5 things to look forward to (hopefully) in 2016

As 2015 comes to an end—a year that saw a devastating typhoon that tested peoples’ resilience and humanity, an islandwide Internet outage, the conviction of a former governor who’s also the first in CNMI history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, unsolved disappearances and murders, and the opening of what’s supposed to be a “temporary” casino on Saipan—we look forward to 2016 with renewed hope.

Who doesn’t want peace on earth, health and happiness, prosperity, disaster-free island…and someone to promise that self-serving, clueless politicians will be voted out, never to return to any commission, board or other appointed posts after losing in the election?

But perhaps we need to be a bit more realistic with our 2016 wish list.

Wouldn’t it be nice if these were to happen?

1. Employers start applying for H1-B or H2-B visas for their qualified long-term and new nonresident workers instead of relying on—and waiting for an extension beyond 2019—of the CW permit system. At the same time, all willing and able U.S. workers join the labor force.

Politicians and investors are touting the expansion of the local tourism economy, thanks, they say, to exclusive Saipan casino license holder Best Sunshine. This, they say, only means there will be more jobs. This, while the U.S. workers’ pool remains limited, and the nonresident CW program’s cap is supposed to decrease every year until it reaches zero when it expires in 2019, unless extended anew.

2. That exclusive Saipan casino license holder Best Sunshine will be able to deliver, among other things, the promised completion of its $500-million, 14-story beachside casino hotel by late 2016.

It won’t be surprising if Best Sunshine asks for an extension for the first phase construction completion. After all, it was already able to get the 2014 casino license agreement amended for Best Sunshine to set up a “live training facility” or supposedly temporary casino on the ground floor of duty-free giant T Galleria in Garapan, as well as amendments to the Saipan casino law to accommodate its needs and wants. The original agreement didn’t contain a provision on a temporary casino, one that’s not built from the ground up.

This temporary casino is supposedly for use only until the completion and operation of the $500-million Grand Mariana Casino and Hotel Resort, now undergoing construction, in Garapan.

As pointed out by Rep. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan), will the government be able to facilitate the development of a sewer pipeline, for example, and other infrastructure such as roads needed for such a major hotel construction and completion in less than a year? Saipan can’t even ensure that power at its airport is always on, with or without a typhoon.

The Grand Mariana is envisioned to include beachfront villas, pools and two casino floors. The total gross floor area is 1.22 million square feet. And Grand Mariana is only Phase 1 of Best Sunshine’s promised $7.1-billion integrated casino resort on Saipan, with the second phase eyed in the northern part of the island, most likely at the current location of Mariana Resort & Spa in Marpi.

3. That the Department of Public Lands will be able to complete a much-needed revised land use plan for Saipan, one that the real owners of these public lands can review and serve as guide for the allocation and reallocation of limited resources.

Just two years ago, the Inos administration through DPL called on investors to seek private lands first before eyeing public lands for their proposed projects, be it a casino resort or a new hotel. It would be interesting to find out the amount of public lands that has since been leased to investors since that call.

4. That the CNMI’s public officials do not put all their eggs in one basket, that they do not rely exclusively on Best Sunshine to grow the economy and cure all the islands’ financial woes.

While casino is an interesting way to expand a tourism economy, it certainly is not the only one that has the potential to improve peoples’ wellbeing, public health services, education, utilities and infrastructure. There are others that can complement the existing tourism industry, such as allowing the U.S. military to use certain portions of the CNMI for training.

The CNMI certainly doesn’t want to get caught off-guard if and when the U.S. government decides to end the U.S. visa waiver for Chinese, as well as Russian tourists, bound for the Commonwealth and therefore kill the Saipan casino industry well before it booms.

After all, even with all the hoopla about Best Sunshine and the Saipan casino industry taking care of all retirees, there is still a projected shortfall in the amount of pension that Saipan retirees need in 2016 and beyond.

5. That voters will be smarter in choosing the individuals to represent their interests and the greater interests of the CNMI during the November 2016 midterm elections.

Voters should be able to vote on the basis of issues that candidates are willing and able to tackle, the platforms they stand on, and their track record, and not on family ties; that they won’t be bought off by candidates and special interests.

Current members of the House and Senate do not have difficulty passing a casino legalization bill within 48 hours in both chambers or raising their allowances, yet they take their time passing measures to improve public health services and pay the government’s mounting utility debts, for example.

Wouldn’t it be nice if an agency actually investigates whether the CNMI’s elected officials and other employees received and continue to receive bribes from investors in exchange for legislation such as legalizing casino on Saipan and the speedy processing of investment-related applications, among other things?

Here’s to 2016!

Haidee V. Eugenio Eugenio

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