Crossed fingers for 2012

Posted on Dec 30 2011

Marvin B. Seman, a father of two, has been dropping by the post office in Chalan Kanoa almost every day for the past few weeks, hoping to see his and his wife’s 2010 tax rebate and refund checks in the mail to help supplement their income, especially during the holidays, but he comes home always disappointed.

“It’s about $800 but that would be a big help. We could have spent it for Christmas gifts. I am totally disappointed,” Seman told Saipan Tribune after checking his mailbox at the post office once again.

Seman said he hopes in 2012, the government would keep their promises.

“For example, they said they will release checks on time then later on they said some won’t get their checks until next year but will continue to release checks. My family had to cut budget for the New Year’s Eve dinner. No firecrackers this year. We were also depending on the rebate checks to pay our other bills. I have to work myself to death just to keep up with the payments and buy at least gifts for my children,” he said.

He said he will come back again to the post office today, still hoping to have something in the mail.

“2012 is now knocking on the door but we don’t have our 2010 checks year. If the delay continues, then maybe our economic situation will be worse next year,” added Seman, a government employee.

But if it’s any consolation, critical and non-critical government employees—mostly receiving 16-hour cuts biweekly because of austerity measures—got their paychecks yesterday, in time for the New Year revelry.

During this time last year, hundreds of locally funded government employees welcomed the New Year without receiving their paychecks.

Tata C., mother of a teen son, said outright: “I think the CNMI economy will get worse in 2012. We are not yet stable—our economy and our immigration. Businesses have higher costs.”

She said government salary has not been increased while other benefits such as holiday pay and night differential have been cut, and health insurance premium has gone up, along with the cost of food and other consumer goods.

As for welcoming the New Year, she said her household would only spend a few dollars on firecrackers. “That’s only to satisfy my son’s curiosity. After dinner, we will just watch the fireworks in Garapan,” she said.

Despite the hardships of the past year and a harder year ahead, Tata C. said those working in government “should be thankful that at least they still have a job.”

Press secretary Angel Demapan said the Fitial administration is hopeful that 2012 “will bring much needed improvements and revenues.”

“However, it is also cognizant that maximum progress can only be achieved through concerted efforts with the Legislature. We will continue to work toward attracting serious and committed investors to do business in the Commonwealth. Ultimately, the administration’s wish is to reach a point where the austerity measures can be either reduced or lifted so that families can increase their earnings. But to get there, it will take a lot of work and cooperation by our elected leaders,” Demapan said.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP), for his part, said he prays that the CNMI sees some improvements in 2012, “but I cannot predict that the Northern Mariana Islands will completely emerge from our economic doldrums.”

“What I can promise is that I shall continue to work hard to bring as much help as I can to our people and islands. What I can promise is that where Congress can help, I will make sure that it does,” he said.

House Ways and Means Committee chair Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan) said while he wants to be optimistic, he also needs to be “realistic.”

“This is a small island. You see businesses closing. That’s a sign that resources will further go down,” Basa said.

He said exacerbating the problem is “overspending.”

“If they’re talking about $20 million deficit or overspending, for example, then isn’t that a violation of the constitution because we don’t have a balanced budget anymore. So $102 million is not a balanced budget. And maybe next year’s budget will be a lot less than $100 million,” Basa said.

Douglas Brennan, president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, said while he can’t speak on behalf of the whole Chamber as of yet, at least for Microl Corp. he hopes a “status quo” in 2012 or “better than 2011.”

“But it will be a struggle,” said Brennan, manager of Microl Corp., which is the authorized dealer of Toyota vehicles in the CNMI.

He said Microl was hit by factors beyond their control, including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that impacted their supply.

Brennan said federal tax will be a problem in 2012. He also hopes that the local and federal government will be able to agree on issues related to private sector workforce.

“I don’t see anything on the horizon, or any influx in airline seats in 2012… The headache is… there’s no plan of attack to attract investors. And everybody does their own thing,” he added.

Mike Elayda, a foreign worker in the CNMI for nine years, said he was hoping to get his federal stimulus and rebate check in the mail before the end of the year but there’s none.

“We’re expecting almost $1,000. We would have used it to supplement our budget, buy food, buy some gifts, and prepare for media noche [midnight supper),” he said.

Elayda, who was at the post office in Chalan Kanoa along with his wife and children, said the whole family needs to be more practical that they had to cut by 50 percent their budget for welcoming the New Year.

“We need to hold on to our dollars. We don’t know whether our CW will be granted. And even if the CW is granted, we still have to be mindful of the future. Maybe 2012 economy will be worse than it already is. There is smaller population, less revenue for businesses,” the father of three said.

Rene Reyes, president of the Marianas Advocates for Humanitarian Affairs Ltd. or MAHAL, said while it’s not a bad thing to “hope,” long-term aliens who still cannot find legal jobs “should not hope too much on HR 1466.”

“Hope if you must but be prepared as well if HR 1466 does not pass. Make good use of the one-year parole to prepare for the worst. Be thankful for Delegate Kilili for trying to help people, and for asking a one-year parole,” said Reyes, who has been on Saipan for 22 years.

He also said people should also consider better opportunities outside the CNMI.

John Jugos, a private sector employee, said it’s not even 2012 and he already sees his own paycheck getting leaner.

“FICA taxes is already deducted from my paycheck…About $28 a month,” he said, adding that this money could have gone to his grocery shopping.

J.Y.S., a resident of As Lito, said she and the people close to her will welcome the New Year in a “quiet and solemn but meaningful” way.

The As Lito resident, who asked that her initials be used instead, said she will be attending the Saturday night Mass, especially because Father Ryan Jimenez is back.

“I pray for the people and the CNMI. I pray that people will change their attitude towards each other and love each other,” said JYS, as she went grocery shopping at the Joeten Supermarket in Susupe. She said she will be preparing boiled corn and salmon.

The CNMI government’s $102-million budget shrunk to nearly the same level as it was 22 fiscal years ago. Government budget peaked at $247 million in fiscal year 1997. It has since been almost downhill although Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos said there are some “positive signs” for next year including a new airline and prospective investors in Marpi.

“At least it tells you that people are still interested in investing,” he told reporters.

If federal immigration concerns do not taper off in 2012, businesses and employees will continue to experience uncertainty that will spill over to economic uncertainty.

“We can only hope for the best in 2012,” said MAHAL’s Reyes.

Besides a dismal economy, federal immigration uncertainties, high cost of fuel, shipping and consumer goods, and a shrinking population and consumer base, the CNMI also has to deal with its dying retirement system, improve its health services, prioritize public safety, generate additional revenues and survive another midterm election in 2012.

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