Gov. Luis Fortuno: Puerto Rico deserves statehood

Luis Fortuno, governor of Puerto Rico.

Luis Fortuno, the governor of Puerto Rico, argued Wednesday that the sacrifices made by Puerto Ricans argues strongly for Puerto Rico - now a commonwealth - to become America's 51st state.

"We have been American citizens since 1917," the Republican governor said in a "Washington Unplugged" interview. "We've fought in every single war even since then, actually, with courage and valor, and in greater numbers than most states. Proportionally speaking we actually produce more men and women in uniform then every state than one. So we have demonstrated that we are proud of being part of the nation. Yet when tough decisions are made, we're not around the table. And that makes no sense. So we should either be in or out."

Fortuno said statehood requires nothing more than a majority vote in the House and Senate and the signature of a president. But he added that it's a "process" that could take years, suggesting it potentially involves a new referendum on the part of Puerto Ricans in which they affirm support for statehood. (Puerto Ricans have on three different occasions declined to support statehood in referenda; Fortuno says those referenda asked the wrong questions.)

Asked if the fact that many Puerto Ricans do not speak English argues against statehood, Furtuno noted that all schoolchildren on the island are now taught both languages, adding that the commonwealth is becoming increasingly English-speaking. He also said that Puerto Ricans, who currently receive Social Security benefits but do not pay federal income taxes on income earned on the island, should have to pay federal income taxes if they achieve statehood.

Luis Fortuno, governor of Puerto Rico.

Fortuno has become a favorite of anti-tax conservatives like Grover Norquist for his policies since being elected in 2008, which have included cutting 17,000 public sector jobs, reducing government spending by 20 percent and lowering taxes. He said Wednesday that the situation was so bad when he came into office that his government had to take out a loan to meet its first payroll.

"I cut my own salary, first, by 10 percent," he said. "I cut my cabinet secretary salaries by 5 percent. We cut across the board all government contracts by 15 percent. So we hit everyone. And then I turned to labor and I said, 'you know what? Everyone must chip in.' And some helped out, and others did not. At the end of the day because not everyone helped out, I was forced to go into mandatory and voluntary layoffs. That's - that's the way the cookie crumbles. But we were facing down the abyss at the time."

"I only wish Washington would do exactly the same [as I did]," Fortuno added. "Face up to the problems and just fix them."

Fortuno has been mentioned by likely presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty as a potential running mate, and his name was floated by Norquist as a potential presidential candidate. (Though Fortuno can't vote in the presidential election, he can, as an American citizen, seek the office.) He said Wednesday that he can help Republicans craft a stronger message by campaigning in Hispanic communities and elsewhere.

"I have a responsibility though, at this moment - I'm governor, it's a full time job, I'm enjoying myself, and I will continue to do that as long as the voters allow me to do that," he added. 

Fortuno, who says he has been troubled by some of the rhetoric coming from the GOP on immigration, argues that Republicans should couple a push for greater border security with support for statehood for Puerto Rico -- a combination that he says will help keep the party from alienating Hispanic voters. An opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, he also said Puerto Rico is more conservative than many Americans believe.

The governor said Wednesday he is proud of having already turned around "an economic and fiscal disaster" in his time in office. "It took a lot of sacrifice, and I put my political will on the line, and I'm glad I did that," he said.

Watch excerpts from the interview above. 

Christine Delargy contributed to this report.