President Barack Obama signed into law Wednesday a historic legislation for the CNMI, giving it control of the underwater coasts of its 14 islands. The CNMI becomes the last U.S. coastal state or territory to own its offshore lands.
The newly signed law also delays the scheduled Sept. 30, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015, minimum wage increase of 50 cents an hour.
This means the CNMI’s minimum wage stays at $5.55 an hour until Sept. 30 next year.
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski introduced S. 256 at Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan’s (Ind-MP) request.
“The people of the Northern Mariana Islands have always believed that the lands and waters surrounding our islands, which for millennia our ancestors used and preserved, belonged to us. A federal court ruling in 2005 said otherwise, requiring that the lands be conveyed by Congress. Now that S. 256 has become law, the lands can become ours again,” Sablan said in a statement yesterday.
A submerged lands bill was the very first bill that Sablan introduced as the CNMI’s first nonvoting delegate to Congress in 2009.
After unanimous votes approving the submerged lands conveyance in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, 2011 and 2013, and a final unanimous consent agreement in the Senate, the bill “has finally become law,” Sablan added.
The Inos administration said this is “truly a victory for the people of the Commonwealth who have long yearned for the return of ownership of our coastal lands.”
“The administration is grateful for the work of Congressman Kilili in advancing this measure. Governor Inos is also very pleased with the support of chairman Wyden, Sen. Murkowski, and chairman Hastings,” press secretary Angel Demapan said last night.
This legislation becomes one of only 36 that have become law during Obama’s second term of office. By this time in his first term, Congress had passed 181 bills that received the Presidential signature.
“Originating the bill in the Senate with bipartisan sponsorship certainly helped to win Senate passage, which had always been the stumbling block for the bill,” Sablan said as he thanked Wyden and Murkowski.
S. 256 passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 10, over a month since the U.S. Senate passed it on Aug. 1.
Sablan said he also appreciates the cooperation of House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings and his Democratic counterpart Ranking Member Peter DeFazio “for helping find time this month on a very crowded legislative schedule to win the fourth and final unanimous vote in the House that sent the bill to the President for his action.”
In the CNMI, Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan) welcomes the signing of a law that gives the CNMI control over the seabed 3 miles out from the coast of each of its islands.
“At least now, there is a law that clearly says we have control over 3 miles of submerged lands. We can all argue we deserve more than that but how do we go about getting more than that? We at least have 3 miles under U.S. law,” the former CNMI immigration director said.
Rep. Anthony T. Benavente (R-Saipan), in Washington, D.C. this week for a series of meetings with federal officials, congratulated Delegate Sablan on the legislative success.
“The return of these lands to CNMI ownership is truly an accomplishment. I am very glad that I could be here with Congressman Sablan when he received the news from the White House,” Benavente said.
Benavente is chairman of the CNMI House Natural Resources Committee, which has responsibility for many of the decisions about the use and protection of the seabed that S. 256 allows to be now handed over to the CNMI government.
Besides signing S. 256 into law, Obama also signed Wednesday four other legislation that had to do with lands and natural resources.
These include S. 130, conveying land to the Powell Recreation District in Wyoming; S. 157, authorizing certain energy projects in Alaska’s Denali National Park; S. 304, conveying 67 acres of federal land to Mississippi; and S. 459, modifying the boundary of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota.
‘Minimum wage hike delay’
S. 256 also authorizes a delay in minimum wage increases in the CNMI in 2013 and 2015.
A 45-year-old hotel employee said yesterday she is “disappointed” that the minimum wage increase scheduled for Sept. 30 has been delayed for at least a year.
“I was really looking forward to it. Minimum wage has not gone up while the prices of goods and services have gone up. It’s hard to live with this minimum wage we have now,” the mother of three told Saipan Tribune. She requested her name not published for fear of retaliation from her employer.
Many businesses and employers, however, welcomed the reprieve.
“But like I said before, this is not a time for celebration,” Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Alex Sablan said yesterday.
Sablan said the Chamber is thankful that Obama signed the bill into law before Sept. 30 to avoid confusion as to the minimum wage.
He said a lot of families have been looking forward to a salary increase. But businesses at the same time have to cope with over 80-percent increase in their employees’ salaries in the last four year. With the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. proposing another rate increase, the cost of doing business would go up much further.
“All we ask is a bit of reprieve,” he said.
He added that many businesses, especially the small ones, cannot afford a 50-cent increase at this time.
But he said the CNMI economy is on its way back up, thanks to a growth in the tourism industry and the “concerted efforts of this administration, the Legislature, the business sector.”
“There’s a clear plan, a clear vision. And like I said we just need a bit of reprieve in costs. The only thing we can control right now is minimum wage. We understand it hurts a lot of individuals but a lot of businesses cannot afford it. We believe we will be on track in the next two to three years. With 1,600 to 1,800 hotel rooms back online by next year, that would help a lot. If we stay this course we would have 650,000 tourist arrivals by 2016 or 2017,” he said.
Some employers said it’s a choice between raising the minimum wage for some, and cutting the hours of others or worse, letting go of some employees.