OPPOSITION GROWS TO CNMI GOVERNMENT WAGE CUTS

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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, April 13) – More and more Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands government employees are speaking out against the administration-sponsored measures that will reduce their wages by 10 percent.

On Wednesday night, nearly 300 people showed up at the multi-purpose center in Saipan to express their opposition to House Bill 15-115 and Senate Bill 15-40.

The center’s 250 chairs were all taken and dozens of other residents stood throughout the public hearing.

On Tuesday night, nearly 100 people from Tinian also voiced their opposition to the bills, which some described as unfair.

But Press Secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. said the administration is not backing down from its position that a wage reduction measure must be implemented to prevent payless paydays.

"We simply don’t have enough money to maintain the existing payroll liabilities," Reyes said.

Humanities Council Director Paz C. Younis, a co-publisher of this newspaper, was one of those who spoke against the measures, saying the tax system should instead be reformed to increase government collections.

"Be merciful – tax the ones that earn the most," she said.

Younis also suggested that the number of House members should be reduced from 18 to 9.

Each lawmaker has a discretionary fund of US$155,000. By reducing the House members to nine, the government will save over US$1.3 million.

Richard Waldo, finance director of the Public School System, said the wage cut will have a negative multiplier effect on the already fragile economy of the islands.

Waldo said reducing the wages of government employees will result in reduced economic activity in the islands.

He said the majority of residents in the islands are foreign workers who remit their earnings to their home countries, and that the bulk of the money circulating here comes from government workers.

Indigenous Affairs Office Director Gonzalo Santos said the bills seem to be punishing the small earners.

"If you’re earning US$125,000 (a year) you won’t feel (the wage reduction). But think about the small earners," Santos told the lawmakers who conducted the public hearing.

"I urge you people…think please. We cannot continue to cut the salaries of those getting less than US$125,000 a year," he added.

Vicenta Quitugua, a single mother, appealed to the lawmakers to consider breadwinners like her.

With her annual salary of US$15,000, Quitugua said most of her earnings go for rent, gasoline and other basic needs of her family.

If her salary is reduced by 10 percent, it will make matters worse for her and her family, she said.

"What will happen to families out there with dependents? I don’t see how cutting workers’ salaries by 10 percent is going to help us at all," she said.

"Nothing is free in life. A lot of people are working hard to better their lives. Life isn’t fair," she added.

Marian Calvo thinks the wage-cut proposal is "unreasonable" especially for low-income breadwinners.

Calvo suggested that the government increase the user’s fee paid by the garment industry.

"Those guys, they don’t pay (the business gross revenue tax)," she said.

For retired government employee Edward Diaz, the Senate wage-cut proposal is discriminatory.

The amended version of Senate Bill 15-40 seeks to exempt government employees in critically needed positions such as those in the hospital, public schools and the Department of Public Safety.

"My position is that there’s something wrong with this bill. I’m opposed to the amended version. It’s discriminatory," he said.

A significant number of the more than 5,000 government employees perform clerical jobs, among other administrative functions.

Due to the low wages paid by the private sector, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands government remains the primary employer of local residents – and voters.

April 14, 2006

Marianas Variety: www.mvariety.com

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