Barely a year after the defeat of a similar proposal under the previous Legislature comes a new initiative—now in a drafting stage—seeking to ask voters whether they want to cut the number of lawmakers from 29 to 18 and a longer term for House members from two to four to help shrink the CNMI government’s size.
“The numbers could still change as the initiative is still being drafted. It might be lower than 18,” Rep. Christopher Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan) told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
As a member of an ad hoc committee on cost-cutting measures, Leon Guerrero said he is tasked to help find ways to reduce government spending without sacrificing public service.
“I believe the House and Senate can function even with a reduced number of lawmakers, based on my experience as a lawmaker,” the freshman lawmaker said.
The CNMI’s population has gone down to 53,883 as of 2010, from 69,221 in 2000 based on the latest U.S. Census.
As of yesterday, there’s no telling whether an islandwide election for House members would also be part of the initiative that is being drafted.
This initiative seeks to amend the NMI Constitution’s Article 2 sections.
Based on Leon Guerrero’s initial plan, the initiative would ask voters whether they want to reduce the number of senators from nine to six—or from three senators each for Saipan, Tinian, and Rota to only two on each island.
Leon Guerrero, who chairs the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee, said his initial plan is to ask voters whether they want to reduce the number of House-Saipan members from 18 to 10.
He seeks to maintain one House member each for Rota and Tinian.
“Based on my preliminary plan, there would be two representatives for each of the five Saipan precincts,” he said.
This means regardless of the size of each Saipan precinct, their representatives will be limited to two.
This will impact mainly Precincts 1 and 3, where there are six representatives each because they have the biggest population size among precincts on Saipan.
Precinct 3, the largest with 15,624 based on the 2010 U.S. Census, covers San Antonio, Koblerville, As Lito, Chalan Piao, Dandan, and parts of San Vicente, among other villages.
Precinct 1 is not far behind, with a population of 15,160. Its villages include Garapan, San Jose, Puerto Rico, Navy Hill, China Town, Gualo Rai, and portions of Capital Hill.
House minority leader George Camacho (R-Saipan), meanwhile, said the two-lawmaker-per-precinct concept is an “interesting” one and understands the rationale behind it.
“However, as proud citizens of the United States, we pride ourselves with the idea of representing our people—one man, one vote. And it shall be equal for all. Saipan as is right now is underrepresented. Lessening the number of representatives will only tip the unequal scale even more,” Camacho told Saipan Tribune.
Camacho, who was among those who voted “no” to a similar initiative last year during the 17th Legislature, said it will take a lot more creative redistricting in order to provide for fairness and equality for all.
“The number of House members can be reduced, but just lessening the [number] of House members is not the way. We need to provide for equality across the entire CNMI in all senatorial districts as well,” he said.
Camacho said that being a representative of one of the smaller precincts, he understands the difficulties they face every day.
“But we must do it the right way,” he added.
Both Leon Guerrero and Camacho are from Precinct 4, which has the smallest population among all Saipan precincts, with only 3,847 people. It covers Tanapag, San Roque, As Teo, and Marpi, among other areas.
Leon Guerrero’s plan also includes increasing the length of term for each House member, from the current two years to four years, similar to those of senators.
“It would save us more money by not conducting elections every two years,” Leon Guerrero said.
Lawmakers from Precincts 1 and 3 said yesterday they would comment once the initiative is prefiled, saying the proposed numbers and rationale could still change.
Leon Guerrero’s goal is to have the initiative pass the House and Senate and be placed on the ballot in the November 2014 elections.
On Aug. 3, 2012, the 17th House defeated a proposal from then representative Joe Palacios to reduce the number of lawmakers from 29 to 17.
At the time, the “yes” votes numbered only 11, shy of two votes to pass.
Six voted “no,” while three were absent.
Those who opposed it said the initiative violates the CNMI Constitution, CNMI laws, the U.S. Constitution, and a recent case law.
They said it 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.”
Meanwhile, those who supported the proposal said it will protect and preserve 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 such as public health, safety, and education.
They said reducing the number of House Saipan members from 18 to 10 would result in some $1.4 million in annual savings.
The proponents of the previous initiative also said the 22.2-percent drop in the CNMI’s population also supports a leaner Legislature.