[APPLAUSE] JULIO GABRAL: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Julio Gabral, and welcome to the much-anticipated event, "Puerto Rico, the Road to Equality, the 51st State." Tonight we have the privilege of being in the presence of a distinguished leader, the governor of Puerto Rico, our beautiful island, Mr. Luis Fortuño. It is my pleasure to see everyone here at Bailey Hall in my home away from home, Cornell University.
After a month of hard work and long hours of endless details, the day has come, and the result is year. It really touches the bottom of my heart to see all of you here tonight. However, I have to say that this event wouldn't have been a possibility if it weren't for some special organizations, student organizations, professional institutions, mostly, the Cornell administrations. Some of them are, of course, the College Republicans, the Puerto Rico Students Associations, the Freedom and Free Society, the Bartels Family Fund, the Cornell Programming Board, the Trial Foundation, Delta Gamma Sorority, Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity, and Psi Ubsilon Fraternity.
I want to recognize, before I hand it in to Konstantin, I want to specially recognize two persons in the Cornell administration that were with me step to step. Every step of the way, they carried that with me. And those are Mr. Steven Johnson, vice president of government and community relations at the school, and Ms. Jacqueline Powers, the director of federal relations at Cornell University.
As well, and lastly, some friends of mine that, with them, we wouldn't be here tonight. And I want to show them some gratitude, and their names are Antonio [? Pedratoni, ?] Ryan Coyne, Konstantin Drabkin, and Ray Mensah. Without you, this has never been a possibility.
A round of applause for them. Especially to the governor for being here, and all of you. Thank you, I really appreciate it from the bottom my heart, seeing each and every one of you here. So now I'm going to leave it up to Mr. Konstantin.
KONSTANTIN DRABKIN: Thank you guys. I also want to thank everyone for coming down tonight. I know it's Monday night. But you know what, this is an amazing opportunity, and the governor is an amazing guy. I think you'll really enjoy this speech, and come away with a sense of understanding of the politics of Puerto Rico. Luis Fortuño is the ninth and current governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States. He's a president of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, and a member of the United States Republican Party.
Governor Fortuño earned his Bachelor of Science from George Washington University, and his JD from the University of Virginia Law School. In 1990s, Fortuño served as Puerto Rico's first secretary of economic development and commerce, as well as the executive director of Puerto Rico's tourism company, and president of Puerto Rico's Hotel Development Corporation. In 2004, he was elected to the United States Congress, where he serves as the chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, as well as the vice president of his freshman class, and a ranking member of the newly created United States House Subcommittee on the Natural Resources and Insular Affairs
After his 2008 landslide victory for governor, Fortuño has implemented distinguished fiscal reforms to combat the record $3.2 billion deficit he inherited when he became a governor. His plan is still going strong. Governor Fortuño has strong support on both sides of the aisle. He's the vice president of the Republican Governors Association, as well as, he was recently selected by President Obama himself to be on his select council of governors.
As another example of the bipartisan support Mr. Fortuño is so lucky to have, is at this speech is obviously endorsed by the Cornell Republicans, which I am the chairman, as well as the Puerto Rico Young Democrats. Mr. Fortuño has been mentioned and endorsed to run for vice president of the United States in 2012 and 2016. And now, my friend Julio will say a couple words in Spanish.
JULIO GABRAL: This is going to be in Spanish, OK?
[SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Thank you. Thank you and good evening. Thank you Julio and Konstantin. I thank you all, I thank Cornell University, and all the organizations that worked together to make this event possible. I'm very glad to be here tonight. I know you have had a tough winter. Are you ready for spring? I hope you are. It's just around the corner. Actually, the last couple of days have been beautiful here.
And our subject tonight is warm Puerto Rico. And that should help us all get in the mood for the spring. You know, nature's seasons, and much of human history shows us that sometimes the toughest times are the prelude for renewal, and the dawn of some of the most surprisingly beautiful times. We also know that when it comes to temporal affairs of human kind, we cannot count on any determinism. The extent to which peace follows war, recovery follows recession, and injustices are corrected depends on the actions we take both individually and collectively.
That's why what Julio and Konstantin, and all the other groups have done, along with the College Republicans, the university administration, and other co-sponsors is really so important, and should never be underestimated. Thanks to their initiative and the participation of all of us here, we have gathered to share some thoughts and ideas in this unique context, at this juncture in history, in a constructive way.
And if I may say something, Julio, by the way, is one of those guys I'm glad to have on my side. Keep your eye out for this guy. He happens to be a good friend of our sons, who happen to be here. And actually, who are getting ready to go to college come August. I
Realize some different titles have been out there in the promotional materials about what I'm going to talk about tonight. There is no doubt that, from a strictly political point of view for so many of our fellow Americans, what makes Puerto Rico of real interest, and actually curiosity, is the possibility that this shining star of ours in the Caribbean will finally become a full-fledged part of this great nation as the 51st state of the union. So yes I will talk about how we're coming along on the road to statehood. And when we get to the Q&A session at the end of my remarks, I'll be more than glad to continue this dialogue.
However, to provide a broader context, and at the same time discuss the relationship we have with Cornell, my title for my remarks tonight is "Puerto Rico's Stellar Vocation." In the context of America, let us understand first that Puerto Rico does have a stellar vocation, and the island does shine in so many ways. Cornell is very much a part of the equation, through the observatory at Arecibo. Since 1963, the largest and most sensitive radio telescope on earth, the Arecibo observatory has literally expanded the knowledge of all mankind.
It was there that the first discovery of planets outside the solar system was made. No other facility on Earth is a better position to actually hear the signal so many around the world have been waiting for, of intelligent extraterrestrial life. The work being done through the Arecibo observatory in the study of pulsars, plasma physics, and near-Earth asteroids is just amazing, and as well important. That's why in Congress, and now as governor, I have been committed to making sure that work goes on. Allow me to take this opportunity to thank Cornell University for its leadership role in the operation of the Arecibo observatory.
I'd like to just mention the impact of the observatory, and what it has had on our young people. The observatory attracts about 100,000 visitors a year. About 30,000 of those are schoolchildren from the island. Less than 50 miles from the observatory is the Mayaguez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. It is not an accident that the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez graduates more Hispanic engineers than any other university anywhere else in the entire United States. And hundreds of those graduates, they happen to be working at NASA.
The Arecibo observatory is a patrimony of all mankind. The financing and research partnerships that make the work of the observatory possible, starting with this higher education institution should be strengthened and expanded. The challenge for all of us is to use our creative capacities and commitment to do just that. Whether the issue is the future of the observatory, the future of Puerto Rico, or the nation as a whole, we have got to be cognizant of the fact that we live in extraordinary tough times.
We're coming out of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. We're literally digging ourselves out of a hole. And certainly what I don't want to see us do at the national level is to end up digging ourselves into another one, and I have concerns that we may be doing just that. When I took office in January of last year, what I encountered was a fiscal deficit of over $3.2 billion. That amount was more than four times the amount that had been certified to us during the transition period.
In proportional terms, it was higher than California's, and for that matter, higher than any other state or territory in the rest of the country. Let there be no doubt, within my sphere of action as governor, my biggest immediate priority from the outset has been, number one, to put our fiscal house in order. Number two, to spur private sector growth. And number three, to establish a solid foundation upon which we can build a new era of economic growth.
It turned out that since June of 2008, the government of Puerto Rico had stopped paying rent, its electric bills, its water bills, and its cell phone bills. It actually owed more than $1.3 billion to its suppliers. The previous government had brought Puerto Rico to the brink of bankruptcy. Our credit rating was on the verge of being downgraded to junk status. Which, in layman's terms, means we were about to lose our house.
But as I told the folks back home last March, I didn't come to look back, or backwards. I came to go forward, and take action to overcome the crisis that we had inherited. Thankfully, we saved our credit in Wall Street by taking immediate steps of fiscal discipline. That discipline, which is needed in Washington today.
I started at the top. I cut my own salary, and that of all cabinet secretaries. I eliminated 30% of government political appointee positions, I cut operating expenses by 10% across the board, and I pushed through legislation to freeze all government salaries and benefits for two years. We set in motion a plan to incentivize voluntary retirement, and transition government employees to the private sector. And as a last resort, we began the difficult process of layoffs, starting with those who had been mostly recently entered the government workforce.
It's a very tough process, and one that other states and jurisdictions throughout our country are also going through as we speak. We're now in the midst of an across the board government reorganization and transformation program that will ensure that in the future, the government remains lean, agile, and efficient. All in all, we should have slashed $2 billion from our budget in our first fiscal year.
As I have frequently said, it's about time that our government act like every other American family does, including those in Puerto Rico. It is time for government to learn to live within its own means. To move forward economic recovery, we also launched a local stimulus program. This includes funds to help low income families buy homes, the construction of new low-cost housing, and guaranteed loans to small and medium sized businesses.
We approved a complete overhaul of our permitting process, to streamline and simplify our permitting process, in order to jump start new private sector investment. Last summer, we also pushed through what I consider the most advanced public-private partnership legislation in the nation. The importance of these partnerships is that they will allow us to continue developing infrastructure, and state-of-the-art public services in a way that doesn't cost additional money to taxpayers.
Over the next few years, our P3 program will generate $7 billion in new investment in infrastructure, and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs. It's all part of a new strategic model of a new economy, within three basic pillars-- restoring growth, improving our infrastructure, and strengthening our competitiveness. Since we started these efforts, in just the past year, Puerto Rico has received its first credit upgrade in 10 years. For the first time in over a decade, the revenues of the government of Puerto Rico are now in line with what had been budgeted.
And our council of economists, which is a group of independent, highly-respected practitioners in their field has announced that our economy has entered a stabilization phase, and is projected to enter a full recovery phase later this year, in 2010. Moreover, as we speak, we're working on legislation to lower individual and corporate taxes across the board to spur economic growth. I'm convinced that a dollar in the people's hands will be much better use than that same dollar in the hands of any government.
What's disturbing to me as a governor and as a citizen, when I look at the direction the nation is headed right now, is that Washington is in the grips of an unsustainable agenda of big government, and an incredible deficit spending. The motor of our economy is not the government, but our people-- their creativity, ingenuity, and hard work. What makes the current juncture at the national level even more challenging for us in Puerto Rico is precisely our inherently inequitable status as a territory.
When it comes to the laws that govern us at the federal level, we simply do not have a place at the table. Nothing illustrates the situation better than what we're facing right now, with health care reform in Congress. We as Americans, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, may have disagreements about the nature of the federal health care reform, about what should and should not be included.
But what we should be able to agree upon is that all of our nation's citizens, no matter where they live, should have equal access. That includes existing federal health care programs, along with the new provisions for health care that are being discussed as we speak. If a national goal is equal access to high quality care for all Americans, it cannot be achieved unless and until the 4 million American citizens residing in Puerto Rico are fully and equally included.
The health care reform proposal that came out of the White House just last month doesn't do that. It actually fails to reflect previous commitments by the president to move Puerto Rico towards equality. It's a real step backward, in comparison to the step forward that the house had taken just last year on this same issue. Our lack of equal treatment at the federal level in health care, means that each year our health care infrastructure on the island-- and the American citizens in Puerto Rico that need help the most-- are shortchanged by billions of dollars, in comparison to their fellow citizens here on the mainland.
But health care is only the most striking example of the inequities of a chronically dysfunctional and basically disenfranchised territorial status. The inequities are both economic and civic, and go to the very heart of what it means to be a full-fledged citizens of this great nation. And so we come to the matter of Puerto Rico's place at the table in the family that we call America.
For 4 million of your fellow citizens in the Caribbean, it is a great unfinished business of American history. My own preference for the best and rightful final status of Puerto Rico is well known by pretty much everyone on the island. I believe in equality. Our people are capable, they are ready, they are able to assume the full rights and the full obligations of the citizenship we share.
As I see it, to seek other solutions, or to forego equality is to forego the very nature of American citizenship. It is contrary to this extraordinary experiment that we call America. But the issue now before the nation is to take this matter once and for all directly to the voters, to the people-- to us, the people of Puerto Rico in the first place-- whether or not they want to continue in the current status.
It's something that has never been done by Congress in all of 112 years as a territory of the United States. It is the right thing to do. And that is why today, 181 members of Congress-- both Democrats and Republicans-- are co-sponsors of House Resolution 2499, called the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, which was authored by our non-voting representative in Congress, Pedro Pierluisi.
The Puerto Rico Democracy Act is the right thing to do, because, for the first time, Congress will directly consult the people of Puerto Rico on their preferences. Beginning with an up or down vote on the status quo. The bill does not favor or exclude any status option, and much less, mandate any outcome. But it does take seriously the right of the people to express themselves on this basic issue of democracy.
And if, in such a vote, the current status no longer enjoys the support of the majority, then the time will have come for the people to choose among options that are recognized by the Justice Department under the last three precedents as the valid, permanent, and non-territorial status options. That is-- and those are either independence, sovereign association, or statehood. Whatever choice the people make in such a vote, it will not be self-executing, but will be subject to further consideration both by Congress, and by the people of Puerto Rico, as to the next steps to be taken.
Last fall, that Puerto Rico Democracy Act was overwhelmingly approved by the House Natural Resources Committee. It is now ready to go to the floor of the House, and it should be enthusiastically approved. With that momentum, that time will have come for the Senate to do likewise, and for the president to sign the bill into law. In 2008, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party platforms recognize the need for action on this issue.
The Democratic Party platform pledge was for the White House and Congress to work to enable the question of Puerto Rico's status to be resolved during this current, four-year term that began last January. President Obama reiterated that pledge to the people of Puerto Rico in a letter he made public on the day of my inauguration as governor. The Republican Party platform supports, and I quote, "The right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state after they freely so determined." End quote.
It also calls for status referenda. Ladies and gentlemen, the fundamental issue that the Puerto Rico Democracy Act brings before Congress and the American people is this-- the people of Puerto Rico have a right to form a government that would provide them with equal voting representation in the government that makes and implements their national laws, and to determine their preference regarding the island's status among all possible options. The urgency of this matter is not only Puerto Rico's, but the nation's. As the president himself has said, support for democracy begins here at home.
I have a vision of Puerto Rico-- and actually, for that matter, of America-- where the citizens of the island are not separated from those on the mainland by a wall of political inequality created by an achronic territorial status. I see a Puerto Rico which finally takes its rightful place at the table of the American family, with the same rights and responsibilities as all the rest. I see a Puerto Rico prepared to fulfill its potential for social, economic, and political development, and in so doing, will contribute to the enrichment of the nation as a whole.
And I see a bright star on the horizon, and a brighter constellation on the field of blue we call Old Glory. This is my vision of Puerto Rico, and of America, and of a more perfect union. I hope you share it. And I hope you will help me fight for it. Thank you very much, and God bless you all.
JULIO GABRAL: Now we're going to pass to a question and answer session. We're going to go by raise of hand, and there's supposed to be some ushers. I'm going to go practically, so there's no preference. The governor will answer, of course. Let's over here, with you, sir.
AUDIENCE: Yes. Good evening. My name is [SPEAKING IN SPANISH], I'm from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. I'm currently working in Syracuse. It is obvious that in 112 years, the United States has not resolved our colonial status. It is true, we are a colony. We are nothing else but a colony since 1493, 1492, 1493. Why do we want to be a state if the United States obviously doesn't want us?
Why do we do not insert ourselves as a sovereign nation in this global economy, and make our own path? Why don't we become independent, and don't have to face the government in Washington, and start our own health care reform. It is obvious that if they don't even include us in their health care reform--
JULIO GABRAL: Sir, can we go to the question, please?
AUDIENCE: Well the question is, why become a state, and not become a sovereign nation?
JULIO GABRAL: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Being a sovereign nation, I think, will lead Puerto Rico to a better economy, to a better future, instead of being a state. Viva Puerto Rico Libre!
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: I-- I respect [? Braulio's ?] opinion. Certainly in the last three or four elections, the Independence Party has gathered less than 3% of the vote. So the people have to decide that. The people have to decide that. I am proud to be an American citizen, and a Puerto Rican as well. And actually, there is, really, what we need to do is demand our rights in this great nation of ours.
And certainly, I believe that in that process, our referenda, independence should be an option, and those that feel like [? Braulio ?] should vote for independence. In the last few elections, their candidates get less than 3% of the vote, but they have a right to be on the ballot, and they will be on the ballot.
JULIO GABRAL: Please, we're going to go-- if you have a question, please do a line on the mic there, please, if you're so kind. The next question-- the next question, please?
AUDIENCE: Hello governor. Is this mic on? Can you hear me? OK. Hi, how are you governor? My name is Albert [? Preci ?] [? Asteres ?] and I'm a proud Puerto Rican San Sebastián del Pepino. You know, the Puerto Rican people have voted three times on their status, to no avail. In 1967, the plebiscite was proposed, and a commonwealth won 60% of the vote, statehood won 39.
In 1993, commonwealth won 48% of the vote, statehood won 46% of the vote. In 1998, the referendum, statehood won 48% of the vote, and 50.1% was won by the commonwealth.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: That's not correct. That's not correct. That was none of the above.
AUDIENCE: OK, I'm sorry, none of the above won 50.1% of the vote, I'm sorry. Today we have--
JULIO GABRAL: The question, the question, please.
AUDIENCE: OK, I'm almost done. Today we have former governor Rafael Hernández Colón writing to members of Congress, saying that Puerto Rico is simply too poor to become a state, with 14.9% unemployment, and $14,000 in per capita income. My question to you is, do you think your political capital is best spent on this new plebiscite, or in addressing the economic conditions. I'm a huge supporter of yours, I would just like to know the answer.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Well, as I mentioned, my agenda has been the economy, the economy, the economy. That's what I have been doing, certainly. But I believe we have to address other issues as well. And that's why I'm fully engage on issues that have to do with health care, with education. I've been working very closely with Secretary Duncan here to do the same thing. Tomorrow I have meetings in Washington regarding mass transit and other transportation issues.
So I have to address all issues. But if you may recall, in my campaign, I made a commitment that there will be a process by which people will be able to express themselves. In the 1998 plebiscite and 1993 plebiscites-- if I may say something. Actually, you see a trend where, actually, the lines are crossing at some point, and they did in the '90s. The option that was being put forth, actually, 1993-- was a third option, other than independence and statehood-- was a status option that is not real.
But bottom line, actually, was again proposed today by those that have supported commonwealth. It's a deal where we retain American citizenship, we do not pay any federal taxes, but we get full parity on every federal program. We have veto power over legislation approved by Congress that we don't like, and we have veto power over wars we may not like. Well, if that were to be approved, there will be 50 requests for the same deal. And I don't blame anyone for voting for that, certainly.
So we need an honest broker to be able to promote any kind of referendum. And that's what I'm saying, that I have my own preference-- although I respect others that have other preferences. But my commitment on this issue was that there'll be a process, sanctioned by Congress, in order for people to express themselves. But I can tell you that my time is spent, most of the time is spent on economic issues. Because again, we inherited a major crisis, and we're starting to come out of that situation.
The fiscal situation was the worst in the country, by far. California's situation pales compared to ours. And that's exactly what we're doing.
AUDIENCE: Thank you, governor.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Thank you.
JULIO GABRAL: The next question to decide please?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, hi. Good evening, governor, good evening, Cornell community. My name is Roberto, I come from Binghamton University. I just noticed this event was going to come today. And I represent one of many concerned citizens and environmental groups and coalitions in the island. My main concern is the island's development model over the past decade, which compromises and threatens any status [? formula ?] in the island.
I want to give you a quick review of our environmental crisis in the island. An average Puerto Rican produces 5.6 pounds of garbage every day. The average US citizen produces 4.5. 99.7 of our energy is produced by burning fossil fuels. However, instead of looking for alternatives, sustainable forms of producing energy, our government is promoting a new coal factory fire plan in Guyama, Puerto Rico, right next to a low-income community.
In terms of water, according to the EPA, 45% of our population lacks a sanitary sewer service--
JULIO GABRAL: Sir, sir, to the question.
AUDIENCE: Give me one second, I'll finish my statement.
JULIO GABRAL: Sir, sir, to the question, please. There are other members that want to ask questions.
AUDIENCE: However, our administration is threatening the [INAUDIBLE] region of Puerto Rico, with the removal of 35% of its protected area.
JULIO GABRAL: Sir.
AUDIENCE: I'll come to my question in one second. OK, just give me one second.
Let me look for the question, then I'll finish, OK? All right. Sadly, in October of last year, despite a [? three-partition ?] effort to protect the Northeast ecological corridor, our most important ecological corridor in the island, Governor Luis Fortuño reassigned the area designation as a natural reserve in an unprecedented in Puerto Rican history. Now, the second most important leatherback turtle nesting beach in the US jurisdiction could be open for luxury residential developments, resorts, roads, and malls. My question for the governor is--
JULIO GABRAL: Thank you, thank you.
AUDIENCE: What is the government of Puerto Rico doing to promote a green economy, and a sustainable and safe status for the future of the generations yet to come in the shining star of the Caribbean? Thank you.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Excellent question. Excellent question, because I actually-- to be very honest, we're a small island, it's overpopulated. And we need to address all of those issues that he mentioned. So let me go one by one. Our most pressing issue as I see it right now has to do with solid waste, and the fact that we haven't had a plan, really, to handle solid waste on the island.
And we're working together with EPA to promote more recycling and reuse. But also we need to reduce what gets, eventually gets to the landfills. Because we need to close a number of landfills around the island [INAUDIBLE] that's going into our underwater table, and is affecting the health of the communities around it. And that's exactly what we intend to do.
Secondly, energy production in Puerto Rico. And indeed, it's based on fossil fuel, which makes no sense. And what we are doing, actually, I have new legislation that is being discussed as we speak for the creation of an green energy fund that will actually work in tandem, what is the Department of Energy at the federal level is now working on, in terms of the creation of credits for alternative sources of energy.
In the meantime, what we are promoting is that we shut down those plants that use petroleum and use natural gas-- which is much cleaner, and much cheaper-- until we move fully into alternative sources of energy. And that's the idea. And actually, every two weeks, I preside myself a group from in my cabinet, that we are pushing forward those projects that will benefit both from the federal government DOE credit program, tax credit program, as well as a green energy fund that we have created. So in that sense, we are in agreement.
Regarding areas to be protected, including the one in the Northeast, the plan, really-- and we're working with credible scientists to expand that group, and to bring it all the way to El Yunque, which is the Caribbean rainforest, the largest in the US Forest Service. And at the end of the day, with the scientific base that is needed, that will be strengthened. And I've asked everyone to give us the time.
So that we propose something that is specific, and that is a commitment that I made-- at least back on the island-- on this issue. So at the end of the day, that whole area will be protected. But there's another area, which is even larger, that will be included as an additional reserve, and we're very close to making an announcement. But it's based on science, not on politics. So we will have not one, but two reserves before the end of this year.
So I believe that we need to protect the environment, and we need to do it, but based on science. And working in tandem with not for profit organizations, and the federal government, that that's exactly what we're doing.
JULIO GABRAL: Now a question to you, lady, please.
AUDIENCE: [SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Gracias.
AUDIENCE: [SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Gracias.
AUDIENCE: How very savvy of you to change the title of your talk at the very last minute. Similar fiscal policies to those that have been adopted by your government, and that you explained just now have been, here in the US, historically ineffective in the promotion of social justice.
Among American citizens that live here right now-- I can tell you, I live here-- there's nothing but huge differences in terms of the distribution of income, not to mention wealth. And these become even more terrible when you look at them in terms of race. So could you explain again-- or just for the first time-- exactly what type of equality is said that you are trying to achieve?
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Sure. I believe it's wrong that decisions are made every day in Washington, in Congress, and by any administration that is in place at this moment with President Obama. And at the same time, those laws and regulations apply fully to Puerto Rico, and to the 4 million American citizens that reside in Puerto Rico.
But yet, we lack at the two senators that every American citizens has representing them. And we lack a voting member of Congress to defend our rights. And we were not able to vote for the--
President who makes those decisions. So we are equal in the trenches. We're equal when there's war. However, at peace time, we lack that equality. And that's the one I'm fighting for.
JULIO GABRAL: Now to the gentleman over here, please.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. Good night, governor.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Good night.
AUDIENCE: My question is two ways. I didn't vote in the last referendum, because I was under age, But I lived through. And I know that that was like, a big waste of time and money, because it result in nothing. And part of it, I think, is because, generally, the people were unhappy with the government in that time, and that was a way to protest against that.
So right now, there's a new referendum in the making. We've proposed to make multiple referendums, instead, like, just one. So my first question is, what is the advantage of having multiple referenda to justify the amount of money and time to put into it. Why ask first, are you happy like you are right now? And then ask, do you want to be independence? Why don't ask all of them at the same time? Or why not ask first, do you want to be a statehood or not, first? And then do other thing.
And then, a second question, right now, the general idea in Puerto Rico, I think my feeling is that they're very unhappy, also, with your government. So what do you want, what do you plan to do to make people actually go and vote in these plebiscites, and not make it like, another protest, and fail like the last one?
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Sure. Well, what we are doing is taking the recommendations that have been made by the last two administrations in Washington, as to what needs to happen. In the last two administrations-- this one hasn't said anything about status-- but the last two administrations essentially said that we need to determine whether we wanted to remain as a territory or not first.
If we wanted to move on from territorial status, then there were three options. And this has been stated, actually, by the last three administrations-- by Bush, Sr., Clinton, and Bush, Jr. And essentially, the three options that will end this discussion once or for all are statehood, independence, or free association of two sovereign nations that can enter into an agreement, and that either one can walk away from that agreement at any moment. And that has implications on citizenship and whatever.
So those are the three options that are determined. HR 2499 simply states exactly the same that has been recommended in the last two administrations. And that's what it calls for. It's two votes, and that's basically it. We are going to be amending our state constitution to reduce the size of our state legislature. So we could have at least one of those votes on the same day, and that could be handled in the same polling places.
So there's no, really-- other than the printing of the ballots-- there's no extra additional cost to that. But this is a very basic question of our democracy. And if the voters want to express themselves, they should. And there should be really no limitation on why or how to express themselves. Because every single day, there are decisions being made in Washington, in bodies where we are not fully represented, or where we lack the voice that if we had moved here, we would have.
And let me give you an example. If any of you who are residents of the State of New York, or any other state, were to move to Puerto Rico, immediately you would lose your rights. You would not have two voting-- two senators, and you would not have the right to vote for a voting member of Congress. And worse yet, you would not be able to vote for the president.
If you work to move to Baghdad, or to China, you would retain the right to vote for the president. But if you move to Puerto Rico, you lose that right. If any one living in Puerto Rico moves to any of the 50 states, and registers to vote, since we're American citizens, that person will immediately gain all those rights. That is wrong. And that has to be corrected. And it has to be corrected as soon as possible.
JULIO GABRAL: Now we'll go on to the gentleman over here, please.
AUDIENCE: Hi, Mr. Governor, welcome to Cornell. Alejandro [? Sidro ?] from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: You know, the general Cornell community has very few interactions with political figures as yourself, so events like this make a lasting impression. Which is why it's important to sometimes put the other side of the coin out there. So even though my question goes a little bit against your policies, I mean no disrespect at all.
Your policy philosophies argues for a reduction of government spending, yet the more than 20,000 layoffs in the government translate into a shift from state-oriented spending to federal spending, which takes the burden of the Puerto Rican state government, and putting into the federal government, who now have to maintain a body of unemployed people. Isn't this policy ironic, and doesn't it increase a dependency that ultimately ties Puerto Ricans who just lost their jobs to the US federal government-- which pushes for statehood, an ideology that although many, many Puerto Ricans believe in, many, others do not?
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Sure. And actually, it's a fair question, if I may say so. And that's why I'm here, and I enjoy coming to this type of settings to address this questions, and to have this type of dialogue. First of all, I wish there were no layoffs. 41 states have had layoffs in the last 12 months. And I'm sure those governors feel the same way as I do. However, no governor, no governor had, proportionately speaking, the budget deficit that I faced.
Fully 40% of our state budget the day I came in was a deficit. 40%. If you do that with your household budget, or your business budget, or the university budget, you'll be broke. You would not be able to sustain it. We had no money to meet our first payroll January 15th, 2009.
So we had no choice but to start cutting. And at the end of the day, we had to cut-- actually at the end of the day, we'll be less than 13,000 jobs. I wish it would be none. However, let me tell you what has happened. Because we provided that same time not only a safety net, where we guaranteed for a full year, the health care insurance for them and their families. And we provided $5,000 for them to set up a new business, or to go study.
Or, we granted them half of their salary for half a year, if they were hired by a non-for-profit organization or a private sector industry or company. What has happened in the last four months is that, as total employment in government has been coming down, total employment in the private sector has been going up. So that's what has been happening.
And I truly believe that the government has a role, but it should be limited. The private sector creates wealth, the government consumes it. And I believe the right time, really, in a very sensible way, to move away from that, and to be able to give back to the taxpayers what they worked so hard at trying to get. And I know people that hold two jobs, are working very hard, and they feel it makes no sense, because the government keeps so much of their paychecks.
And that's why we intend to continue our fiscal discipline so we cut taxes to every individual, starting January 1st, 2011. And I respect people that don't feel that way. But I believe that same dollar will go a longer way in the people's hands than in the government hands. And that's the way I feel.
JULIO GABRAL: We're going to go now to the last three questions. So we're going to go one, two, and three. We're going to end on this side. So you're not going to be able to ask questions, I'll may ask you to please sit down. We're going to have the last three questions, please. So over this side, sir.
AUDIENCE: I think it's my turn now.
JULIO GABRAL: Oh yeah, sorry.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Good evening, [SPEAKING SPANISH] Puerto Rico. I want to know your opinion on what Tim Schultz has declared to be a somewhat failed language policy in your fight for statehood, and how the government, the current government of Puerto Rico hasn't managed to install English as the official language. And may I quote from the article [SPEAKING SPANISH] that was released yesterday by Juan [? Delgado. ?] That Mr. Schultz says, I mean, it's translated.
I'm just quoting verbatim.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Why should we stop speaking in English, or Spanish? I mean, the government has no role, in my opinion, in telling us what language to use. I want my children to be fully bilingual, and they are, thank goodness.
Let me tell you something, we call this-- more than 90% of parents in Puerto Rico want their children to speak perfect English, and we are going to make sure that that happens. Having said that, I believe that we can and should keep Spanish, and tell that to the 45 million Hispanics that live in the 50 states, as an alternative.
And actually, I believe that strengthens our nation as a whole, to have people that actually can be bilingual or trilingual. If we're talking about opening up markets in different areas, and different places. If we speak different languages, that will allow us to open up markets, especially in this hemisphere, where Spanish makes, you know, it makes a lot of sense for business people to speak Spanish, and that helps you in your business endeavors in the rest of the hemisphere. So that makes a lot of sense.
Well, let me tell you what I told a member of Congress. And I respect, some people feel that there should be only one language in this nation. I think we should all speak English, but we should have a right to speak other languages as well. And that person, believe, in not English first, which I understand actually. It was English only.
And I said, you know what, I fully understand-- I told the senator, he's no longer there. I fully understand how you feel about this. And I said, it's fine if we have to file documents in English, and what have you. But no one in Washington will tell me what language to use when we pray at home, or when I tell my children and my wife that I love them.
JULIO GABRAL: You can go ahead, sir.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: [SPEAKING SPANISH]. My name is Hector [SPEAKING SPANISH]. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I have lived here in Ithaca for 27 years, in the Department of Chemistry here at Cornell. First 30 seconds is sort of truth in advertising, and that is that the budget that you referred to really came, starting from the administration of Pedro Rosselló, so let's call a spade a spade.
But we're not here to talk about deficits, but rather the thing about statehood for Puerto Rico. So let's say I live in Oklahoma, and I look at the four million people coming to the US, or becoming US citizens. In essence, to basically, there will be more resources going to Puerto Rico than they currently have right now. Why should I want to do that?
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: I'm sorry, I don't understand--
AUDIENCE: Why should or any citizen of the US want to make Puerto Rico a state?
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: OK, I fully understand that. Let me, first of all--
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Let me first of all clarify that the previous governor was not Rosselló, it was--
AUDIENCE: No, no, no. I know who the previous governor was. But--
JULIO GABRAL: Sir.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Anyway.
AUDIENCE: Before that, it was Rosselló. But you know, truth in advertising here.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Well, that's your opinion. You know, [INAUDIBLE] feel differently, but that's OK. And they are independent credit rating agencies that review our credit. And saw how our credit rating in the last five years went down for notches and we were going down the tubes. And we're doing what we need to do to save the credit of, actually, the government, the state government.
Having said that, let me tell you something. This great nation of ours, actually, is strong, and it has been strong for over 220 years because of the diversity of our people. And I believe that it makes a lot of sense for this nation, actually, to showcase to the rest of the world that indeed, we are a diverse nation, and that we embrace that diversity in a way that will strengthen-- I'm convinced-- the nation, especially we want to build bridges towards the rest of the hemisphere.
Not just for business purposes, but for other their geopolitical purposes and what have you. And Puerto Rico can serve very well in that fashion. But having done that, there is something that goes even beyond that. And that is something that distinguishes this nation. What is right, versus what is wrong.
And if we are four million American citizens that have fought in every war since 1917, I want to have whomever has any qualms or questions about whether we should become a state to have accompanied me every time I visited Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, every time a new soldier from Puerto Rico came to Walter Reed. And talked to that soldier, and their families, and asked them, why should they have a right to vote for the commander in chief, or for the members of Congress that sent them to war.
AUDIENCE: That still doesn't explain why somebody in Oklahoma--
JULIO GABRAL: Thank you. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: That still doesn't explain why somebody in Oklahoma--
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: That's your opinion, I respect it, sir. And I'm glad that you have enjoyed staying here for 27 years here.
JULIO GABRAL: Now we're going to go to the last question. The gentleman over here, please.
AUDIENCE: [SPEAKING IN SPANISH]. Oh boy, I'm the last one.
OK. In any relationship, even between governments, you have to have some gives and takes, some-- you have to have a commitment. If you were in DC tonight, or in San Juan, and you were going to sign statehood, what are the things you're to give up, and what are the things that you're willing to take from the United States? And what are the things that you give up from Puerto Rico to become a state of this nation?
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: If I may, and I'd say this with all respect, I don't think that's how the equation works. We have had 37 territories that joined the union and became states. And I don't think the question was, what are you willing to give up, or take? There are some responsibilities, obligations that come along with your citizenship. And there are some privileges and rights that come along with those.
And what I believe in is that we should have all those obligations, and all those privileges. But what I believe is wrong is what we have today, whereby we don't have the two senators in the Senate, or a voting member of Congress in the decision making process that affects our everyday life. Or we cannot vote for the president of our nation in that process, either.
If that's going to be the case, then we should, again, we should have a right to decide whether we remain as part of this great nation of ours, or not. But that's what we have to solve. It's not giving or taking, we are fully engaging what it means to be a full-fledged American citizen. And that's why I aspire for our people.
JULIO GABRAL: Thank you. Before we close up the event, I want to call up on the stage Mr. Steven Johnson, vice president for Cornell University in Government Relations.
GOV. LUIS G. FORTUNO: Thank you. Thank you, again. I appreciate it.
STEVEN JOHNSON: I want to express the university's appreciation to the sponsors of tonight's event, and the co-sponsors for making this possible. I also want to express a thank you to you the audience for your thoughtful questions and comments tonight. Last, I especially want to thank the governor for honoring us here tonight with his presence. Before we say good evening, could we give one more round of applause to the governor for his coming here?
Thank you, and have a good evening.
AUDIENCE: [SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
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Governor of Puerto Rico Luis G. Fortuño advanced the cause of statehood for the commonwealth during a speech March 8 in Bailey Hall.
Fortuño discussed an impending vote by the people of Puerto Rico to choose independence, statehood or remaining a commonwealth. He also detailed economic reforms he has made to restore fiscal health and cut a budget deficit, and other challenges facing the commonwealth, in light of its territorial status and relationship with the United States.