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Sunday, April 20, 2014

US territorial bill seeks 5-year transition extension, wage hike delay
CNMI, Guam, A. Samoa, US Virgin Islands delegates push for several issues

Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan’s (Ind-MP) newly introduced 56-page U.S. territorial omnibus bill seeks a delay in the CNMI’s annual 50-cent increase in minimum wage every other year starting in September 2013, a five-year extension of the federalization transition period or up to Dec. 31, 2019, and the continued use of the E2-C visa classification for foreign investors in the CNMI so long as the transition period is extended, among other things.

Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo, American Samoa Delegate Eni Faleomavaega, and U.S. Virgin Islands Delegate Donna M. Christensen co-sponsored Sablan’s H.R. 2200, whose sections are either specific to each of the territories or apply to all of them.

H.R. 2200 or the Territorial Omnibus Act of 2013 also seeks “waiver” of certain matching fund requirements and calls for a comprehensive energy plan, both for all the territories.

Under the bill, for a grant requiring matching funds of $500,000 or less, the entire matching requirement is waived.

If the required matching fund is more than half-a-million, then $500,000 of the matching requirement is waived.

These are higher than the current threshold of $200,000, for both provisions, Sablan said.

The bill was referred Thursday to at least five U.S. House of Representatives committees.

For quite a while now, long-time small to medium foreign investors in the CNMI holding E2-C investor visa have been worrying that they will be forced to leave the islands after Dec. 31, 2014, unless this investor visa classification is extended or these investors are given another status that will allow them to remain in the Commonwealth.

H.R. 2200 addresses these CNMI-based investors’ concerns, as well as several other concerns and interests in four U.S. territories.

“This omnibus bill increases the minimum wage every other year, so we will skip the 2013 increase and resume it in 2014 and then another increase in 2016 until it reaches the federal level. This bill also conveys 3 miles submerged lands to the NMI, extends the E2-CNMI visa, and demands accountability of the $150 CW fee. We want to know how they’re spending it,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

Sablan, who is back in the CNMI, also said once the U.S. Senate bipartisan national immigration reform bill becomes law, many of the investors with E2-C visa could also seek relief under the immigration bill.

The immigration bill that provides pathway to citizenship to some 11,000 undocumented aliens in the United States has a CNMI-specific provision. It allows long-term foreign workers and others to apply for improved status such as CNMI-only permanent residency and, later, U.S. permanent residency or “green card,” which is a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

Minimum wage hike

Of HR 2200’s 18 sections, three—Sections 3, 4 and 5—are specific to the CNMI, covering the issues of submerged lands, minimum wage increase schedule adjustment, and amendments to the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, the law that placed CNMI immigration under federal control.

If the territorial omnibus bill is signed into law, the CNMI’s 50-cent increase will be implemented every other year—instead of every year—until it reaches the federal wage floor of $7.25 an hour.

The CNMI’s current minimum wage is $5.55 an hour. It is supposed to increase to $6.05 an hour in September this year but this will be skipped once this new bill becomes law.

The next 50-cent increase will happen instead in September 2014 and every other year thereafter.

Gov. Eloy S. Inos said he supports delaying this year’s minimum wage increase and implement it on an every-other-year basis starting in 2014.

The Saipan Chamber of Commerce has also taken the same stance.

Chamber president Alex Sablan, when asked for comment on the bill yesterday, said: “The Territorial Omnibus Act of 2013 has numerous sections that should be welcomed by the business community, and I would assume by the CNMI government.”

“The sections on submerged lands, adjustment of scheduled wage increases, reporting use of the $150 fees charged by Homeland Security for the CW-1 permits, mention of an extension of the USCIS transitional period and lessening of matching funds for CNMI projects are all evidence of hard work by our U.S. Congressman Sablan,” the Chamber president said.

Rep. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), chairman of the CNMI House Ways and Means Committee, told Saipan Tribune that in his personal view, part of developing the economy is increasing the minimum wage of its workers, so he does not support any delay in the minimum wage increase.

“Right now people are struggling to make ends meet. An increase in salary means there would be more money circulating in the economy, more buying power for workers. 50 cents more per hour will go a long way for a lot of people,” he said in a phone interview.

Delegate Sablan has once again pushed for the conveyance of 3 miles of submerged lands to the CNMI; this time by including it in a territorial omnibus bill.

This provides equity to the CNMI people, he has said, because the Northern Marianas is the only one among U.S. coastal areas that does not control its own submerged lands.

CNRA amendments

The omnibus bill’s Section 5 has to do with amendments to the CNRA, including extending the transition period by five years or by up to Dec. 31, 2019.

Without such extension, the CNMI may lose access to most of the over 12,000 skilled and professional foreign workers that the local economy has relied upon, after Dec. 31, 2014.

This section also extends the E2-C investor visa classification, which applies only to certain CNMI investors.

While it does not say the extension is up to 2019, it does state, “until the date on which all [transition period] extensions are terminated.”

Another proposed major amendment seeks CNMI accountability in its use of the $150 CW fee that employers pay for every foreign worker they hire.

The CW fee is supposed to fund ongoing vocational educational curricula and program development by CNMI educational entities. Currently, Northern Marianas College and the Public School System receive these CW fees.

But under the omnibus bill, the CNMI government must provide to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—at the beginning of each fiscal year and prior to the payment of the CW fee into the local Treasury—a plan for the expenditure of the CW fee funds and a projection of the effectiveness of these expenditures in the placement of U.S. workers into jobs.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office/U.S. comptroller general is also required to report to Congress every two years “on the effectiveness of meeting the goals set out by the Commonwealth government in its annual plan for the expenditure of funds.”

‘Worth reviving’

The four delegates represent nearly 40,000 U.S. citizens and nationals, and asked that legislative issues affecting the U.S. territories be addressed.

Delegate Sablan said it has been years since an omnibus territories bill of this scope has been introduced.

He said he and the other delegates have decided that the tradition of having one such territorial measure in each Congress is worth reviving.

“Each of the insular areas has legislative proposals, larger and smaller, that we want enacted. Some affect all of us, some only one territory. But by putting a coordinated effort behind one bill, it is hoped that there is greater opportunity of success than in pushing each provision separately through the legislative process,” he said.

Because of the nature of the bill, H.R. 2200 was referred to five U.S. House committees on May 23: Committees on Natural Resources; Education and the Workforce; Financial Services; Transportation and Infrastructure; and Energy and Commerce.

Other sections of the omnibus bill included a comprehensive energy plan for the territories, chief financial officer for the U.S. Virgin Islands, LIHEAP assistance for the U.S. Virgin Islands, its Castle Nugent and St. Croix National Historic Sites, Guam World War II Loyalty Recognition Act, prioritization of U.S. citizens and nationals in HUD assistance programs, benefit-to-cost ratio formulas for projects in American Samoa, recommendation for minimum wage in American Samoa, and a citizenship plebiscite for American Samoa, among other things.

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