The House of Representatives passed yesterday afternoon a bill increasing by 5 percentage points the CNMI's hotel occupancy tax by April 1 to help fund tourism marketing and promotions, along with a measure that expedites the release of NMI Retirement Fund employee contributions for over 1,700 applicants.
Both administration-sponsored bills now head to the Senate for action.
House members also adopted yesterday five resolutions and joint resolutions, including one that requests Gov. Eloy S. Inos and Attorney General Joey Patrick San Nicolas to extradite former AG and now fugitive from justice Edward Buckingham to face criminal charges.
House minority leader George Camacho's (R-Saipan) House Bill 18-2, House Draft 1 increases the hotel occupancy tax from 10 percent to 15 percent. It passed by a vote of 18-0, with two excused absences.
The bill seeks to pump more money into the Marianas Visitors Authority's marketing and promotion of the CNMI as a premier tourism destination.
MVA's lack of funding under the annual budget is crippling its ability to competitively advertise and promote the CNMI against other destinations in the region, states the House Tourism Committee that recommended the bill's passage.
Under the current 10 percent occupancy tax, the MVA's share is about $3.5 million, said MVA managing director Perry Tenorio. With the increase, it is estimated that MVA will be entitled to some $5 million.
Tenorio said hoteliers and other travel partners support this legislation.
“We're very happy that the Legislature also feels the same way,” he told reporters.
Tenorio and MVA board of directors chair Marian Aldan-Pierce were at the House session yesterday afternoon. Tenorio said hotels expect a smooth transition because there is already a mechanism in place to collect the hotel occupancy tax; it's just a matter of changing it from 10 percent to 15 percent.
“And I know that our hotel partners are already preparing for that,” he added.
Tour agents promoting the CNMI, for example, have begun including the tax increase in their promotional packages after April 1, 2013.
Camacho, the bill's main author, said he's grateful for the swift action on this much needed revenue-generating bill. “I hope we can continue this trend,” Camacho told Saipan Tribune.
Equally important is enforcing the new hotel occupancy tax once it becomes law, said Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan) and Rep. Roman Benavente (IR-Saipan).
Rep. Ray Tebuteb (IR-Saipan), Rep. Ralph Yumul (IR-Saipan), and acting House Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan) said they trust Finance to remit the funds for MVA's use.
Up to 2 percent or $400,000 of the funds per fiscal year from the MVA Trust Fund will be equally divided and remitted to the Rota and Tinian municipalities for the implementation of charter flight tourism incentives and promotions.
By a vote of 17-0, the House also passed yesterday Dela Cruz's House Bill 18-12, amending Public Law 17-82 to expedite the refunds of members’ contributions, reset timelines, and prevent further frustration among members.
Among the key provisions of the bill is its clarification of when applicant members should be refunded their employee contributions-now within 30 days of “submission” rather than within 30 days of “approval” as stated in the current law.
The bill also increases the percentage of the contribution that can be initially refunded-from the current 25 percent to 50 percent.
Joseph Pangelinan, representing active Fund members, told House members that he supports the bill.
Dela Cruz's HB 18-12 amends Public Law 17-82, which allows Fund members to, among others, withdraw their contributions without being penalized.
Only about 125 of 1,700 applications received got 25 percent of their employee contributions.
The House also unanimously approved three resolutions and two joint resolutions.
Among them is Dela Cruz's House Joint Resolution 18-4, asking the governor and the AG to extradite Buckingham to answer the criminal charges filed against him by the Office of the Public Auditor.
Members also adopted Rep. Antonio Agulto's (IR-Saipan) House Joint Resolution 18-3 asking the help of U.S. Ambassador to China Gary F. Locke in repatriating to China Jing Zhi Quiang. Quiang was found overstaying in the CNMI since July 2005 and was to be deported in February 2010. Self-inflicted injuries put him in a coma since 2010. The Commonwealth Health Center has spent some $1.5 million caring for him.
Agulto said Quiang's repatriation is needed because CHC can no longer provide further care for him.
Also adopted yesterday were:
-House Resolution 18-6, offered by Rep. Lorenzo I. Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan), requesting the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Korean Community of Saipan and other entities to give discounts to senior citizens or those 55 years old and above;
-House Resolution 18-7, offered also by Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero, urging the governor to ask lending institutions to offer residential homeowners and/or businesses with loans for the sole purpose of investing in renewable energy; and
-House Resolution 18-5, offered by Santos, recognizing and commending Florie Nadine Manglona for receiving her doctorate degree in Education with an emphasis on organizational leadership at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, California.
Of the 20 House members, two were absent. Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan) was sick, so Dela Cruz as vice speaker presided over the session. Rep. Teresita Santos (R-Rota) was present at the beginning of the session, but had to leave mid-session for a meeting on Rota.