Puerto Rico Tackles Unemployment, Statehood Issues

When Barack Obama lands in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, it will be the first time in five decades that a sitting U.S. President has paid the island an official visit. Host Michel Martin speaks with Puerto Rico's Governor Luis Fortuno about his upcoming meeting with President Obama and Puerto Rico's current challenges.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we turn to Haiti where one catastrophe follows another. A recent severe storm there caused mudslides that have killed more than 20 people. We'll take a look at how Haiti is bracing for a potentially severe tropical storm season while fighting an outbreak of cholera and, of course, recovering from that devastating earthquake. But first we go a few hundred nautical miles east to Puerto Rico, which is preparing to host President Obama tomorrow.

It's an historic occasion for the island territory. The first official visit by an American president since John F. Kennedy stopped through in 1961. We wanted to talk more about the president's visit and what it means, so we're joined by Puerto Rico's governor, Luis Fortuno. He joins us from the governor's mansion in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Governor, thank you so much for joining us.

Governor LUIS FORTUNO (Puerto Rico): It is my pleasure to join you.

MARTIN: How did this visit come about?

FORTUNO: Well, it's been a long time since we had any of our presidents visit the island, and I would say it was long overdue. I know my wife and I, in every time we attend governors' meetings, we had raised the issue with this president and the previous president as well, and certainly we're looking forward to having a historic visit as this one.

MARTIN: And I think it bears mentioning, though, that you are Republican and the president is, of course, a Democrat. Are there some specific issues between the parties, the political parties, that you think you want to talk about while you're there? I mean, obviously this visit is coming at a time when there is perceived to be sort of great tension over economic philosophy and a number of other issues between the president and the Republicans in Congress. Are there ways you think you might be able to bridge that divide?

FORTUNO: Well, I would not aspire to that much. What I aspire to do is make sure that we highlight the issues that affect the almost four million American citizens that reside here in Puerto Rico. Certainly, the economy is a number one issue here as well as in the rest of the country and I'll be raising that issue with the president and ways in which we can work together for the job creation.

Secondly, public safety is another issue that I will be raising, given the fact that after the closing down in the southwestern border, some of the drug traffic that used to occur in that area is occurring in the Caribbean area and that affects Puerto Rico and the American citizens that reside here. So that's another area where we can actually work in tandem with the federal agencies to make sure that we protect not just the citizens here but actually the citizens across the country if there is any trans-shipment going through the area.

And thirdly there is the century-old status question that, of course, is a topic that will be raised.

MARTIN: Let's talk about each of those three things in turn. First of all, the unemployment issue. Puerto Rico, as I understand it, as of April was registered at about 16.2 percent unemployment, which is very high, even higher than the national rate, which is high. Are there some strategies that you think should be employed that you would like to talk about with the president that aren't, not now being used?

FORTUNO: Yeah, and I must tell you that in the last couple of years that rate of unemployment has come down from almost, you know, 17 and a half percent down to about 16 percent and it actually should be coming down again this summer. We were facing the worst state budget deficit in the country, proportionally speaking, just two years ago. Actually, we were the worst of any state or territory just two years ago. Today we have come a long way and actually from being dead last, we are 20th in the country in terms of the size of our state budget deficit.

We have also been able to start cutting taxes and so, we're starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, yet we can, for example, start reducing the cost of energy in Puerto Rico. I'm a strong believer that we must reduce the cost of energy, which is twice as high as the average in the mainland, either to be competitive and create jobs, and for that we need help in developing sources of energy other than oil. That includes natural gas and renewable energy among others.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, though, is that the president has had, and the Democrats in Congress have had one strategy toward addressing unemployment, and increasingly Republican governors like yourself have been employing, you know, other strategies. A lot of which includes taking on the public employee unions, which are also very strong in Puerto Rico. It seems to me that both of those strategies are very unpopular with the voters.

Do you agree with that assessment? I mean, it just seems that neither side is really earning favor with the voters at the moment and I'm just, you know, wondering why you think that is, or is that just because the economy is such that everybody's in a sour mood?

FORTUNO: Well, I will tell you something. My strategy is not to take on the unions. My strategy has been to bring common sense and balance to our budget. I am convinced that the taxpayers could not bear more taxes and I came in in a fiscal situation in which our state budget deficit was 44 percent of revenues. We didn't have enough money to meet our first payroll. We had to take out a loan to meet that payroll. So, under those circumstances I had no choice.

I sat down with the unions, and some unions wanted to work with me, others did not and we had to cut everywhere starting with my own salary and that's exactly what we did. But it is not an ideological situation. It's our move. It's making sure that we bring back common sense to government and that we commence lowering taxes on people that actually have been actually associated by high taxes.

MARTIN: I think maybe a better way to phrase that would have been cutting spending versus, you know, some of the stimulative efforts that the president has made, that this administration has made. But you know what I was saying. I mean, that's sort of the cutting spending sort of...

FORTUNO: Of course.

MARTIN: ...approach has been one that's - it is now being employed in a number of states across the country and it seems as though people are not happy either way.

FORTUNO: Well, no one can be happy when the economy's not moving in the direction we all want it to move. However, the federal government may have two options to deal with this issue because it can print money. Us states and territories don't print money so, we only have one option and that's a big difference.

MARTIN: Also, one of the issues that you mentioned that you want to talk about the status question and just to translate that for people, that's the whole question of, you know, Puerto Rico, like the District of Columbia for example, is a territory. Its citizens are American citizens. They do have the right to vote in presidential elections but they don't have representation in Congress. You are an advocate of statehood. What do you expect the president to say about that?

FORTUNO: Well, I don't expect the president to favor one status option over another and actually, I don't think that that's what anyone is expecting that he will do. However, the president has laid the foundation for some sort of consultation of the voters here to determine whether we want to remain a territory, move on to statehood, or become independent, and I believe that's the American way. That's what voters want to see happen, and we will be conducting - in the next year and a half, we will be conducting a plebiscite to consult the voters and determine whether there is a mandate one way or another.

And what we expect from Washington, not just the president but Congress as well, is assistance to implement any mandate that may come from that kind of process, if there is any.

MARTIN: What's your message to the rest of the country about that, I mean, you know, obviously there's what Puerto Ricans want but what's your argument to the rest of the country about why that's appropriate if in fact they do choose statehood?

FORTUNO: Well, first of all we've been a part of the United States since 1898. We have been citizens since 1917 and fought in every single war with valor and courage since then. Actually in greater numbers than most states. So we've earned our way to sit at the table and actually be able to determine whether we agree with the legislation that affects our daily lives and our quality of lives or not.

MARTIN: But of course Puerto Ricans don't pay federal income taxes, which some people consider, well, some people consider a fair tradeoff.

FORTUNO: Well, first of all, you may say that we don't pay federal income tax. We don't pay federal income tax on Puerto Rico source income. If you owned stock, you pay federal taxes. We do pay Social Security and Medicare taxes as well. And, actually, our taxes have historically been higher because we do not participate in many federal programs precisely because we don't federal income tax on Puerto Rico source income.

So, again, there will have to be a transition should we decide to become a state and be admitted to the union as such. There would have to be a transition away from paying those taxes locally to paying those taxes at the federal level. By the same token, there will have to be a transition to participate fully in federal programs as well.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuno. President Obama is visiting the island territory tomorrow. That's the first official visit in half a century by a sitting U.S. president.

And, governor, thank you so much for spending this time with us at this busy time for you. Critics are saying that this visit is a campaign stop, essentially, for the 2012 elections. And as you probably know better than anybody, Puerto Ricans tend to trend Democratic in presidential elections.

FORTUNO: Not entirely.

MARTIN: Not entirely?

FORTUNO: That's the case in New York. In Florida, they voted for George Bush in 2004 and for Barack Obama in 2008. And in Florida there are 850,000 Puerto Rican Americans. So, you know, you could say that in a swing state like Florida, those voters are up for grabs, and they reside, or tend to reside in the central part of the state, somewhere between Tampa and Orlando.

So of course there is a strong political motive for any politician, whether he or she may be a Republican or a Democrat, in any move that he or she may make. By the same token, the president had committed, while he was campaigning in the primaries down here, he will visit as president, and we're all glad that he is living up to his word and it will allow us to showcase our issues.

MARTIN: Oh, I guess, well, my question was, governor and I understand that you want to be hospitable because you are hosting the president tomorrow, do you have a candidate on your side and what's the best argument for your candidate?

FORTUNO: No, I haven't committed at all. Actually, we're just still finding out who's running and who's not running on the Republican side. I think it's too early for that.

MARTIN: Well, what about you?

FORTUNO: No, I'm not...

MARTIN: Governors traditionally have been very well positioned to run for president.

FORTUNO: Yeah, but I've been on my job for barely two and a half years. I have plenty of work to do ahead of me down here.

MARTIN: All right. Luis Fortuno is the governor of Puerto Rico. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from La Fortaleza, the governor's mansion in San Juan, where he's hosting the president of the United States, Barack Obama, tomorrow. Governor, thank you so much for joining us.

FORTUNO: Well, thank you, and have a great day.

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