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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, June 29) - A former lawmaker is urging the Legislature to pass a bill legalizing casino gaming on Saipan, saying this will help improve the CNMI’s economy, which has been in a slump since 1998.

But the Fitial administration does not support former Representative Manasses Borja’s proposal, saying it prefers to further develop the gaming industry on Tinian where casino operation is legally allowed.

"I understand that Mr. Borja is a staunch ally of former Governor Froilan C. Tenorio, who has long supported such an industry for Saipan," said Press Secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. in a statement to Variety. "We wish Mr. Borja good luck. The administration does not object to a vote by the people. We believe in democracy. Even with the CNMI’s weak economy, Mr. Borja is likely to face stiff opposition."

Reyes said the administration "does not currently support a gaming industry for Saipan, but if the people feel differently and vote for Borja’s proposal, then the will of the people should prevail. We can respect and appreciate democratic action, but we are also keen on developing Tinian’s gaming industry."

Tinian is allowed to issue a maximum of five casino licenses. The island has one establishment, Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino, operating a casino there.

Borja said he has drafted a measure to legalize a "controlled casino industry" on Saipan as well as on Rota.

He said he has asked at least three lawmakers to introduce the measure.

According to Borja, the three seemed positively interested but have remained noncommittal.

One of the lawmakers he approached, Senator Paul A. Manglona, R-Rota, said the administration and the lawmakers from the three main islands should discuss Borja’s proposal.

But Manglona said he believes that the people Saipan are unlikely to support the proposal.

"This is an issue that has long been rejected by the people of Saipan," he said.

Similar proposals on Rota also failed to get the necessary number of votes.

If the bill is introduced in the Legislature, Manglona said there should be a public hearing.

"We’re all in this together -- we’re one commonwealth," he said.

Borja, who served in the 1st CNMI House of Representatives, said if the people of Saipan have allowed the poker industry to thrive on their island, he doesn’t see any reason why a casino industry should not be welcomed as well.

"I am alarmed that the CNMI government does not have sufficient funds to meet its obligations and commitment to the people of the commonwealth. I am also concerned by the continued lack of economic growth in the islands, especially in the tourism (industry) -- Japan Airlines is no longer flying in the commonwealth, garment factories are closing down, there is continuous increase in fuel prices even as economic conditions have improved elsewhere in the region," said Borja.

"I believe that expanding opportunities for casino gambling on Saipan and Rota will jumpstart the economy, increase tourism, and provide both a short-term and long-term rise in government and private sector revenues," he added.

The former lawmaker said there is a market for a casino industry on Saipan since the majority of tourists stay here.

He said a controlled casino industry is better than the poker industry.

"In poker, even kids as young as 15 years old can enter a poker arcade. In casino, you cannot allow that," Borja said.

There are 1,414 poker machines licensed in the CNMI.

Of this figure, 1,226 are on Saipan, 106 are on Tinian and 82 are on Rota.

Poker owners must pay $6,000 for each of their poker machine.

June 30, 2006

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