Momentum behind granting Puerto Rico statehood seems to be gaining momentum as the territory’s governor told Axios on Sunday that he expects Congress to take up the issue within the next month.
In November, Puerto Rico voters supported statehood in a non-binding ballot referendum.
The referendum narrowly passed by a 52-48 margin.
The question was not the first time voters weighed in on Puerto Rico statehood. Most recently, 97% of voters approved statehood in 2017, but the vote was boycotted by opposition parties.
While Puerto Ricans are full American citizens, those residing on the island cannot vote in presidential general elections. The island is not represented in the Senate and only has a non-voting resident commissioner who represents the island to Congress.
Since Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017, statehood has garnered more debate. Parts of Puerto Rico were without electricity for more than six months.
The island has also been in decline, in large part due to a large migration away from the island. There is also a sizable impoverished population on the island – 43% of those on the island are in poverty, according to US Census data.
In the interview with Axios, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said Congress is “morally obligated” to respond to last year’s referendum.
"We need a game changer in Puerto Rico. And one game changer would be that we get equal treatment in key federal programs," Pierluisi told Axios.
While Pierluisi pointed toward federal programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, as benefits Puerto Ricans lack, residents generally pay lower federal taxes than those on the mainland. The result, however, is Puerto Rico itself charges higher taxes on residents.
Given the political landscape, there are questions on whether Congress would green light making Puerto Rico the 51st state.
While some Democrats have endorsed statehood for Puerto Rico, there are indications that it would be a relatively competitive state. Puerto Rico's leader of the Republican Party, Jennifer Gonzalez, has twice been elected by the territory as its resident commissioner.