A leap forward for the Commonwealth
Editor’s Note: The following is the text of the speech the author delivered at the presentation of his administration’s plan for the CNMI’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funds at the Hibiscus Hall of the Crown Plaza (formerly Fiesta Resort & spa Saipan).
I want to first start off with this very important announcement: Earlier this morning the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration announced the official award of $21.2 million to the CNMI for the rebuilding of the Oleai Sports Complex. This is the largest single project grant award to a state or territory in the history of the EDA.
This will provide for a state-of-the-art sports complex and a cultural events site and will greatly benefit our local athletes as we position the CNMI to grow our sports tourism and cultural tourism industries.
Our goal for the sports complex is to make the CNMI a highly-attractive training destination for our tourism industry and allow for the hosting of large-scale regional sport events. We will build a cultural event site dedicated to local, regional, and international cultural and arts events within the Pacific. Most importantly, it will be a place on the central part of our island to encourage everyone in our community to get fit and live a healthy lifestyle.
Our administration put in a year-and-a-half of work since Super Typhoon Yutu, and I want to recognize the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs and Office of Planning and Development for taking the lead on this and to the great EDA staff who provided important technical assistance along the way.
This award is an example of what we can accomplish in the face of disaster.
We have all lived through one of the most significant moments in our history. We lived through it and because of this you all know the story well.
Early estimates on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic projected that by almost exactly one year ago, the CNMI would experience up to 6,000 cases of the virus. This number would have flooded our healthcare system, brought us beyond our capacity, and stretch the Commonwealth to the point of breaking.
6,000 mothers, and fathers.
Sisters and brothers.
And like we have all seen around the world, the hearts of our community would have to bear the impossible weight of loss from the deadliest disease to impact the world in generations.
Generations of residents on these islands have looked back in our history and asked, “What if?”
We all seek to find solutions to our current problems in trying to imagine a different path, one that could potentially lead to a more prosperous today.
Today, I cannot imagine our Commonwealth taking any other approach to our response to this global threat.
We are gathered here today when communities around the world still shelter themselves from one another.
We have contained, we have tested, we have vaccinated, and we have treated at a pace and a scale that put the Northern Marianas far ahead of the world, to position our beautiful islands as one of the safest places in our nation.
Our Commonwealth government and our health care officials took immediate and decisive action to bring us here. Through this work, we were the first place in the United States to declare a public health emergency, and we acted swiftly to implement the restrictions that intended to keep our community safe.
Yet none of this would have been possible without the willingness of our community to protect one another.
We bring politics between friends and family,
but when it mattered most, we came together. I think that is our true spirit and I thank you all for what you have done to save our community.
I cannot thank the hardworking first responders and health care officials, COVID-19 Task Force chair…Warren Villagomez, CEO Esther Muña, and the entire health care staff enough for their long hours at the front lines. And I thank you all for sharing the responsibility of protecting one another.
I consider myself blessed to work with these individuals and on behalf of this community. The primary responsibility of a governor is to safeguard the safety and wellbeing of the community they serve. We have done that, but this responsibility entrusted to me is not finished.
As the world rises from this pandemic, we must recognize that hundreds of lives have been saved by our combined efforts and refocus our work to ensuring those lives are filled with purpose, and opportunity. Our businesses have suffered a tremendous burden from this pandemic. I hear stories up to this day of businesses making the difficult decision to close their doors. The employees that make our private sector succeed have had their lives turned upside down. And our government has been forced to shoulder the responsibility of recovering from disaster after disaster with an already struggling private sector to support the revenue we need to make it work.
Federal assistance has helped and for that I am forever grateful.
The federal assistance comes to us as a part of a national effort to rescue the millions of Americans who have similarly been affected by the pandemic. The Northern Marianas has, more than most, received a disproportionate impact from this crisis on our economy, our community, and our government.
The funding we have available through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program, FEMA Public Assistance program, and the American Rescue Plan is a watershed moment in our history.
Today we are given the opportunity to not ask “What if?” but to take the bold path in getting the CNMI—Saipan, Tinian, Rota and the Northern Islands—back on course.
We all know the issues facing the CNMI. The challenges the Commonwealth has faced for decades does not have different solutions based on ideology.
We need better infrastructure to support a higher quality of life for our residents. Better water distribution, widespread sewage connections, improved telecommunication access.
We need more funding for our schools to support the needs of our students, and our judicial system to protect the due process afforded to all residents and to bring back the hardworking public servants who serve the many needs of our Commonwealth.
We need a better, more efficient system for residents to interact with their government that keeps pace with the technology of our age.
We need to make good on our obligations and our constitutional mandate to pay down deficits that have accumulated for years.
We need to be true partners with our private sector. Their success is the success of our islands. We must invest in the tools and resources to keep our businesses successful, seek out new and sustainable industries to diversify and protect our economy, and we must make the investments into not only bringing back the thousands of tourism jobs we have lost over this pandemic, but in transforming our tourism product to have the CNMI become a world-class destination we can all be proud of.
And if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the health of our community is a priority that encompasses all of the efforts of government. We need to make investments in our healthcare system, support our first responders, and ensure funding is available to support critical healthcare access to our residents.
Today, we will discuss how we are going to get there, utilizing the funding provided by the American Rescue Plan. [Finance] Secretary [David DLG] Atalig will provide the details of this plan that has been developed through a whole-of-government approach to provide the resources to see a better Commonwealth.
The plan being set forth places funding toward repairing our aging water distribution system, fixing decades-old leaks, constructing new sewer systems and providing access to water for an unprecedented number of CNMI residents.
Tremendous resources are being placed into our islands education system to support the growth and development of our children.
The critical needs of our Judicial and Legislative branches will be met to allow these branches to continue their necessary work for the public.
We are bringing back our public servants so they can continue their service to the community across all islands of the Commonwealth, and I am happy to announce that with this plan we are restoring within-grade increases to employees to support their professional growth and development.
This funding will propel the CNMI government to the 21st century, through investments into the I.T. infrastructure of the government, creating simpler and more efficient methods for residents to interact with their government.
We are fulfilling our constitutional duty to reduce the deficit we have incurred due to our phenomenal response to the pandemic, to include the needed expenses of our medical referral program that has been historically underfunded.
We are building a more vibrant private sector with an unprecedented infusion of resources to support the needs of small businesses, households, nonprofits, and our tourism industry. We will build back stronger, and our workforce and small businesses will be at the forefront of the new economy for our islands.
And we are recognizing the efforts of our healthcare system and first responders, acknowledging their work and sacrifices and continuing to support their ongoing work to keep our community safe.
This plan goes beyond direct spending on these priorities. These resources provide us the opportunity to support critical public services not contained in the spending plan.
We will have the resources to continue to prioritize local funding to support the full pension benefits provided to our islands retirees, many of whom had to deal with the greatest risk of this pandemic.
We will be submitting a revised budget to our Legislature by July 1 that will bring back our government to pre-COVID budget levels, and we are leveraging resources to provide greater access to quality homes through the planned establishment of 2,000 new homestead lots across Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.
We have placed our commitment into these priority areas to resolve longstanding issues that have been exasperated by the pandemic.
This monumental undertaking will require all of us to join in the process of sharing ideas, seeking new and innovative solutions, and working together to ensure these solutions work for the people of the CNMI. This includes the members of the Executive Branch, Legislative Branch, Judicial Branch, the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Public Auditor to ensure the funds are accounted for, their uses supported by needs, and that the public can be the beneficiaries of the leap forward for the Commonwealth.
Thank you for all that you have done, and continue to do. I look forward to today’s presentation and to the work we will accomplish together.
Ralph DLG Torres (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Ralph DLG Torres is governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.