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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Status bill filed in US Senate includes commonwealth option

Senate President José Luis Dalmau Santiago

By The Star Staff

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has introduced in the Senate legislation calling for a status plebiscite in Puerto Rico that, unlike House legislation, includes the current commonwealth status as an option and would create a committee that would seek to replace the Federal Relations Act, Senate President José Luis Dalmau Santiago said Wednesday.

The bill would also order studies on the economic impact of statehood before granting it and rules out that it be self-executing with a relative majority. The bill would also allow for improvements to the current commonwealth status.

“After months of meetings, visits to Congress and constructive dialogue, today I am pleased to announce that a new bill has been presented to the United States Senate that calls for a fair and balanced vote on the future political status of Puerto Rico, where all status options are included, including the Commonwealth,” Dalmau Santiago stated in a press conference in the island Senate. “The bill -- filed by veteran senator Roger Wicker -- recognizes the commonwealth as one of the valid options. In addition, it includes a definition of advanced and autonomous growth that we requested and establishes a negotiation process to improve the commonwealth status, through a bilateral commission.”

The Wicker bill also establishes the necessary requirements to admit the island as a state of the union, if the option wins a status vote. The legislation would force Congress to disclose all the implications of that alternative, including: the economic impact of federal taxes, debt repayment obligations under statehood, the possible effect of language on governmental processes, and the need to require a clear majority (supermajority) vote for that option, in the same way that it was required of Alaska and Hawaii before making them states.

The legislation filed by the Mississippi Republican uses the status bill filed in the House by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) as a point of reference, but makes significant procedural changes intended to improve it. The Senate measure keeps the procedural mechanism of the double round of voting on the same established dates, preserves the formal process of bilateral negotiations with the formula that wins the vote and regulates the transition processes of each status formula.

However, the Wicker bill includes the commonwealth option, which is presented as follows:

“A vote for Commonwealth will be a reaffirmation of the desire of the people of Puerto Rico to retain their Commonwealth status,” Dalmau Santiago said. “To allow the development of the Commonwealth status, a Negotiating Commission of the United States and Puerto Rico will be created that will examine and propose improvements to the current status, including the potential substitution of the law of July 3, 1950, known as the Federal Relations Law of 1950, by a formal pact.”

Wicker’s bill would create a special commission that would negotiate changes to the commonwealth status. The panel would comprise 10 members, of which five are appointed by the president of the United States. and five by the political party or organization that has represented the commonwealth. The bilateral commission also would draft a pact to replace the Federal Relations Act, which would be submitted to the voters for their approval.

“With this filing, justice is done because the people of Puerto Rico are guaranteed that, under any process, all status options will be before their consideration under equal conditions, as should occur in democracies,” Dalmau Santiago said. “In this way, the despotic and abusive attempts to try to create artificial majorities in favor of statehood using the unjustified elimination of status options as a strategy are left behind.”

The bill also complies with the federal government’s public policy of maintaining neutrality in the process, said Dalmau Santiago, who presides over the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, and it conforms to the requirements of the U.S. Department of Justice for inclusion of the commonwealth as an essential requirement to validate and legitimize any process. By doing so, he said, the way is clear for the disbursement of $2.5 million that has been earmarked since 2014 for an educational campaign on status.

According to the Wicker bill, if statehood wins a status vote, Congress would first have to study the impact of federal taxes on the island and determine if the majority of votes obtained is sufficient to determine that the will of the voters is stable and not temporary.

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