During hearings on Puerto Rico’s status, some witnesses were asked whether Puerto Rico’s voters needed more information about the various status options. Some witnesses said no. Status is a frequent topic of conversation and has been for years. We all know what independence means and what states are.
“Commonwealth” and “free association” may be a bit uncertain, but there are nearly 200 independent nations in the world and there are 50 states in the United States. These examples should make it completely clear what independence and statehood would mean for Puerto Rico.
Nonetheless, there are questions about statehood coming up in the public discussion forum on The Puerto Rico Status Act. We’d like to answer some of those questions.
What about taxes?
Puerto Rico will be able to set its own sales, property, and state income taxes, as all states do. All residents of Puerto Rico will be subject to the same federal income tax that all residents of states are subject to. About half of the people living in states do not pay any income tax, and many of those people get cash from the government in the form of tax credits.
The average income in Puerto Rico is low enough that most families on the Island will not pay any income tax. Wealthy people currently get some special tax breaks, and they might lose those tax breaks. One commenter asked about this particular point. However, those are not federal tax breaks, so those decisions will remain with the state government of Puerto Rico.
The government of Puerto Rico is theoretically able to charge more in taxes because the residents don’t pay federal income tax. The government might reduce the local tax burden, which is currently higher than any state’s. Both the government and the residents will get equal treatment in federal programs once Puerto Rico is a state, so the overall effect should be positive.
It is also important to realize that, as Victoria Ciudadana of the Autonomous Statehood Network pointed out in the public forum on The Puerto Rico Status Act, “under Independence, Puerto Ricans who retain their American citizenship and live in Puerto Rico will have to file federal taxes.” This could also be the case under the free association option, either immediately or in the future.
What about language?
Puerto Rico will not be the state with the largest number of Spanish speakers. 41 million people living in the states speak Spanish.
Puerto Rico will not be the only state with more than one official language, either. Under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, states get to decide anything not mentioned in the Constitution. The Constitution says nothing about language, so Puerto Rico will be able to make its own rules about the languages spoken there.
Congress has debated the language question before when discussing status bills for Puerto Rico. They have never made language rules for Puerto Rico as part of this process. They have required that English be taught in public schools in other territories as a condition of statehood. They have also required that English be used in the government. English is already taught in schools in Puerto Rico. The question of using Spanish in government business could be something to fight over in Congress.
What about international competitions?
We have seen that the ability to compete in international sporting competitions and beauty pageants is not guaranteed for a territory.
The Olympics Committee makes the decisions on which regions can be included in the Olympics as separate teams. However, if the United States objected to Puerto Rico’s fielding a separate team at the Olympics, the Committee might honor that objection. Independence would probably be the only status which could guarantee the ability to participate in international competitions as a separate entity.
However, Congress does not make this decision. Neither does Puerto Rico. The question cannot be settled by Congress before the next plebiscite.