A bill to amend the Saipan casino law now heads to acting governor Ralph DLG Torres for his review and approval. The House minority bloc attempted yesterday to stall some amendments that they said needed to be clarified, but lawmakers across the aisle argued for the pressing need to grant casino regulators the proper funding and authority to regulate a growing casino industry in the Commonwealth.
Among other things, the bill allocates 35 full-time employees to the Commonwealth Casino Commission and, perhaps for the first time in local statutory history, defines and declares these employees as essential in case of government shutdown, Saipan Tribune learned.
The bill—technically called House Bill 19-95, HD1, HIS, SSI—has been reworked substantially since it was first prefiled in August. The House had passed a substitute bill on the floor in previous sessions that the Senate, in turn, had amended and then recalled, before forwarding a version to the House that incorporated Attorney General Edward Manibusan’s concerns over provisions that would exempt regulators from the Open Government Act and establish a revolving fund from license fees for use solely by the commission, among others.
The Senate had heeded Manibusan’s concerns in passing the final version of the bill, adopting privacy and confidentially mandates mirroring that of the state of New Jersey, and allowing for this revolving fund to be appropriated by the Legislature in 2017.
The House majority believed the bill heeded most of the AG’s concerns and urged for its passage.
But minority lawmaker rallied around the comments of a concerned citizen, former lawmaker Rosemond Santos, who raised issue with a provision in the law that would allow a person under 21 working at the casino to handle and serve alcohol.
She was citing an amendment that read: “Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, a holder of a casino employee or casino key employee license issued by the Commonwealth Casino Commission who is under 21 years of age but at least 18 years may possess and serve, but may not consume, alcohol in the course of the licensee’s employment.”
Reps. Edwin Propst, Larry Deleon Guerrero, Anthony Benavente, and Roman Benavente, among others, echoed Santos’ concerns in an attempt by the minority bloc to get this bill to conference committee for further deliberation.
Rep. Angel Demapan, however, cited the last time the Senate and House met for a conference debate on a bill—this fiscal year’s budget act—and how that resulted in “three line item vetoes” by Gov. Eloy S. Inos.
He said no bill is perfect, and the bill now before them is not the same one that earlier passed the House, meaning it did go through proper scrutiny.
He said that despite these “major transformations,” they were here for one goal, which is to establish oversight over the casino industry. “Today our goal is to make sure the industry that is here is properly regulated.”
“We have a legislation to basically enhance the functionality” of the regulators but the bill is “being misconstrued as legislation to benefit the [casino] licensee,” Best Sunshine International, Ltd.
Demapan said the casino commission is on the cusp of shutting down operations, noting the 35 full time employees approved in the bill.
“I am very concerned that the industry is operating without proper regulation,” he said.
The bill also grants the commission investigation powers, and leeway for investigators to gamble at the Saipan casino.
He said the bill is one step toward proper regulation and though it may not be perfect, it is their duty to refine the law moving forward.
“We need to make a decision today…or watch an industry operate without regulation,” he said.
Propst said some lawmakers were “acting like the sky is falling if” they did not get the bill passed that day. He urged due diligence as lawmakers, noting other times the lawmakers “rushed things.” He was referring to the first passage of the casino law last year, which railroaded the Open Government Act requirements on public notice.
The bill also deemed the casino commission and its agent “essential.”
“Notwithstanding any previous law, in the event of a budgetary or other fiscal crisis which necessitates a temporary closure of the nonessential agencies of the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Casino Commission and its agents shall be deemed to be essential employees and shall continue to perform their duties,” the bill states.
Previously, there has been no statutory declaration of essential employees, Saipan Tribune learned. In previous budget meltdowns, the government issued memorandums declaring which employees were essential. That means commission employees can sleep easy, knowing they have been declared statutorily essential over teachers, police officers, and doctors.