President Barack Obama’s signature on a U.S. Senate bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday (Wednesday Saipan time) is now the only thing left before the CNMI finally gets to control the seabed 3 miles out from the coast of each of its 14 islands, as well as a delay in the 50-cent increase in minimum wage set for Sept. 30 this year and in 2015.
If Obama signs S. 256 into law, the CNMI’s minimum wage stays at $5.55 an hour until Sept. 30 next year.
A presidential approval will also pave the way for the CNMI to become the last U.S. coastal state or territory to own its offshore lands.
S. 256’s passage was a surprise victory for the CNMI, considering that the U.S. Congress has only nine legislative days before the end of fiscal year 2013 to tackle issues such as the authorization of force in Syria, a continuing resolution for fiscal year 2014 spending, debt ceiling and immigration reform, among other things.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) managed S. 256 for the Democrats during floor debate on Tuesday.
Sablan has seen his own territorial sea bills pass the U.S. House without dissent in the 111th and 112th Congresses and in the 113th Congress this May.
“I am grateful to Chairman Ron Wyden and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who introduced S.256 at my request and navigated the bill through their committee and through Senate approval,” Sablan said in a statement yesterday.
The Inos administration separately said S. 256 is “a bold step forward” in the history of the CNMI.
“This is certainly welcome news. For quite some time now, the Commonwealth has been pushing for a sense of equality on the issue of submerged lands in comparison to other coastal states. With this bill now headed to the White House, this is a bold step forward in our history,” press secretary Angel Demapan said.
Previously, the U.S. Senate failed to act on House-passed bills that convey submerged lands to the Marianas.
“I also want to thank the Republican and Democratic leadership, who found a space for S. 256 in the very crowded House agenda this week. With only nine legislative days in September and votes on authorization of force in Syria, a continuing resolution for fiscal 2014 spending, the debt ceiling, immigration, the farm bill reauthorization—all needing attention—I know there was intense competition for floor time,” Sablan said.
S. 256 passed the U.S. House by a vote of 415-0 on Sept. 10, over a month since the U.S. Senate passed it on Aug. 1.
The bill now goes to Obama for action.
The CNMI is currently the only U.S. coastal jurisdiction without ownership of its offshore areas, which can be leased for economic activities and managed to preserve environmental resources.
“I very much appreciate the help of Chairman Doc Hastings and our new Ranking Member Peter DeFazio at the Natural Resources Committee, and Chairman John Kline and Ranking Member George Miller at the Education and the Workforce Committee. They all worked together once S.256 passed the Senate a month ago to make sure that we could quickly get a vote on the bill in the House. Their assistance reflects a longstanding tradition of treating territorial issues as essentially nonpartisan. And their cooperation certainly helped the Northern Mariana Islands today,” Sablan said.
Minimum wage hike delay
S. 256, if enacted into law, delays the CNMI’s annual 50-cent increase in minimum wage this year and in 2015.
The minimum wage will still go up on Sept. 30, 2014, from the current $5.55 an hour to $6.05 an hour, and then in 2016 to $6.55 an hour, and every year after until reaching the federal minimum wage floor of $7.25 an hour in 2018.
Congress previously authorized a deferment in 2011.
Sablan said rescheduling of minimum wage is “one of the toughest decisions” he has had to make in his five years in Congress.
“Minimum wage has gone up 82 percent since 2007. That’s a very sharp increase. Labor costs for businesses have risen 16.5 percent on average year after year, even when sales have gone down. I want to see more money in workers’ pockets. But I have to be a realist, too. Slowing down the wage increase was just a very difficult decision,” he said.
Sablan said new data on gross domestic product in the CNMI compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis is expected this year, while the U.S. Government Accountability Office has begun work on a report on the impact of minimum wage due out early next year.
“If new data and the GAO analysis show that our economy can afford a higher minimum wage,” Sablan added, “then there is certainly nothing to stop the Northern Mariana Islands Legislature from raising the minimum wage in 2014. The federal minimum is just that: a minimum. Many states have a minimum wage that is significantly higher than the federal level,” the delegate said.
For days, CNMI employers and employees had already been bracing for a possible increase in minimum wage on Sept. 30 because of new issues before Congress such as Syria.
Alex Sablan, president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday that “miracles do happen,” considering that S. 256 passed the U.S. House despite many other issues before Congress in such a limited time.
“But this is not the time for celebration,” he said in a phone interview. He said a one-year delay will help businesses cope with the increased cost of doing business in the CNMI, including another possible increase in utility rates.
Obama’s OIA appointee
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewel also applauded yesterday Obama’s intent to nominate Guam-born Hawaiian Esther Puakela Kia’aina to serve as Interior assistant secretary for insular areas.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Kia’aina would lead the Interior’s efforts to coordinate federal policy for Guam, the CNMI, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.
She would also have the responsibility to administer and oversee federal assistance to the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
“Born in Guam to Native Hawaiian parents, Esther brings extensive expertise and a keen understanding of the issues facing the U.S. territories and the freely associated states. As a resident of Hawaii with strong connections to Pacific islands and experience on Capitol Hill, she will be a tremendous asset to this Department as we continue the collaborative progress we are making to strengthen the health, safety, and welfare of the Insular Areas,” Jewell said.
She currently serves as the first deputy director of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Delegate Sablan also congratulated Kia’aina on her nomination.
“Ms. Esther Kia’aina is someone I have known since my days working in Congress for Senator Daniel K. Inouye in the 1980s. She is a person of proven ability, having served as chief of staff for two Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Robert Underwood of Guam and Ed Case of Hawaii. In addition to this considerable Washington experience, as a Native Hawaiian, Ms. Kia’aina is someone who understands the Pacific region and who is familiar with my district, the Northern Mariana Islands. This background and expertise make Ms. Kia’aina a solid choice to fill the position of Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Areas,” Sablan said.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos also welcomes Kia’aina’s “very likely appointment,” press secretary Angel Demapan said.
“Ms. Kiaaina is an island native with roots in Hawaii and a personal connection to our neighbor island of Guam. She brings with her a wealth of knowledge pertaining to insular policies and federal relations that will be beneficial to her oversight authority under the position of assistant secretary. The Commonwealth is pleased that the president will be appointing someone with such caliber and passion for the islands,” Demapan added.
Kiaaina, 50, may be the permanent replacement for Tony Babauta, a native of Guam. Babauta resigned on Feb. 1 this year.