Blame it on the economy-again

Posted on Dec 30 2011
By Haidee V. Eugenio

From work hour cuts to joblessness, shrinking consumer base, high cost of living, and even delayed release of tax rebate and scholarship checks-almost everything that went wrong boiled down to a single factor: the dismal economy.

If anything, the only item that wasn’t the economy’s fault was the quake and tsunami that hit Japan in March, further crippling the CNMI’s tourism-based economy.

Because of the shrinking economy, the CNMI government’s $102 million budget is back 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 since then.

The Asian economic crisis of the late ’90s, followed by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the 2003 SARS threat, the bursting of the Asian bubble, the wars against terror, the pullout of Japan Airlines, the demise of the garment industry, and to a large extent the lack of austerity measures by the government led to the steady drop in government collection from taxes and fees.

One good thing this year: Lawmakers timely passed a budget to prevent another partial government shutdown that left over 1,000 employees jobless for days last year.

Adding to the toxic mix of much lesser revenues and shrinking consumer base are concerns over the implementation of federal immigration, high utilities cost, high fuel prices, the lack of a new industry, and pullout of still more businesses.

And there’s no bright prospect-at least in the near future.

“The economy of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands continues to lack promise,” according to a December 2011 First Hawaiian Bank economic analysis of Guam and the CNMI.

It said weak tourism numbers further aggravated by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March, coupled with increasing labor costs and rising fuel and shipping prices, have conspired to further weaken an already struggling CNMI economy. Local businesses face weak demand, a 66-percent rise in labor costs since 2007, and increased fuel and shipping costs. The annual 50-cent increase in minimum wage also does not play well with an already burdened economy.

“I am hoping that we’ve already seen the worst, that we’ve already hit rock bottom. If the economy gets worse than it already is, we’d be in real trouble,” House Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan) said.

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