Public clamor for answers, clarifications grows
Gov. Eloy S. Inos said yesterday he’s “not taking any position at this point” whether to sign or veto a controversial Saipan casino bill now before him, even as concerns and questions about the bill’s provisions and the Legislature’s rushed passage grows. Meanwhile, concerned community members are organizing a forum so that anyone supporting and opposing the proposed Saipan casino gaming would be able to ask the governor and lawmakers about the bill’s intents and provisions.
In addition to concerns earlier raised, the governor said he would like to make sure that the bill won’t preempt casinos already operating, including Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino.
“Tinian has a local [casino] initiative. We have to respect that. Rota as well; we have to respect that. I don’t think it’s right that we do a Commonwealth [gaming] law that would pre-empt the operating casino, especially when they are already in existence,” Inos told Saipan Tribune at yesterday’s unveiling of the Kagman Fire Station’s new name.
This comes days after Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino representative Chan Chun Wai and Tinian Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz separately wrote the governor a letter, asking him to veto the casino bill. They said the bill is “incredibly poorly drafted,” with many key provisions “very difficult to understand,” and would force Dynasty to shut down.
The bill’s title itself states that it is to authorize, establish, and regulate “an exclusive gaming license within the Commonwealth.”
Other officials and community members are also raising concerns about the bill’s chilling effects on poker machines outside hotels on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota, video lottery and electronic gaming. The last two were allowed by law only a few months ago and have yet to get off the ground.
Inos himself noted yesterday the 15-day deadline, upon the bill’s signing, for any investor to come up with a total of $31 million in nonrefundable application fee and partial casino license fee payment.
“Is it reasonable? It might be that this bill would only have 15 days to live on because if nobody comes up with that amount of dollars in 15 days, then the bill is no good,” he said.
The duration of the exclusive license would also have to be reduced to a maximum of 40 or 55 years, so as not to violate Articles 11 and 12 of the NMI Constitution, depending on whether the 2,000-room hotel will be on a private or public land. The bill allows up to 80-year exclusive casino license.
“I am not taking any position at this point. I’m just saying these are the things that I found to be of concern in the bill. If the bill would be approved, it would have to take into account those concerns,” Inos said.
The governor also made clear that he would not support a qualifying certificate—a tax abatement program—for casino operation.
Inos said upon review of the bill, “it appears that this bill is a spinoff of the bill that was previously introduced and shelved in the Senate.” That also provided an exclusive license “but for a longer period and lower payments.”
House floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), main author of the bill, said it’s not his intention to negatively impact or shut down Tinian Dynasty and related businesses, as the same question was posed to legal counsels during the House and Senate sessions.
He said if the bill’s provision is not clear about this, he would make sure that it would be amended once the bill becomes law.
The bill’s title says it is to “authorize, establish and regulate an exclusive gaming license within the Commonwealth.” Others such as Tinian Dynasty and the Tinian mayor take this to mean that Tinian Dynasty may have to shut down the minute the governor signs the casino bill.
Demapan prefiled the casino legislation or House Bill 18-179 on Feb. 2. The bill was not referred to any committee nor underwent public hearing.
About a month later, on March 3, the House passed the bill with four sets of amendments. A day later, March 4, the Senate also passed the bill without amendment.
It was the first time in at least four years that the Senate passed a casino bill from the House. The Senate rejected in one form or another casino bills from the House. Saipan voters also twice rejected a casino question on the ballot; the last time was in 2007.
Ed Propst, a private citizen, said yesterday that concerned community members are organizing a forum that would allow anyone—either those opposing or supporting the casino bill—to be able to ask questions of House and Senate members, as well as the governor, about the bill.
Propst said the questions will have to be written and would be read by a moderator. The planned forum would set ground rules. There won’t be slogans or posters advocating or opposing casino on Saipan.
“We would be inviting the governor and members of the Legislature, especially the bill’s author, to sit down with us and answer written questions from the public. Since obviously, there was no public input and no public hearing was done on the bill before it was passed, this would be a good time to ask questions and clarifications whether you support or oppose casinos on Saipan,” he said.
He clarified that the forum would neither be an anti-casino or pro-casino event.
“This is only for informational and educational purpose. We could ask questions, and the officials could answer them. I would like to think that lawmakers who support the bill would take advantage of this forum to explain the bill’s intent and its provisions,” he said, adding that the venue for the forum will be announced later.
The media already reported on many of the bill’s provisions that different sectors of the community are concerned about.
Propst, however, said that for fairness and transparency, among other things, the government could have issued a request for proposal to get the best possible offer from investors rather than tailoring the bill for a certain investor or investor groups.
“What happened to the process of RFP? It’s like giving a monopoly, a sole-source contract, and it’s no different from the $190-million sole-source power purchase agreement with Saipan Development LLC,” Propst said.
Tinian Dynasty Hotel’s Chan Chun Wai cited the “sweetheart” deal provisions in the bill.
Propst said that lawmakers who went to Hong Kong to meet with investor groups continue to be secretive about the investors’ identities.
“Why are they so secretive about it?” he asked.
Propst also said “it goes beyond logic” that an investor that is supposed to invest at least $2 billion for the casino and related facilities would only have a few days to develop a business plan after the bill is signed into law.
Under the bill, only the casino license applicant that paid $1 million and $30 million within 15 days of the bill’s signing shall be entertained and shall submit a business plan no later than 30 days after this bill is signed into law.
Sens. Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) and Ray Yumul (Ind-Saipan), among the four senators that voted “no” to the casino bill, also raised concerns about the bill’s provision.
The Saipan Chamber of Commerce also raised concerns primarily about the bill’s removal of the tax rebate program. But the House made a technical correction to clarify that the bill does not intent to impact the rebate program.