Minutes after yesterday's defeat of Rep. Joe Palacios' (R-Saipan) legislative initiative seeking to reduce the number of lawmakers from 29 to 17, Rep. Fred Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) introduced an initiative pushing for an 18-member unicameral legislature.
Deleon Guerrero said as far as he knows, this is the first time in CNMI history that an initiative has been introduced seeking a unicameral legislature similar to Guam.
His initiative seeks to amend Article II of the NMI Constitution to amend Section 2, repeal Section 3, and amend Section 4 to add a new subsection (c).
It establishes a unicameral legislature by eliminating the House of Representatives and establishing a Senate comprised of 18 senators elected at-large.
Currently, the 29-member Legislature has two houses-a Senate with nine members and a House with 20 members.
During discussions on Palacios's House Legislative Initiative 17-4, HS1, Deleon Guerrero said he would be offering a substitute initiative. Later on, Deleon Guerrero said he's withdrawing the substitution.
When HLI 17-4, HS1 was defeated for lacking two more “yes” votes, Deleon Guerrero introduced his initiative.
Palacios said he supports Deleon Guerrero's initiative but he said the chance of this new measure placed on the ballot is slim.
“Maybe this would be for a special election. But I have suggestions to Deleon Guerrero. I believe the initiative should have four senators from Rota, four senators from Tinian, and seven from Saipan. That way, if you combine the Rota and Tinian senators, they would still have the majority. That would be acceptable to the Senate,” Palacios said.
This early, however, some House members are already questioning whether Deleon Guerrero's initiative complies with the Covenant between the NMI and the United States, the NMI Constitution, the U.S. Constitution and other laws.
The initiative says Section 105 of the Covenant provides that amendments to Articles I, II and III and Sections 501 and 805 may be modified only with the consent of the U.S. government and the CNMI government.
“For the record, we intend by this Act to permit and authorize all other corresponding amendments to the relevant laws of the Commonwealth to be consistent with the spirit and letter of this legislation subject only to federal amendments to the Covenant that are necessary to effectuate the intent of this Act,” it says.
Deleon Guerrero's initiative also says passage of the Act by virtue of the affirmative vote of the majority of the CNMI people will be sufficient justification for the U.S. Congress to amend Section 203 (c) of the Covenant to reflect the people's decision to convert to a unicameral legislature.
Based on the initiative's findings, the CNMI is “politically overrepresented.” This is based on a population of some 53,000 with two houses in the Legislature, three senatorial districts and 29 legislators.
It says there are too many levels of bureaucracy within the government and particularly within the legislative branch, “levels which are themselves, entirely too big.” The findings are based on “purely objective numbers.”
The initiative says with some 2,500 residents, Rota is represented by three senators and one House representative.
Tinian's approximately 3,100 residents are similarly represented by four legislators.
Saipan, with some 48,000 residents, is represented by 21 members of the Legislature-three senators and 18 representatives.
Considered in a different light, Saipan has a ratio 1 elected official for every 2,286 constituents.
This is a ratio nearly triple that of Tinian's 1 to 775 and nearly quadruple of Rota's 1 to 625.
Commonwealth-wide, 53,000 people represented by 29 legislators results in a ratio of 1 legislator for every 1,827 people.
By comparison, Guam has a ratio of 1 to 10,000, or 160,000 people represented by 15 senators elected island-wide.
In terms of just the voting public, the CNMI has some 15,500 voters compared to Guam's approximately 47,000.
If the ratio of “legislator to constituent” were updated to reflect the 2010 Census, Saipan's population of 48,000 would be divided by Rota's 2,500 to arrive at the proverbial “one man one vote” number.
This simple calculation would result in 19.2, effectively increasing Saipan's representation from 18 to 20 under the doctrine of equal apportionment.
But the constitution caps the number of House members at 20. Thus, the House would be even larger if Rota and Tinian's populations were factored in and there was a recalculation based on the principle of one person one vote.
The initiative says it is now time that the Legislature decrease its membership to become more efficient and less costly, by establishing a unicameral legislature.
Deleon Guerrero's initiative, reviewed for legal sufficiency by House counsel Joseph LG. Taijeron, said a bicameral legislature of 29 members representing 53,000 is neither necessary nor practical in terms of meeting the CNMI's needs and concerns.
“We acknowledge that our bicameral legislature was created initially to protect the interests of Rota and Tinian, without whom, the Covenant would not have been signed. However, a unicameral legislature would be more than sufficient to meet the needs and address the concerns of the Commonwealth,” the initiative says.
It also says while arguments can be raised that an at-large election model may jeopardize the political power of minorities and in this case Rota and Tinian constituents, these concerns can be addressed.
The potential harms can also be mitigated through proper legislation and enforcement as opposed to more legislators.
The nine-page initiative also says the CNMI simply cannot afford to maintain the size of a bicameral legislature where each member receives a salary of $39,500 together with their respective annual budget of $84,146.
If ratified by voters, the proposal would result in at least $1.35 million in savings for the government.