After a four-hour debate, the House of Representatives passed last night a bill that amends the problematic provisions of the now 6-day-old Saipan casino law and specifies how casino-related funding will be used.
House members introduced and debated at least eight floor amendments to the bill, six of which were adopted between 3:46pm and 6:52pm.
By a vote of 13-7, House Bill 18-182, House Draft 6 passed at 7:03pm.
The bill, authored by House floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), now goes to the Senate.
The Senate may act on the bill this afternoon; if it passes, it is expected to be transmitted immediately to Gov. Eloy S. Inos for action.
Inos signed “with reservation” the original casino bill into Public Law 18-38 on March 21, with assurance from the House and Senate to approve 12 sets of agreed-upon recommendations that take into account the concerns also of the general public.
The seven House members who voted “no” to the casino amendment bill last night were vice speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan), Reps. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan), Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan), Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan), Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan), Roman Benavente (Ind-Saipan), and Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian).
They voted “no” not because they didn’t like the amendments to correct the flaws in the original bill but because they do not want casino gaming on Saipan in the first place, or they want Saipan voters to decide that through the ballot.
Besides the bill’s author Demapan, the 12 others who voted “yes” to the casino amendment bill were Reps. Antonio Agulto (Ind-Saipan), Antonio Benavente (Ind-Saipan), George Camacho (R-Saipan), Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), Christopher Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan), Felicidad Ogumoto (R-Saipan), Antonio Sablan (Ind-Saipan), John Paul Sablan (Cov-Saipan), Richard Seman (R-Saipan), Teresita Santos (R-Rota), Mario Taitano, (Ind-Saipan) and Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan).
One of Conner’s adopted floor amendment adds a new subsection that bars members of the 18th Legislature and their immediate families from being directly employed at the casino or as its independent contractors for a period of five years from the issuance of the casino license.
Another of Conner’s proposed floor amendment was thumbed down—to allow casino operators on Tinian and Rota to be automatically granted a qualifying certificate for a total abatement for 25 years.
The new casino law does not allow the Saipan casino license holder to avail of the qualifying certificate program.
During debate, Demapan asked Conner about Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino’s annual license fee. Conner said it’s $500,000.
“Why would we give them [Tinian and Rota casino operators] QC when their annual license fee is $500,000, while the Saipan casino license holder is required to pay $15 million in annual license fee and is not qualified for QC?” Demapan asked.
For too long, casino gaming is legal only on Tinian and Rota. With Inos’ signing of PL 18-38 on Friday, casino gaming is now also legal on Saipan.
One of Roman Benavente’s proposed floor amendments was adopted, which added the Public School System to the list of programs and services that will be funded by gross revenue tax from the Saipan casino industry.
This is the same source of funding, under PL 18-38, for the payment of the retirement contribution interest payment, the medical referral program, subsidy to indigent hospital patients, subsidy to help lower utility rates, and payment for land compensation judgments and other land taking.
At the beginning of the House session, concerned citizens Ed Propst and Florence Sablan addressed House members on the casino amendment bill.
Propst and Sablan pointed out that lawmakers didn’t allow for transparency in the process of handling the original casino bill and the amendment bill, for not holding public hearings.
Propst suggested a suitability review and hearing that he said will result in a win-win situation for everyone. He said by pursuing this process, the public and the government would know the investor’s financial background, its principals and their dealings, their undertakings, among other things.
Sablan, for her part, said that by rushing the passage of the casino bill and the amendment bill, “it’s like you don’t respect voters who voted it down twice.”
“Why should we vote for you in the next election?” she asked.
Shortly after the public comment, lawmakers introduced their bills, including Demapan’s HB 18-182.
The bill addresses the 12 sets of agreed-upon changes to the original casino bill, between the governor and the Legislature. Other provisions were added to specify where the casino-related revenues would go.
The amendment bill addresses tax rebate restoration, cuts in tax benefits for the exclusive casino licensee, 25-percent pension cut restoration, payment of interest on retirement contribution withdrawals, lower utility rates and land compensation payments.
But Maratita also introduced a bill, HB 18-183, repealing in its entirety PL 18-38. The bill was referred to the Ways and Means Committee for review.