final say on any changes in Puerto Rico's political status. There was no clear majority in the first three referendums. In the last one, held in 2012, 54 percent said they wanted a change in status. Sixty-one percent who answered a second question said they favored statehood, but nearly 500,000 left that question blank, leading many to dismiss the result as illegitimate.

    Concerns are now growing about the way the fifth referendum is worded. 

    "It doesn't leave room for any other options, which I think is a strong portion of the electorate," said Edwin Melendez, director for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at New York's Hunter College. "It's not evident that statehood is the clear majority right now...If something like 2012 is repeated, it's not going to have any legitimacy to move forward."

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    Along with the referendum, Puerto Rico legislators expect to vote on a bill that would allow Rossello to draft a state constitution and hold elections to choose two senators and five representatives to Congress and send them to Washington to demand statehood, a strategy Tennessee used to join the union in the 18th century. 

    U.S. President Donald Trump did not say during his campaign whether he supports statehood, only that the will of Puerto Ricans "should be considered" by Congress.

    "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how people vote in Puerto Rico," Melendez said. "Congress needs to approve of it."