State of the Commonwealth Address

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres delivers at his State of the Commonwealth Address on Friday, March 31, 2017, at the Pedro P. Tenorio Multi-Purpose Center. Behind him are House Speaker Ralph Demapan and Senate President Arnold Palacios. (Jon Perez)

Editor’s Note: The following is the text of the speech the authors delivered at his State of the Commonwealth Address on Friday, March 31, 2017, at the Pedro P. Tenorio Multi-Purpose Center. It is being published in two parts due to its length.

Last of two parts

Utilizing our man’amko’s love and respect for our islands is the model I will continue to use as the marker for this administration when it comes to issues concerning the protection of our environment and our island way of life.

To be absolutely clear, I want everyone to understand that this administration has in this past year—and will continue in the future—make public land use and development decisions that ensure the protection and beauty of our islands are maintained and ecosystems stay healthy.

We cannot allow our greatest asset—our environment—to be harmed or disrespected. I will continue to balance and encourage economic growth and development, but not at the price of harming our natural beauty.

During the last year we have, for example, witnessed the closing of the Puerto Rico dump and conversion of that property into the Governor Eloy S. Inos Peace Park, which is something we can all be proud of. The park stands as a testament to the legacy of our late governor who was an environmental champion.

And last December, I was very proud to have signed a document that returned what was rightfully ours from the beginning: our submerged lands. This transfer of ownership strengthens our shared dedication to sustain our unique natural resources for years to come and for our children and grandchildren to benefit. 

And I believe there are no better stewards of our environment than those who live and depend upon the land. That is why I have directed the Department of Public Lands to move forward and eliminate obstacles preventing the CNMI government from continuing to issue homesteads to our people.

I am proud of the work of our DPL on taking charge of this, opening homesteads throughout Rota and Tinian, and most recently issued 13 homestead lots on Saipan for the first time in three years. And more are on the way such the agricultural homesteading program for Pagan.

Another example of prioritizing our environment that I am proud of is reaching an agreement with the United States Air Force that Tinian is the best location for the proposed divert and exercises airfield.

The Department of Defense’s leasing of two-thirds of the island since the formation of the CNMI has stalled the development of the community. The property, which the United States holds under lease for another 66 years, was given with the promise of economic development and activity—a military air base, schools, medical facilities and movie theater.

But instead, after 41 years, two-thirds of the island was not developed. By tying up this vast portion of the island, the military lease restricted potential growth on Tinian.

But now, with the agreement that the divert project will be located on Tinian, economic activity can now begin to happen and I want to thank the United States Air Force and assure you we will continue to work together to make this project a success, especially toward the progress of the Tinian community.

And finally, the CJMT project and the live-fire training range projects proposed for both Tinian and Pagan as presently planned must be recognized as one of the most important environmental and politically challenging issues facing the CNMI today.

There should be no mistake. The CNMI is more than willing to do its part and provide resources for the common good, for the defense of the United States. One of our islands and the waters in a 12-mile radius around FDM are already used exclusively for live fire bombing and training activities.

That is why I believe that asking the sons and daughters of Pagan to give up hope of returning to the land of our ancestors, or allowing the use of Tinian for the high-caliber live-fire training to fulfill the training needs of the entire armed forces located in the Western Pacific, is unreasonable, and contrary to what we agreed to when joining into political union with the United States almost 50 years ago.

I couldn’t help be reminded of this fact last week, we celebrated our Covenant Day. This agreement is more than a political document. It is the embodiment of our rights as a people, who willingly joined the United States under terms we negotiated as equals. I will continue to protect our interests guaranteed under our Covenant. It is who we are, and I will fight for its integrity and importance now more than ever.

I thank Mayor JP San Nicolas, for his ardent support on behalf of the needs and future of the Tinian people.

And I want to take a moment of silence for a champion of our most untouched resources, the guardian of Gani, our late mayor Jerome Aldan, who I have witnessed time and time again fight on behalf of the heritage, future and importance of our treasured islands in the north.

The goal we all share for a healthy population is a reflection of more than just quality healthcare. It requires stable incomes, sanitary housing, good nutrition, and the sustainable pathways to financial viability and labor in our health care network.

I understand that the issues facing our islands’ only hospital are complex and do not get solved overnight. And I commend the hard work being done every day by our doctors and nurses and our public healthcare officials.

But it is important to note that we are in the midst of a healthcare crisis. Our healthcare system, as in most of the other U.. territories, faces major challenges in the areas of access, financing, and labor.

Certainly one of the most dire needs of the CNMI under the CW program is the access to trained and qualified healthcare professionals and is one that is at the forefront of our discussions toward the passage of HR. 3-3-9, which is now with the U.S. Senate.

If passed, HR. 3-3-9 will allow for a momentary increase of the CW program’s numerical limitations this year to allow these vital personnel to continue providing the essential services our people need.

And beyond our hospital’s labor needs, my administration understands that it is important that we help CHCC efficiently manage its finances.

As I mentioned earlier, last December, we made a supplemental appropriation of $7 million for CHCC to pay the past due and outstanding balance to CUC.

Our doctors, our nurses, and our public health officials deserve the peace of mind of making sure CHCC’s finances, utilities, and infrastructure don’t hamper the real work being done by our medical professionals, who dedicate their lives to their patients and making sure they get the care they need.

This is a reason why I signed a law establishing the CHCC governing board to efficiently manage our hospital’s finances by preparing a business plan that not only addresses current revenue shortfalls, but also ensures that the hospital becomes fiscally sustainable for the future.

And as our revenues continue to increase, I will personally make sure that our hospital gets its supplemental appropriation this year so that we can focus less on financing and more on the healthcare concerns facing our community.

One of our biggest healthcare concerns happens also to be our biggest public safety priority. And it is one that hits most, if not, all of us, too close to home.

We see it in the papers. We talk about it among our family and friends. And we feel it when we see someone we love dragged into a cycle of abuse and addiction.

When I get a report from DPS that an officer has arrested another ice user, I would be lying if I told you that I was pleased or happy that they will be put behind bars.

Each new report of abuse of that drug that I read is never easy to receive or accept. I understand the impact that comes with this terrible addiction. I am disheartened as I see a familiar face walking in the streets seemingly lost, because at that moment, I realize that someone is missing a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter, or even a friend. And what weighs even heavier in my heart is that families are now turning away from their loved ones and are giving up. We cannot and will not give up.

The ice crisis on our islands is real. And in this chamber right now, there are people here who have stories. There’s heartache and pain. But there’s also resilience and strength.

I’ve made the War on Ice an important element of my administration, and I’m glad that this issue has been undertaken by all three branches of our government. That spirit of collaboration was seen when we established the CNMI’s first drug court back in October 2015.

I commend Chief Justice Castro and Presiding Judge Naraja for their leadership in managing this new addition to our judicial branch. I would also like to recognize Judge Teresa Kim-Tenorio for giving this drug court the direction it needs to succeed. They deserve a round of applause.

To further enhance our goal of getting our loved ones the care and treatment they need, I established the rehabilitation program—the signature policy initiative of my administration. This new program’s mission is to provide recovering drug addicts with the tools necessary to reintegrate into society.

The program is working hard to establish a residential service that would provide a 24-hour high-quality extended care for individuals with chronic addiction needing long-term, supervised residential treatment. And within this program, gambling addiction and PTSD for our veterans will also be served.

So I say this, let’s continue to work together to get non-violent drug offenders out of jail and into treatment programs. It’s good for them and their families, and it lessens the load of the hardest working people in our community: our law enforcement officials.

Almost two years ago, this administration formed the CNMI Drug Enforcement Task Force, which is comprised of DPS officers, CNMI Customs, Department of Corrections, and the DEA, and has opened investigations against 120 individuals for controlled substance violations.

In the past year, the task force has identified two large-scale drug trafficking organizations operating on Saipan. About 232 grams of ice and more than $100,000 in assets have been seized. More than $5 million in drugs and assets off our streets and away from our children.

I signed Public Law 19-86 last month, which allows Customs to conduct K-9 unit drug detections for all inter-island commuter flights and seaport entries. We have also equipped our officers on Tinian and Rota with new vehicles and more resources. And we have secured x-ray machines for all ports of entry. This will step up our enforcement on all three islands.

While these steps are good, this type of investigative work is extremely difficult and dangerous. And the strain on our officers is heavy.

Our law enforcement officials work early mornings, nights, and weekends, and even on holidays, sacrificing time with their families and friends. I am very proud of these brave men and women because they work to protect our community each and every day. Their service is the highest form of citizenship.

It is the reason why I made it a personal commitment to give our law enforcement their first salary increase since 2001. And with our growing economy, I will continue to make sure we give them what they rightfully deserve so they can enforce our laws efficiently and effectively.

Let’s give all of our officers a big round of applause for their service and hard work.

For all our futures, and to truly combat crime, to defeat the evils of drug abuse and to eliminate the fear and the pain of criminal activity, we must start with strengthening the education and the values of citizenship within our children.

Our young people represent the best qualities of our islands. They are indigenous and international. They are globally minded and locally focused. Our young people, scholars in the making, will be the engineers to improve our utilities and infrastructure. They will be the doctors who heal the communities that raised them.

So we must raise them well. We must invest in education because education is the best escape from poverty. Education stimulates growth, both intellectual and economic.

We have with us today educational leaders who work diligently for the improvement of our youth, I applaud your efforts and I offer myself as your ally. Our political and educational leaders of the CNMI must be unified in our desire to advance our people.

I have spoken with Commissioner Deleon Guerrero of our Public School System and I was pleased that among her other wonderful initiatives, PSS will soon launch improved college preparation programs to help our students receive admittance and scholarships at the colleges and universities which will best suit their interests and our community’s needs.

Whether our students attend Northern Marianas College or any other institution of higher learning, we are dedicated to helping our high school graduates compete with the best and brightest students in the world.

Two examples of this effort are Kagman High School students Kloe Borja and Kycel Butters, both part of the innovative Million Dollar Scholars club, which was started under the exceptional leadership of Kagman High School teacher and CNMI Teacher of the Year Gerard Van Gils.

Kloe’s home was badly damaged by Typhoon Soudelor and for more than a year, Kloe’s family was displaced. Through the outstanding support of her teachers and mentors, Kloe was able to prepare for college and just recently received a full scholarship to prestigious Hollins University in Virginia, as did her classmate Kycel.

These young women would claim more than $400,000 in scholarships but they are held back by the simple financial support needed to pay for a flight. This is unfortunately common that financial aid is available only after a student arrives at college, but there is little support to help them get there.

Both Kloe and Kycel desire to pursue a quality education, specializing in skills our islands need, before returning home to make good on our investment in them.

For this reason, I am requesting additional investment and improvements for the CNMI Scholarship. My office has met with the stakeholders and we are all dedicated to making clear pathways for our graduates as they progress in their education. Of course, as we invest in our young people we expect them to provide a return on that investment by coming back home, now as educated professionals who will serve their people in the CNMI. Our aim is not to export our people. Our aim is to improve our people, so they can join us in that same endeavor upon their return.

With all the problems that exist in our community. I have spent many stressful nights wondering what the solution is…if there is a solution.

But every once and awhile there are times where we are given the chance to do things that make people’s lives better, that give them a chance to succeed. The students we are helping through this program, alongside the hard work of Mr. Van Gils and Commissioner Deleon Guerrero, we are laying the groundwork for a CNMI that will be better than we can even imagine.

I would like to recognize Khloe and Kycel, along with Mr. Van Gils, Commissioner Deleon Guerrero, the PSS board and all teachers here today for their successes and for all of their bright futures.

To my fellow elected officials, you know the work we do is hard. The issues are complex and the solutions are never as easy as we would hope. But it is a challenge we have asked for. As public servants we do not have the luxury of simply pointing to problems, we have the duty to do the hard work to solve them.

But opportunities to do good for people like Khloe and Kycel, for the many men and women struggling against the demons of substance abuse, for the families looking for a means to earn a living, remind us why we as public servants are here.

And I would just ask you to learn and recognize and appreciate those moments and you’ll find it’s a lot easier to keep doing that work.

Highlights
What I have offered you today are the highlights of the work we have accomplished together and the bright hopes I have for the years ahead. There is still much to look forward to.

We will continue to support the development of affordable, quality housing, through the LIHTC project, homesteads, and other means, while cracking down on illegal hotel operators who are using our scarce housing supply to circumvent CNMI tax laws.

We will reform and enhance our NAP program to ensure that those in need do not have to make a choice between working minimum wage or receiving food benefits.

We will reach out and listen to our small businesses to unveil better ways the CNMI government can support and grow this backbone of our economy.

And we will make sure our villages are safer and prosperous so that you all have the peace of mind to focus on the most important things in life like your families and your friends.

In conclusion, I will work for your dreams, I will not stop in the efforts to make your life better, to fight the fears that keep you up at night, to make it possible for you to work, to feed your families.

I will take it upon myself to steer this ship. To watch the path before us. To ensure the vessel holds together.

But we all need each other. We are on this journey together. I am not asking for you to support me if you are not willing to. I am asking you to understand that our failures are shared. I am asking that you believe our successes have the potential to improve all our lives.

It may be difficult at times to maintain idealism, and cynicism is a logical response to everything negative you see on the papers or on Facebook about a problem that can’t be solved.

But this isn’t the only response.

You can be a critic, who throws rocks from the sidelines because it’s easy and requires little creativity, or you can choose to be a part of the progress through collective action and constructive conversations.

This progress we are seeing now—ordinary people made it happen. Over many years we chose to make this progress.

It was our ancestors, who came here for a better life. It was our founders who had a vision for the future. It was people in government, in the private sector, in nonprofits, in volunteer organizations.

It was us—all of us—that despite our shortcomings and flaws, we chose to move forward with the goal of bettering the lives of our people.

And if we can understand and appreciate that it takes a home, a village, an island, and a community to build on this progress, we will find that it is easier to believe that our islands’ best days are definitely ahead and confident that the state of our Commonwealth will be strong.

Thank you. Si yuus ma’ase yan ghilisou. May God bless you all and may God bless the Northern Mariana Islands.

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