Despite a dramatic walkout by five lawmakers, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial delivered yesterday his State of the Commonwealth Address during the last session of the 17th House of Representatives, in which he acknowledged mistakes and poor decisions and apologized to the public, vowing more transparency in government and presenting a better economic outlook for 2013.
“You are disappointed in your governor, and you think I should have done better. I too am disappointed. I have made mistakes. I acknowledge that,” said Fitial at the beginning of his address that lasted 45 minutes.
Besides lawmakers, others in attendance were Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos, Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexandro Castro, Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert Naraja, several Cabinet members, government employees, and some businessmen. Several police officers were also in the premises.
Before the governor's speech, the House voted 10-9 to allow Fitial to deliver his address. The vote prompted a walkout by incoming House speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan), Reps. Ray N. Yumul (IR-Saipan), Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan), Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), and Trenton Conner (IR-Tinian). (See related story)
In his speech, Fitial, who was sitting by the table of the House's legal counsel, acknowledged that he did not see soon enough how devastating the economic forces blowing down on the CNMI would be.
“I was too optimistic that we would get enough help from the federal government to dig out of this economic black hole we are in,” he said.
Fitial attributed his errors of judgment and poor decisions to the lack of reliable information.
“I trusted people who could not perform what they promised. I also have, at times, blamed people for things they could not have avoided,” he said. “I want you to know that I have thought deeply and carefully about my own mistakes, and I am determined that I will not repeat them.”
Fitial went on to paint an optimistic future for the CNMI and highlighted the economic activities that are lined up for 2013. He cited the high hotel occupancy rate, additional investments, and more charter flights that, according to him, are promising signs of the beginning of economic recovery.
He said that just last month, the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands reported a hotel occupancy rate of 74.53 percent-a 9-percent increase over the previous year.
E-Land Group has already presented a development plan to revitalize the Coral Ocean Point and the Palms Resort Hotel this year, he said. “This renovation will add significant construction jobs in 2013 and increase the number of high quality accommodations.”
Fitial said there are reliable indicators that there will be a “very modest improvement” in the number of Japanese tourists in 2013 and in the coming years.
Among Korean tourists, Fitial said the CNMI has reaped a lot of benefits from the investments made by the Kumho Asiana Group after acquiring the LaoLao Bay Golf Resort in 2007, investing more than $50 million and adding passenger air service flights to the Commonwealth.
He noted that the CNMI's annual Korean arrivals have even surpassed those of Guam and this has brought more Korean hotel investment.
Fitial was particularly upbeat about the China market, which he said has been emerging exponentially.
“That is why I exerted all efforts to travel to key cities in China and to work closely with the owners of the Tinian Dynasty, Century Tours, and Tan Holdings to make a strong push to steer Chinese tourists to the Northern Marianas,” he said.
Saipan is now second only to Australia and Phuket, Thailand in terms of popularity and increased visitor rates for Chinese travelers, he said, while Bali and the Maldives trail behind Saipan.
As a result of these efforts, Fitial said three wide body charter flights have just been added, bringing a maximum of 300 passengers per flight from China.
“As a result of this anticipated growth from the China market, DFS Saipan is poised to undertake renovations at the main Galleria shopping center,” he disclosed.
The goal for 2013, Fitial said, is to establish two new daily flights to China that would provide the CNMI with the opportunity to access a quarter of a million new tourists per year in coming years.
The governor promised to work closely with hotel owners to address the need to upgrade and renovate the hotels in order to increase the quality and rates of rooms.
Fitial cited that during the holiday season that just passed, the CNMI experienced a major lack of hotel rooms for tourists. “At the peak of the season, our major hotels reported a shortage of more than 100 hotel rooms,” said Fitial.
To address the problem, he said the government will work with interested investors to revive the defunct Plumeria Resort and Riviera Resort to add more rooms to the inventory.
For 2013, the chief executive promised to pay attention to transparency.
“One of the mistakes I have made in the past was not to pay enough attention transparency in government. I tried to consult widely, but sometimes I thought I had to act quickly in order to secure a benefit for the Commonwealth,” Fitial said. He acknowledged that acting without transparency decreases confidence in the government.
For government employees, Fitial has good news: The administration will not eliminate government jobs or require reductions in hours this year.
He disclosed two transportation projects this year: a feasibility study for the creation of a public bus system that will provide cheap public transport for residents and tourists alike and an inter-island ferry with Guam as a way to lower the costs of goods and draw tourists from Guam.
Fitial also weighed in on the controversial power purchase agreement, saying he entered it in order to entice the construction of a shipyard rebuilding facility. “If constructed, this facility would provide at least 1,000 highly paid jobs that would revive and expand our economy,” he said.
He said the opportunity to create more jobs while providing a more efficient replacement of the aged power plant inspired him to act in an expeditious manner.
“In retrospect there should have been more public involvement, and for this I do sincerely apologize,” he said. “I apologize for the turmoil that this endeavor caused, but Attorney General [Joey] San Nicolas' latest position will allow for a full examination of the merits of this proposal and the need to address the long-term power needs of our community.”
Fitial also mentioned, among other issues, the NMI Retirement Fund problem, the transition to Social Security, and the status of the Commonwealth's healthcare system.
In concluding his address, Fitial said some progress were made in 2012 while the outlook for 2013 is better. “I will improve my own methods, including more consultation and transparency,” he said.