Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. should not be allowed to vote on the island's potential change of status from U.S. commonwealth to the 51st state, the island's former governor, Luis Fortuño, told Fox News Latino in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview in which he made it clear leaders in Washington have no excuses to take a final, definitive vote on the island's future status.
"This is a state's rights issue and at the end of the day Puerto Rico should follow states rules and laws in determining who votes where," Fortuño said. "Normally, you vote in only one state or jurisdiction and that's where you reside, so if you move to Florida you should vote in Florida not in Puerto Rico and vice versa."
There are more Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland -- nearly 5 million -- than in the island, which has 3.7 million people, according to the Pew Research Center.
The once-rising Republican darling, a leading proponent of the island becoming a state, said it would be a “major disappointment” if Congress does not act on the statehood issue within the next year or two and thinks President Barack Obama needs to take more of a leadership role on the matter.
He said the president, who has pushed for referendum votes on the island that essentially carry no political weight, has “taken the easy way out” by not strongly pushing for a Congressional vote.
"I would love to see the White House get behind the bill. This would require presidential leadership,” he said. “I believe the White House will have to lead this effort because that's the way it has happened in some of the other previous territories that became states."
The former Republican governor lost his re-election bid last November but that has not kept him from promoting the pro-statehood agenda, primarily in the form of a House resolution that would issue a final unprecedented yes or no statehood referendum vote in Puerto Rico.
Fortuño said that the issue of statehood needs to finally be resolved by Congress, who should act on the bill either this year or next because “we cannot live in limbo forever.”
“If that were not to happen, certainly, it would be a major disappointment,” he said. “The bill has 120 co-sponsors and it is a bipartisan bill. This is an American issue. It is not a Puerto Rican issue.”
Fortuño also had choice words for Puerto Rican members of Congress who are against statehood, such as Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Nydia Velazquez (D-NY). They wrote a letter to Congress in July calling the legislation "flawed" because it "would force a federally sanctioned vote in which making Puerto Rico the 51st State would be the only option on the ballot."
The move prompted a snarky reaction from the former governor.
“If they think what we have is so nice and so positive, why don’t they move down to the island?” he said.
Fortuño is currently a private corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C., but he ran Puerto Rico for four years during the peak of the recession.
Critics like Julio Ricardo Varela, founder of LatinoRebels.com, think Fortuño is unnecessarily pitting mainland Puerto Ricans with those that live on the island and that every Puerto Rican should have a say on the issue.
“Governor Fortuño once again is putting the cart before the horse," Varela said. "His focus, as well as those of all Puerto Ricans, is to force Congress to pay attention to the status question and make any final vote a binding one. Instead, his pushing for statehood is dividing Puerto Ricans and is yet another example of old-school politics that no longer works on the island."
Fortuño said that if Puerto Rico were a state during his tenure, it would have been "much easier" to help the country recover.
At one point in 2010, Puerto Rico's unemployment rate skyrocketed to 17 percent. In July, the unemployment rate was at about 14 percent.
"We were doing the right thing. I cut our budget by almost 20 percent. I started flattening our tax system and lowering our rates," he said, calling the unemployment number a tragedy.
He said if Puerto Rico were a state, it would be easier to attract investments and global companies that would create thousands of new jobs on the island.
"There are 50 examples as to why states are successful,” he said. “And there is one example, Puerto Rico, of why territories are no longer successful."
Puerto Rico has been a territory or commonwealth of the United States for 115 years, and Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens by birth since 1917. They pay taxes, Social Security and Medicare for example, but do not pay federal income taxes. Puerto Ricans serve in the U.S. military but they are not allowed to vote for president, and they do not have any votes in the U.S. House or Senate.
The resolution in the House was introduced by Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in Congress. The bill was introduced in May after a non-binding referendum vote last November found a majority of Puerto Ricans support statehood.
When Puerto Ricans were asked if they were content with the current commonwealth status, 54 percent voters said no. When they were asked to choose a status, 61 percent chose statehood.
But those who oppose statehood, including Puerto Rico's current governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, believe the two-question referendum vote was inconclusive because the status quo was not listed as an option, prompting 500,000 Puerto Ricans to leave the question blank.
Opponents say that makes the referendum vote illegitimate. But Fortuño believes November's vote was "fair," pointing to poll numbers as his proof.
"Had the voters decided they wanted to remain a territory,” he said. “Then the second vote would not have happened."