17 NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS’ LEGISLATORS OFF TO WASHINGTON

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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (April 2, 000)---A 17-man strong delegation from the Legislature will leave this week for Washington D.C. in a trip they consider crucial in informing U.S. lawmakers about the serious economic problems confronting the CNMI as well as efforts being undertaken to improve the islands’ financial condition.

"We expect to get the sentiments and support of the congressional leadership in Washington with respect to our quest for economic survival and growth," House Speaker Benigno R. Fitial told reporters.

Mr. Fitial is scheduled to depart Saipan on April 3 ahead of the other members of the delegation, who will fly to the U.S. capital on April 5 and 6.

Among those participating in the trip are 13 members of the House of Representatives, 10 of whom are with the leadership, and four from the Senate. They also hope Lt. Gov. Jesus R. Sablan will join them to "add weight" to the delegation, according to Mr. Fitial.

These lawmakers will face a grueling schedule during the weeklong trip, with several meetings lined up with the nation's legislators, public policy groups and other organizations.

"We are hopeful also that during this trip, that some members of the delegation will have first-hand experience in meeting and discussing vital CNMI issues with members of Congress serving in committees," said Mr. Fitial.

The Speaker cited two goals they hope to achieve in Washington -- first, to explain to members of Congress the serious economic problems here in the CNMI; and second, to let them understand the regulatory reforms his House coalition initiated in an effort to spur the local economy.

"Most members of Congress know very little about the Commonwealth. What they are likely to hear can often be wrong," he said in a statement.

"We want to help them put a face to the name. We want them to understand what we are trying to do and the challenges we face. If we can succeed at that, we will improve the relationship with Washington that has gone downhill for the last few years," added Mr. Fitial.

On Capitol Hill, the delegation will meet with Republican leaders from both the House and the Senate, including influential members like House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Resources Committee Chair Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and its next head, Rep. Jim Hansen (R-UT).

The trip, according to Mr. Fitial, marked an aggressive lobbying by the CNMI against legislation affecting the island, such as measures stripping local control over its immigration, minimum wage and customs.

A Worthy Effort

On criticisms that the delegation would cost taxpayers' money, the Speaker emphasized critics should respect their efforts as the legislative leaders also respect their opinion.

"We believe that what we are doing is the right thing for the Commonwealth. If we can get the U.S. congress, especially the House, to stop the federal takeover legislation, those people who may think otherwise would also benefit from this effort," he said.

S. 1052, the bill that will extend federal immigration laws to the island, is pending before the lower house after the Senate passed it early this year -- the first legislation on the CNMI that has reached the floor of the bicameral body.

Island leaders and business representatives, who have opposed the measure because of its potential devastating impact on the local economy, have underscored the need to intensify lobbying in Washington to block it.

The delegation is also set to meet with powerful congressional groups, such as the 58-member Western Caucus headed by Rep. George Radanovich (R-California) who was the honorary guest of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce last January.

It will also hold talks with the Conservative Action Team, a group of 50 members founded by Rep. John Doolittle (R-California) who has also visited the CNMI.

Aside from lawmakers, the delegation will attend briefings and meetings with leading Washington think tanks, media organizations, public policy and interest groups like the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and Traditional Values Coalition.

They will also attend a briefing on legislative process from Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds and explore how to create new business development opportunities with experts on information technology and luxury cruise lines.

"We have a busy schedule because we want to get the most out of this visit," said Mr. Fitial. "We've got to deliver a message of concern, but also of self-reliance and progress. It's the duty of elected officials to stand up for the Commonwealth and for our people. Congress needs to hear our story. Nobody else can do it."

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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