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By Moneth G. Deposa

SAIPAN, CNMI (Mariana Variety, Jan. 4) - The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands administration, the Legislature and the business community will ask the new leaders of the U.S. Congress to create a federal wage board for the CNMI, Speaker Oscar M. Babauta said yesterday.

He said the board would determine the feasibility of enforcing the federal minimum wage hike in the CNMI.

According to Babauta, Covenant-Saipan, the CNMI cannot afford a drastic hike in its minimum wage rate, which has been US$3.05 an hour since 1996.

"We will convince Congress to enact a law that allows for a federal minimum review board so that we can engage in a study of the minimum wage. And if that study warrants an increase by a certain amount, we will do so," Babauta said.

He added that the community should realize that any wage increase will be passed on to consumers.

"It is our contention that unless we have a review board to conduct a nonpartisan study on the wage hike, any increase will be detrimental to the people because they are the consumers who will suffer in the end," Babauta said.

Businesses that are required to increase the salary of their workforce, he added, will also increase the prices of their products.

"That’s the scenario we want the people to understand and seriously look at. We’re not against a higher minimum wage, but we support a gradual figure that we can sustain," he said.

Senate President Joseph M. Mendiola, Covenant-Tinian, said a drastic increase in the minimum wage is not advantageous to the CNMI.

"The House and the Senate join the position of our industry leaders that we need a wage review board to study and assess the economic impact of the wage increase," he said, adding that a gradual hike may be acceptable if it is sustainable for the economy. Babauta and Mendiola said they are hoping that visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs David B. Cohen will relay the CNMI’s message to Congress.

Press Secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. said Governor Benigno R. Fitial has held a series of meetings since Wednesday to discuss federal legislation that will affect local labor and immigration policies.

" I believe it is fair to say that all CNMI parties, from both the private and public sectors, are greatly concerned about the potential adverse economic impact the CNMI might suffer as a result of certain proposed federal policy changes, given our very vulnerable economy," Reyes said in an e-mail to the Variety. "All of the parties agree that any major change in federal policy toward the CNMI should be considered very carefully to protect the CNMI’s continued economic viability, given the pronounced weakness in our two main industries."

Fitial earlier said that Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Villagomez will be in Washington, D.C. soon, to meet with key U.S. congressional leaders and discuss the CNMI’s concerns regarding plans to end its control over local labor and immigration policies.

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