Puerto Rico Governor Is Pro-Statehood

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Tell Me More has hosted a series of conversations with governors and mayors of areas hard hit by the economic recession. How are they surviving and thriving during these difficult times. Today, host Michel Martin speaks to Puerto Rico’s Governor Luis Fortuno. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is at 16% percent and as a result the island has been rife with civil unrest. Governor Fortuno says one of the problems is Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth, and that it’s time to become the 51st state. Tune in for an in depth conversation on the island and the governor's controversial stance.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now a newsmaker interview. Here on TELL ME MORE we've hosted a series of conversations with state and local leaders from across the country to hear about how their communities are dealing with the recession.

Today, we are speaking to the governor of a particularly hard hit portion of the United States: Puerto Rico. At 16 percent, the island's unemployment rate is well above that of any U.S. state. By comparison, Michigan, for example, the jobless rate is 14 percent.

In response, Governor Luis Fortuno has cut the commonwealth's budget and slashed the public payroll. Now he's also in the thick of another political fight over the island's relationship with the mainland. And Governor Luis Fortuno is with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Governor LUIS FORTUNO (Puerto Rico): Thank you, Michel. It's a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Can you tell us why Puerto Rico's unemployment rate is as high as it is?

Gov. FORTUNO: Well, certainly. And, actually, the recession commenced in Puerto Rico fully two years before it started in the rest of the country. We have been experiencing what a lot of our local economies call the lost decade from the 2000 to 2010, you know, that has been the lost decade. And there are many reasons for it.

To begin with, our social economic and political system really crumbled. It doesn't work. We were told over and over again that we had the best of both worlds, being a U.S. territory was a great deal. It really is not. Secondly, there were decisions that were made in Puerto Rico that instead of fostering investment and job creation, they did the contrary and that affected job creation throughout this decade.

On top of that, extremely irresponsible fiscal policies. When I came into this job about 15 months ago, I faced the largest state budget deficit in the country, proportionately speaking. It was about $3.4 billion, which accounted for 45 percent of the budget. I didn't have money to meet our first payroll, if you may imagine.

And we're starting to see the beginnings of a comeback from the economic point of view. We approved the most advanced public, private partnership (unintelligible) in the country. And this year we will be slashing corporate and individual taxes effective January 1st of 2011 because of the decisions and steps we have taken.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this, though, last year the government announced that it was planning to lay off some 17,000 public employees because of the circumstances that you've just laid out for us. This layoff was particularly tough, I think in part, many people may not know this, but Puerto Rico has a higher than average number of public employees. And of course, this also coincided, as you mentioned, with the drop in tourism and all the other factors in the recession. This caused strikes. This caused a lot of anger. What's the attitude now?

Gov. FORTUNO: Well, let me tell you something, no one likes when you're telling them, we can't pay for everything we were told we could pay for. In the process I will have to lay off 16,000, 17,000 people. But people have come to realize that this is happening all over the world. And last year, we made the tough decisions so that we can start growing again.

MARTIN: Let's talk about Puerto Rico's relationship with the mainland. Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. Now there's a bill pending, it's recently passed the House, it's now being considered in the Senate, which would allow Puerto Ricans to vote on what the island's status should be in the future. The options are to continue as a commonwealth, to be a state, or assume voting rights is an option.

I wanted to ask: What is driving this discussion at this time? For example, in the District of Columbia, from where we are broadcasting now, this is also an issue. But the issue for citizens here is they pay federal income taxes, unlike the citizens of Puerto Rico. And they are becoming very angry over sort of congressional involvement in local affairs, at the same time that they pay federal taxes, but don't have a vote on the floor. So, what's driving the issue in Puerto Rico?

Gov. FORTUNO: Let me clarify that. We paid $3 billion in federal taxes last year. So we don't pay regular federal income taxes, but we pay other types of taxes. And because we don't pay full federal income taxes, at the end of the day we get a lot less in different programs, including programs in which we contribute as any other state. So, it's not a good deal for us from the economic point of view. But the most important reason why we are discussing this is that, as you well said earlier, we're American citizens. We're proud of citizenship. Our men and women have served, without our encouraging, every single war since 1917.

Yet, we cannot vote for the commander-in-chief. Yet, we don't have full representation in Congress, actually we have one non-voting member of the House. So it's about time that we be given the opportunity to sit at the table where decisions are made that affect our daily lives and fully partake in those decisions.

MARTIN: What do you favor? Do you favor full statehood or just some form of voting rights? What's your position on that?

Gov. FORTUNO: I favor statehood. I think the founding fathers never intended for four million Americans to be left in limbo. You know, we have been a U.S. territory since 1898, 112 years. We have been citizens since 1917, natural born citizens. And the fact that we are not able to fully participate in the decision making process that affects everything we do from the beginning of the day until we go to sleep, makes no sense whatsoever.

And we should be either given the opportunity to be fully integrated into the union or else people should have the opportunity then to simply secede and be an independent nation.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting is that there are members of some high profile of people of Puerto Rican descent who oppose this. Like, for example, Luis Gutierrez, congressman from Chicago, who says that...

Gov. FORTUNO: Yeah, it's very easy to oppose this when you're living in the States.

MARTIN: Well, no, listen, I mean, he says that perhaps four million American citizens don't want to become a state because they love their language, because they love their culture, because they like their idiosyncrasies, because they love applauding their Olympic team. What about that?

Gov. FORTUNO: Well, let me first of all, it's very easy to oppose from Chicago. Luis Gutierrez could not get elected in Puerto Rico. He can get elected in Chicago. And he should represent the aspirations of those he represents. I got elected by a landslide, the largest margin in - since 1964. And those aspirations are clear. We want to have a say in the decision-making process and we want to vote directly with the participation of Congress in that decision-making as to whether we remain American citizens and fully participate in the decisions that affect our daily lives or not.

The fact that we have actually two languages, over 90 percent of parents explicitly state that they want their children to be totally fluent in English. By the same token, we are proud of our Hispanic heritage and everything that entails. At the end of the day, each part of the country has its own idiosyncrasies and that's what makes America great.

MARTIN: And speaking of what makes America great, as participation in the process, there are those who suggested that you might be interested in running for president as a Republican. That you would bring a sort of a special perspective and your own candidacy might be enhanced by a different governing relationship with the mainland. Any truth to that?

Gov. FORTUNO: No, actually, I know there have been articles about it. I've been only 15 months into my job. I love what I'm doing. We're going to turn this economy around and we're going to bring fiscal responsibility again to government in Puerto Rico. I'm devoted 100 percent to what I'm doing in Puerto Rico and we have a lot ahead of us. And I'm just starting my job.

MARTIN: Luis Fortuno is the governor of Puerto Rico and he was kind enough to join us from his offices there. Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Gov. FORTUNO: Michel, thank you again, anytime.

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