Delegate urges U.S. Senate to take up HEROES Act
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan spoke before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last Tuesday to rally actions the U.S. Congress can do for the people of the Marianas, who are gravely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Noting the islands’ ability to seal itself from the rest of the world as one of its unique advantages in the pandemic, Sablan also noted in his testimony the disadvantage of having to revive an economy that is dependent on tourists, which the CNMI does not have now. “How can we welcome visitors back to the islands, while ensuring those visitors are not bringing disease? Eventually, if there is a vaccine, we could return to the old normal, as long as visitors could reliably certify they were vaccinated. But that is a big ‘if,’” he said.
According to the delegate, reality must be faced that the CNMI may never again exclusively base its economy on short-term mass tourism and, instead, find alternatives. “For instance, our robust cable connections and the competitive advantage of our time zone, just this month, led Colorado-based InteliSecure, Inc. to begin hiring for a cybersecurity operation in the Marianas.
“We could grow our existing educational facilities, which IS already attract long-term-stay students from Korea and other Asian locations. We could obtain new classes of visas that would permit longer-term, second-home owners in the Marianas,” he added.
With no extractable resources, Sablan stressed the need to invest in the CNMI’s human resources, as well as be more energy independent and be more self-sustaining when it comes to food.
Initiatives from the government
In his testimony, Sablan also raised that Gov. Ralph DLG Torres has already taken the initiative to help move the CNMI forward. “Governor Torres has already taken the initiative. He brought Marianas community leaders together in April to begin to answer the question of where we go from here and what steps we need to take.”
Torres, with the COVID-19 Task Force and his economic council, has initiated a color-coded community vulnerability scheme to guide the CNMI businesses and the community in general, on what to plan for and do, depending on the scale of the COVID-19 spread on the island.
The governor has also been calling to diversify the economy, promoting agriculture and fishing and encouraging non-tourism industries to come to the islands and help create jobs.
Torres has also identified two action items that the U.S. Congress can do: direct financial aid to the Commonwealth government and a waiver of the local match for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants. Sablan said that Congress is already working on these.
More actions needed
At the hearing, Sablan identified actions that the Marianas will be needing from Congress, to help recover fully.
For the long-term, Congress could “facilitate the economic changes the Marianas decides on, whether that means new classes of visas, support for energy independence, or modernizing infrastructure.”
“In the near term, to prop up individuals, small businesses, and the local government, all of which had incomes shredded by the pandemic. And, always, Congress must direct resources to health care, to local providers and to researchers in national labs, so this disease does not overwhelm us,” he added.
Over 400 small businesses in the Marianas have already received $37 million through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program; $70 million has been initially set aside for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which qualified displaced workers in the CNMI are expected to receive in the next week; and $49 million has been credited to Marianas taxpayers in Economic Impact Payments.
“Our schools are receiving in excess of $30 million. We are eligible for the range of grants provided by the Families First and CARES Acts, for health care, child care, and food aid. And, as mentioned, the Commonwealth government received $36 million to cover unbudgeted costs,” Sablan said.
Despite all these, and recognizing that there is still struggles ahead, Sablan urged the U.S. Senate to immediately take up the HEROES Act, which builds on policies Congress previously enacted in the Families First and CARES Acts, providing further help for American families, businesses, and state and local governments through the COVID-19 crisis.