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Monday, April 21, 2014

‘We have to be optimistic in 2014’
But CNMI still faces a lot of challenges

With the year 2013 nearly behind him—and after seeing a leadership change that saw him ascending to the CNMI’s highest office when former governor Benigno R. Fitial stepped down, an improving tourism economy, and a bigger push toward improving the immigration status of long-term foreign workers—Gov. Eloy S. Inos said the Commonwealth will still be facing a lot of challenges in 2014. But he said there’s always room for optimism.

Inos, marking his 10th month as CNMI governor, said he has seen an increase in peoples’ confidence in themselves, in the economy, and in their government.

“We have to be optimistic,” he told Saipan Tribune. “I am more optimistic in 2014.”

With a steady climb in tourist arrivals, capital improvement projects moving along and the release of over $40 million in CNMI Retirement Fund contributions to members, the local economy has seen some reprieve after years of stagnation.

But the governor also acknowledges that the 25-percent cut in retirees’ pension has also made a dent in peoples’ buying power.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), for his part, thinks that “all of us should keep our eyes on the future and work on building a better home here for ourselves and our families.”

“We have elections coming up in November [2014], which will give us a chance to get some fresh, new thinking into our local legislature. There are younger people out there, educated, experienced, who can help us move forward. And I would encourage them to run for office and start taking over the responsibilities of leadership,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune.

Members of the current CNMI Legislature said they will continue to come up with revenue-generating bills that will restore the 25-percent pension cut and address the government’s increasing obligations, including making annual remittance to the Retirement Settlement Fund and a 40-percent increase in government health insurance premium.

The CNMI has yet to reap the benefits of revenue-generating bills that recently became law, including video lottery and electronic gaming.

“Despite budget challenges and so forth, we’re able to do many things still for the community. We got new projects that have been rolled out, especially road projects, many of the other capital improvements are currently now undergoing A&E, which is kind of a soft part of the overall project development plan. Once the architectural-engineering plans are in place, that’s when we actually see new constructions coming up,” Inos said.

At least two new hotels with at least 200 rooms each are expected to be built in San Antonio and Marpi in 2014, to help accommodate a growing number of tourists to the islands.

“We still have challenges. We still don’t know how we’re going to resolve the issues with the military,” the governor added.

For example, the CNMI has been calling for the development of a U.S. Air Force divert airfield on Tinian and not on Saipan as the military has been planning on.

The use of Pagan and Tinian for the U.S. military’s live-fire training is also a contentious issue.

“Pagan really needs some extensive public debate, and the Tinian installation,” he said.

As for the Retirement Fund, the governor said, “What we need to do now is to concentrate on funding the annual minimum guaranteed payments.”

“But we can take comfort over the fact that we look at a smaller number and not the usual $300 million that’s over our head every day that we come into office. So at least with the settlement agreement, the whole issue with retirement is now manageable,” he added.

Delegate Sablan expects “2014 will continue to be very challenging” in Washington, D.C.

“But there are important issues still to be resolved, so I am looking forward to the coming year. We will be going right back to work on the Farm Bill in January. Appropriations for 2014 need to be finished, then we start working on spending for 2015,” he said.

Sablan said he is going to keep working with the U.S. Department of Labor on extending the immigration transition period, and improving training for the local workers to get into the labor force.

“In the Education and the Workforce Committee, child nutrition is up for reauthorization; there’s more to do on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And our omnibus territories bill is moving forward in the Senate. I will be working very hard over the next 12 months in every way I can for the people I represent in Congress and to make life better in the Northern Mariana Islands. But whatever I have done has been with the help of others and so, looking forward to 2014, I want to say thank you and ask everyone for their continued support,” Sablan added.

If the CNMI’s request to grant the transition period beyond Dec. 31, 2014, is denied, the islands will lose some 10,000 foreign workers. The government and the private sector see an economic collapse when all 10,000 foreign workers leave at a time when only a few thousand U.S. workers are available in the CNMI to take over the jobs that will be vacated.

The year 2014 will also be a general election in the CNMI, wherein voters will elect the governor, lieutenant governor, lawmakers and others. It will also be the first time that an attorney general will be elected.

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