By John McPhaul
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón says she is not ruling out the possibility of seeking statehood via a declaration by the U.S. Congress that Puerto Rico is an incorporated territory.
In an interview with the STAR, the resident commissioner, who is vying to be the New Progressive Party (NPP) candidate for governor in the 2024 elections, noted that her first bill introduced in Congress in 2017 had a provision for pursuing statehood declaring Puerto Rico an incorporated territory.
“Statehood is going to happen for Puerto Rico; the question is when that is going to happen,” González Colón said. “[...] I know it is going to happen; the question is when and what provision is going to be used to make it happen. But it is one of the examples or reforms that was used by other territories to get statehood. It cannot be discarded.”
González Colón has made “governing with the people” her slogan. She proposes a multi-prong approach to attacking poverty.
Federal funding by itself cannot do the job, she said.
“Surprisingly, after a lot of federal funds that have been approved, you get 1% or 2% more of people living under poverty on the island,” she said.
Still, she said, Puerto Rico is shut out of several key federal programs designed to lift people out of poverty such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP.
The resident commissioner managed to get the Child Tax Credit for Puerto Rico, but with not the same amount of funds as the states.
Something else that needs attention, she said, is the matter of subsidies, which are taken away from people once they join the workforce.
“We should find a way to incentivize those people who join the labor force without losing some of those benefits,” González Colón said. “The idea is not to punish them so they may lose access to affordable housing or access to health care providers.”
Another path out of poverty is education, the gubernatorial hopeful said.
“We must encourage and enforce bilingual teaching in the schools,” she said.”If you lack access to power, and power is knowledge, you are literally castrating or frustrating the aspirations in terms of our kids.”
Attacking poverty, she said, is “an issue of education, providing the tools and of course enforcing what is already the law.”
In the area of security, González Colón said law enforcement lacks a strategy to counter narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean region.
“At the United States level there is no strategy in management and counternarcotics in the region,” she said. “The United States does have a strategic approach in the Pacific in the northern area and the southern part of the United States, but not on the Caribbean border. So I did file a legislation in that regard.”
She said she brought the Biden administration’s drug czar, Rahul Gupta, to the island to see firsthand the dimensions of the transshipment of drugs through Puerto Rico.
Another vital problem in regard to drug violence is the fact that local usage is creating turf wars among gangs, and the resident commissioner said that as governor her cabinet would include people with experience in fighting local drug wars.
Regarding the brain drain that is facing the island as many professionals and younger people leave the island for more opportunities abroad, González Colón said the key is to improve the permitting system.
She said right now the government needs to cut the cost of doing business. Small to midsize businesses in Puerto Rico need to wait eight to 24 months for permits, whereas the process takes 30 days or less in Florida.
In consultation with Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who installed Florida’s permitting system when he was the state’s governor, González Colón intends to emulate Florida’s experience, which includes an automated system, “not the system that the governor [of Puerto Rico] just announced that’s not functioning.”
Regarding improving incentives for teachers to take jobs when their pensions have been frozen by the Financial Oversight and Management Board, González Colón said she has been discussing the issue with the board.
“I meet with retired teachers and I don’t know how they do it, living on $900 a month, having to pay rent, having to pay utilities,” she said.
She said she was motivated to challenge Pierluisi, also a member of the NPP, because she feels that “the people have been left behind.”
“When I visit people in their homes they ask me, ‘How am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to pay for utilities?’”
“There are issues the people have and they feel that the government doesn’t see them,” she said.
González Colón said she remains firm in her decision not to support Donald Trump if he is the Republican nominee for president next year.
For one thing, she will be too busy between her own campaign and her congressional duties to involve herself in a national campaign, and for another thing, she is seven months pregnant.
“With my work at Congress, [the fact that] I’ll be a new mother and my own campaign, I won’t have the time,” she said.
Still, her decision not to support Trump is rooted in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“What happened on January 6 was a coup,” she said.