Voters won't be deciding on whether they want a longer House term and fewer lawmakers during the Nov. 6 elections following yesterday afternoon's defeat of an amended legislative initiative that would have placed the question on the ballot.
The initiative got only 11 “yes” votes from 17 House members present during yesterday's session, shy of two votes to pass. Six voted “no” to the initiative.
Had the initiative mustered 13 or three-fourths “yes” votes from 17 House members present and voting, it would still go to the Senate for a vote barely a few days before the Aug. 8 deadline to file legislative initiatives to be placed on the ballot.
House Legislative Initiative 17-4, House Substitute 1 seeks to amend Article II Sections 2, 3 and 4 of the NMI Constitution to reduce the number of House members from 20 to 11; reduce the number of senators from nine to six; an island-wide election for House members; and increase House members' term from two years to four.
The vote came in after a lengthy discussion over HLI 17-4's constitutionality and the CNMI's socio-economic realities, particularly its decreased population.
Rep. Joseph Palacios (R-Saipan), author of the initiative, expressed dismay over the defeat of the 18-month-old measure despite support from community members during public hearings.
“Voters have been denied a chance to decide on the issue. They should have allowed the initiative to be placed on the ballot,” Palacios told Saipan Tribune.
The strong oppositions to the initiative came from minority leader Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) and Rep. Tony Sablan (R-Saipan), who repeatedly said that HLI 17-4 violates the NMI Constitution, CNMI laws, the U.S. Constitution, and a recent case law.
Deleon Guerrero and Sablan added that the initiative goes against the “one-man, one-vote rule” and the “Equal Protection Clause,” part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that provides that “no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Sablan pressed House legal counsel John Cool on whether HLI 17-4 violates the NMI and U.S. Constitution. He said he wanted a “definitive” answer. Cool said only the courts can issue a definitive answer to his question.
Palacios, the initiative's author, said he's not a lawyer but he thinks the court will uphold people's decision to change their own constitution.
“The constitution is created by people, and they can amend the constitution,” he said.
Palacios said if it's any consolation, he's glad that at least the initiative was voted on although he had hoped it would pass.
“Like I said before, do or die, at least I tried. Let the people know who voted yes or no to it,” he added.
The 11 House members who voted “yes” to the initiative were, in order of voting, Rep. Frank Dela Cruz (R-Saipan), Rep. Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), Rep. Sylvester Iguel (Cov-Saipan), Rep. Joe Palacios (R-Saipan), Rep. Ray Palacios (Cov-Saipan), Rep. Teresita Santos (Ind-Rota), Rep. Ray Tebuteb (R-Saipan), Rep. Stanley Torres (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan), Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan), and Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan).
The six “no” votes came from floor leader George Camacho (Ind-Saipan), minority leader Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan), Rep. Fred Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Tony Sablan (R-Saipan), and Rep. Trenton Conner (R-Tinian).
The three absent were vice speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan), Rep. Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan), and Rep. Froilan Tenorio (Cov-Saipan).
Demapan, chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations, said the panel members signed off on the initiative report and recommendation following a review for legal sufficiency.
“We have confidence in our legal counsel, who has worked on concerns about the constitutionality and legality of the measure,” he said.
Demapan also said he has no greater motive supporting the initiative “other than to protect and preserve the public interest by right-sizing the Legislature and achieving cost-savings that will go a long way in paying for other more important and more essential public services.”
These include Medicaid, supplies and medical specialists for the public hospital, staffing for public libraries, the Public School System, Northern Marianas College, and Department of Public Safety.
But Palacios said he believes part of the reason why the initiative was shy of two votes was the amendment made by the JGO Committee to his original initiative. Palacios' original initiative only seeks to reduce the number of House Saipan seats from 18 to nine and an island-wide election for House seats.
House members have two-year terms. A constitutional amendment a few years back added one year to House member's terms but this is only applies to the 17th Legislature. One year was also added to the current governor's second term. After this current term of the Legislature and the governor, the number of years for each term will go back to normal, unless new initiatives are passed changing the length of terms once again.
The JGO Committee said Saipan's population has significantly declined, and a 20-member House is “currently too large given the ratio of members to constituents.”
The panel also said reducing the number of House Saipan members from 18 to nine would result in some $1.4 million in annual savings.
Villagomez said he was also a bit disappointed that the initiative failed to pass but he said there were lots of good arguments that were brought up.
How they voted
Defeated House Legislative Initiative 17-4, HS1
Seeks to cut number of lawmakers from 29 to 17
13 “yes” votes needed to pass
1. Rep. Frank Dela Cruz (R-Saipan)
2. Rep. Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan)
3. Rep. Sylvester Iguel (Cov-Saipan)
4. Rep. Joe Palacios (R-Saipan)
5. Rep. Ray Palacios (Cov-Saipan)
6. Rep. Teresita Santos (Ind-Rota)
7. Rep. Ray Tebuteb (R-Saipan)
8. Rep. Stanley Torres (Ind-Saipan)
9. Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan)
10. Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan)
11. Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan)
1. Floor leader George Camacho (Ind-Saipan)
2. Minority leader Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan)
3. Rep. Fred Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan)
4. Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan)
5. Rep. Tony Sablan (R-Saipan)
6. Rep. Trenton Conner (R-Tinian)
1. Vice speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan)
2. Rep. Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan)
3. Rep. Froilan Tenorio (Cov-Saipan)