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Monday, April 21, 2014

House OKs review of NMI’s political union with the US
Chamber also approves $2 cigarette tax hike

After a lengthy debate on the CNMI’s 37-year political relationship with the United States and federal control over local minimum wage, immigration and certain areas for military uses, the House of Representatives passed yesterday a bill creating a Second Marianas Political Status Commission that would examine “whether the people desire continuing in a political union” with America under the Covenant.

The House also passed a health and revenue-generating bill that would increase cigarette tax in the CNMI by $2 a pack.

These were two of the six bills passed and three resolutions adopted during the House’s last session for 2013 that wrapped up at almost 5pm yesterday.

Of all the measures taken up, House Bill 18-112 House Draft 1, the Second Marianas Political Status Commission Act of 2013, drew the lengthiest debate.

“It doesn’t hurt to re-examine, to know where the relationship lies. …What’s the harm? What are we afraid of?” House Foreign and Federal Relations Committee chair Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian) asked.

Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) believes the best vehicle to send the CNMI’s message is through Covenant Section 902 discussions.

But Rep. Richard Seman (R-Saipan) described a previous 902 discussion as “a joke.”

Of the 18 members present, 15 voted “yes” and three voted “no” to the bill. The bill passed at 4:13pm and is on its way to the Senate.

The bill’s author, Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan), was absent, while Rep. Teresita Santos (R-Rota) had to leave the session early for medical reasons.

The three who voted against the bill were the speaker, vice speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan), and Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan).

HB 18-112 seeks to create a Second Marianas Political Status Commission, which will have broad authority to review, study, examine, and conduct public political education and awareness to assist the commission in accomplishing its responsibilities as stated in the bill.

Specifically, the commission would examine the present political relationship between the Northern Marianas and the United States.

It would also determine whether the CNMI people are still in favor of continuing in “political union” with the U.S. pursuant to the Covenant, and whether or not they prefer some other political status options that would enable them to fulfill their hope and aspirations of full, meaningful, and a well-defined self-government status.

Under the bill, the governor has to reprogram money to fund the commission up to $100,000.

At yesterday’s session, Sablan said he thought the political relationship between the CNMI and the U.S. under the Covenant is a “permanent” one, unless the parties mutually agree to change it.

“I ask members to reevaluate impacts of this bill. Do you have the necessary information to vote on such legislation?” the Ways and Means Committee chair asked.

House legal counsel Joe Taijeron said the political relationship is a permanent framework but not necessarily a permanent status, and seeking a different political status does not go against the Covenant.

The vice speaker, for his part, said this measure has been discussed at length in previous sessions and in previous legislatures, to fund a commission, at a time when the CNMI tries to make ends meet, help the people that lawmakers represent, and address problems with the Retirement Fund.

“We haven’t really done well in those areas. It started with the minimum wage taken over by the U.S. federal government because we couldn’t do it. We used to have $3.05 an hour minimum wage. Any attempts to raise it from $3.05 was shot down because there was an interest to keep it low…” Dela Cruz said.

He said the same thing happened with local immigration, which the federal government now controls “because we couldn’t do it.”

“Even our local Retirement Fund. We had to get the U.S. federal court to fix it for us because we couldn’t do that too,” the vice speaker added.

He asked whether the CNMI being unable to do things for itself would be a reason to come up with a bill to create a commission that would reassess the islands’ relationship with the United States, “the most powerful country in the world.”

“This is a threat to the United States of America. I don’t know about you but I am content with the relationship with the United States,” he said.

Sablan also asked whether those supporting the bill have an “alternative.” He also noted that the commission will have to be funded up to $100,000.

Conner, chairman of the bill that recommended the bill’s passage, said that just like any other relationship—be it between the U.S. and NMI or a husband and wife—it does not hurt to reexamine it.

He said this comes on the heels of the U.S. government’s plan to use Pagan for military activities, use Saipan for a U.S. Air Force divert airfield instead of Tinian that the CNMI supports, the three northernmost islands for a marine monument and most recently, national immigration reform bills S. 744 and H.R. 15 that contain a provision granting a pathway to citizenship to long-term, legal aliens in the CNMI.

Conner said if S. 744 becomes law, for example, it would allow aliens in the CNMI to become permanent residents and, later, U.S. citizens and therefore can start voting.

He asked whether the federal government should be allowed to “come in and do it for us?”

“This is a relationship we need to examine, to know where the relationship is,” Conner added. “We might as well cover our eyes, blindfold ourselves, and let people from outside to do it for us.”

Conner also asked his colleagues to give the Second Political Status Commission a chance, adding that a funding of $100,000 is a drop in the bucket given the commission’s task.

The speaker offered clarifications in Conner’s statement. He said the three northernmost islands are still under CNMI control and that “we’re one political family” so the term “people from outside” is not necessarily proper.

The speaker said that, in his view, Covenant Section 902 talks could be the best vehicle to discuss the political status between the U.S. and NMI.

Rep. Roman Benavente (Ind-Saipan) said, “If we don’t make noise, no one will listen.”

House floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan) said that relationship has to be reexamined because up to now, people from the CNMI—even if they are U.S. citizens—still cannot vote for a U.S. president.

The Northern Marianas marked its 37-year political relationship with the United States on March 24. U.S. President Gerald Ford signed on March 24, 1976, a joint congressional resolution approving a mutually negotiated “Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States.” That also paved the way for Northern Marianas residents to become U.S. citizens.

$2 cigarette tax hike

The House also passed at 4:16pm yesterday Demapan’s HB 18-118, increasing the CNMI cigarette tax by $2 a pack.

The bill passed by a vote of 14-4.

The four “no” votes were from Reps. Antonio Benavente (Ind-Saipan), Roman Benavente, George Camacho (R-Saipan), and Sablan.

If a pack of cigarettes now costs $3.75, this could go up to $5.75 a pack once the bill becomes law. It’s now on its way to the Senate.

Others passed

The House also passed by a 19-0 vote at 3:32pm HB 18-132HD1, revising penalties relating to the Sales Receipts Act.

Also passed was HB 18-153, reducing the insurance requirement for shooting ranges from $5 million to $1 million because the latter is the maximum coverage that can be provided by local insurance companies.

The bill passed at 4:22pm by a vote of 16-2, with the “no” votes coming from Reps. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan) and Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan).

They also passed by a vote of 18-0 Senate Bill 18-29 HD1 at 4:33pm. The bill authorizes the use of 1 ½ mesh to catch bigeye scad or atulai during its seasonal run on Tinian.

By a vote of 18-0, the House also passed at 4:50pm a bill that requires mandatory drug testing for all law enforcement officers.

The House also adopted House Resolution 18-50, recognizing and commending Rie Matsuo, Daisuke Matsuo, Eva McKinney and Keith Leonard Longuski “for their heroic deed in saving the lives of Mr. John M. Seman and Mr. Richard M. Seman who nearly drowned while fishing at Laulau Beach.”

House members personally presented framed copies of the resolution to the four “heroes.”

The House also adopted HR 18-51, conveying sincerest condolences to the family of the late mayor Francisco M. Diaz.

Also adopted was Commemorative Resolution 18-6, expressing appreciation to Dr. David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, who was instrumental during Northern Marianas College’s successful efforts earlier this year to convince the U.S. Department of Education to continue Title IV funding for NMC’s bachelor’s degree program participants.

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