- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Puerto Rican Gov. Luis G. Fortuno is intent on making clear he’s a different kind of leader — the sort who pays for even his official expenses with his own credit card.

“I get reimbursed once they have checked that indeed my expenses were correct. And I think everybody should live like that,” said the photogenic 48-year-old, who eagerly whipped out a personal credit card and then jokingly challenged a reporter to poke through his wallet and verify there was no government-issued credit card to be found.

Given that the man he unseated as governor, Anibal Acevedo Vila, stood trial this year — but was found not guilty — of corruption charges, Mr. Fortuno has good reason to draw those distinctions.

Meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. Fortuno sketched out ambitious plans to close his territory’s budget deficit and try to boost an economy that, he said, is lagging worse than the budget of any of the 50 states, including cutting 30 percent of political appointees’ jobs; reducing agency heads’ salaries; and changing policies on credit cards, cell phones and official vehicle use.

In the interview, he also pleaded for Congress to include Puerto Rico in any health care bill that passes and said he wants to see the island territory be allowed to vote on changing its status.

While serving two terms as Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, its nonvoting delegate to Congress, Mr. Fortuno had a unique window into power politics in Washington. He said the city makes people lose touch.

“Living here, people think, is real life. It is not. Real life is so different out there,” he said. “A place that has three different newspapers just to cover what happens in the office that is the Capitol — that’s crazy. That is not real life.”

With nearly 4 million residents, Puerto Rico is near the middle of the pack of U.S. states in population. As a territory, though, the island does not have voting representation in Congress, and residents don’t pay federal income taxes on income earned there — but do pay other taxes, such as Social Security and Medicare.

On health care, Mr. Fortuno said he’s trying to work with Congress to include the territory in any plan that passes. Key lawmakers have said it’s too expensive to extend coverage to the island, but the governor says it’s a matter of fairness — particularly given the way the territory gives back in other areas, such as the second-highest participation in the U.S. armed forces.

“Anyone that feels that, why should Puerto Rico be included, they should ask every soldier, every man and woman in uniform, that has fought in every war since 1917, that question,” he said.

Some Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have proposed an amendment that would extend access to health insurance exchanges to residents of the U.S. territories. The amendment was withdrawn until the Congressional Budget Office can figure how much it would cost, but backers said it’s a matter of basic fairness.

“How can we tell these citizens [in the U.S.] that their loved ones in the territories, even though they are American citizens, they won’t have access to the benefits?” asked Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, when the panel discussed the bill last week.

The pressure is also on President Obama, who while campaigning in Puerto Rico during last year’s primaries said he would cover Puerto Rico in his health care plans.

Puerto Rican factories produce 13 of the top 20 prescription drugs used in the United States, Mr. Fortuno said, and while he was in town last week he met with the pharmaceutical manufacturers association and talked about having Puerto Rico covered.

But the governor says the bigger problem is that Puerto Rico’s long-term status is the key roadblock in addition to the current health care debate.

“Just fix it. Just decide what are we, and having clear rules will sort everything out,” he said.

He supports statehood but says his promise to voters was to push for a process that will let voters decide once and for all.

He’s asking Congress to pass a bill that would put up two referendums. The first would ask if Puerto Rico’s residents want to change their status, and the second, which would come later if voters say they want a change, would ask if voters want independence, free association with the U.S. or statehood.

Mr. Obama, during last year’s campaign, promised to support Puerto Rico’s efforts to have its status resolved. Mr. Fortuno said he hopes the White House will announce its support for the process once a bill passes the U.S. House — which the governor hopes could happen this year.

If Puerto Rico were to become a state, it would likely gain six seats in the U.S. House as well as two senators.

But Mr. Fortuno was less certain the residents of the District should see the same fate.

“It’s an interesting argument, and out of commity to my colleague from the District, I said, I support you in general, but I don’t think that’s the answer to it,” he said. He said the residents of the city could have representation in Maryland or Virginia as a solution short of statehood. “It has to be fixed. I feel there could be many ways to fix it.”

As for the territory’s economy, Mr. Fortuno says it went into recession three years before the United States as a whole. He’s battling poor credit ratings for Puerto Rico’s bonds and has had to impose what he calls temporary taxes on cigarettes and alcohol — though he says he’ll never support an income- or sales-tax increase.

Mr. Fortuno is a member of both the Republican Party and the New Progressive Party, which is one of two main parties that vie for political offices in Puerto Rico.

Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this article.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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