The Northern Marianas Democratic Party’s candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Reps. Christina “Tina” Sablan (D-Saipan) and Leila Fleming Staffler (D-Saipan), who said that small businesses are a big priority for them, thanked the small business owners who recently joined them for conversations over coffee to share their experiences and their ideas for making the Marianas a better place for small businesses.
The meetings, held in May, were the first in the “Coffee with the Candidates” series hosted by the two candidates.
“Small businesses are the backbone of a healthy economy, and helping them thrive will be a priority in the Sablan-Staffler administration,” Sablan said. “One of the first changes we promise small business owners is that they will get attention at the highest levels of our government. Leila and I will form a Small Business Council that will advise us on policies affecting small businesses in the Marianas.”
Small businesses are central to the Sablan-Staffler platform for economic development. In addition to appointing a Small Business Council, their plans include increasing local participation in the tourism industry; creating a collaborative network of resources to help island entrepreneurs jumpstart, expand, and promote their businesses; retooling existing programs such as the qualifying certificate program, free trade zones, and CNMI product seals to better support local businesses and encourage new investment and small business growth; and implementing a “Buy Local” policy for government purchasing and contracting.
Sablan and Staffler also discussed with small business owners the CNMI’s workforce issues and the proposal to update the CNMI’s wage laws and incrementally raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour over four years.
“We understand there are concerns about how minimum wage increases could impact small businesses,” Sablan said. “The business owners we met urged for more data collection and outreach, and some suggested a more gradual schedule of increases.” She added that there was general agreement about changing other parts of the CNMI’s wage laws, such as provisions that discriminate against people with disabilities, and that make it difficult for employees to pursue claims for unpaid wages.
“We know there is so much we can do to make the Marianas a better place to live, work, and do business,” Sablan said. “And we look forward to having more meetings like these coffee sessions in the coming weeks and months.”
Expanding and accelerating the government’s transition to online services and improving the level of customer service that the public experiences when they deal with government agencies are also key objectives for the two. During the coffee sessions, small business owners consistently expressed frustration with having to drive all over the island to different offices and stand in line for hours to submit documents, make payments, or get answers to simple questions. They described phone calls to government agencies going unanswered or unreturned, and licenses or permits being delayed because one key person was out of the office and no one else was authorized or trained to provide the service.
“Cross-training employees and making government processes easier and more accessible online would save these small businesses—and other members of the public—valuable time that they would otherwise spend waiting in line or on the phone,” Staffler said. “Time is money, and people could put that time to better use growing their businesses and creating jobs.”
Sablan’s and Staffler’s platform outlines their vision for a government that is more responsive to the needs of constituents, and staffed by well-trained, ethical, and professional public servants. “We aim to create a culture in government that values excellent service, and continuous improvement,” Staffler said. “And we will start by requiring training in customer service, government ethics, the Open Government Act, and workplace rights for all Cabinet members, board appointees, and employees of the Executive Branch.”
For more information about the “Coffee with the Candidates” series, or to request a meeting with Sablan and Staffler, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 670-484-DEMS. To view their platform and learn more about the campaign, visit www.sablanstaffler.com. (PR)