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U.S. House committee chair supports Puerto Rico statehood

(Reuters) - U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop said on Friday he supports the government of Puerto Rico’s efforts to introduce bipartisan legislation in Congress to grant full statehood to the U.S. commonwealth territory.

“I am supportive of statehood. I think it is a solution that is long overdue,” Bishop, a Republican from Utah, said during a visit to the island that was broadcast over the internet.

Puerto Rico is still in the throes of recovering from September’s devastating spate of hurricanes that killed dozens and completely knocked out power, deepening the economic woes for the island’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens. Many of them have decamped for the mainland United States in search of jobs and social services.

Bishop’s committee has overseen the process, well before the hurricanes, of addressing Puerto Rico’s financial insolvency. It declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history one year ago when it said it could not service its $120 billion in debt and pension obligations.

Committee aides gave no firm timetable for holding a hearing on Puerto Rico statehood much less advancing statehood legislation. The last time the United States gained a state was in 1959 when Hawaii became the 50th state.

Bishop, standing next to Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress, Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, said he was fully supportive of her “bipartisan, bicameral way” of reaching her goal.

“I also realize there are certain steps to get there. They are not necessarily easy steps and what happens to the financial stability of this island is one of those key critical components,” Bishop said.

His committee created the Puerto Rico rescue law known as PROMESA, passed in 2016, which established a federally appointed financial oversight and management board with the authority to negotiate the restructuring of the island’s debt.

Before the status of Puerto Rico were to change, Bishop said, the island would need to establish a “vibrant economy, a stable government that is fiscally sound.”

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio