COHEN: BUSH BACKS FEDERAL, CNMI WAGE HIKE

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By Moneth G. Deposa

SAIPAN, CNMI (Mariana Variety, Jan. 4) - The Republican White House supports a federal wage hike measure - even if it will also apply to the CNMI, according to visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs David B. Cohen.

"President Bush already announced that he supports a minimum wage of US$7.25 per hour which the Democrats are proposing," Cohen said during yesterday’s press conference. "And given that the CNMI provision is attached to the overall national minimum wage bill, it’s very unlikely for the administration to oppose the bill only on the basis of the CNMI provision."

But Cohen said the extension of federal immigration laws to the islands is likely to be considered a separate issue that will require a separate piece of legislation.

The key sponsor of the wage hike bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, George Miller, D-Calif., also favors the federalization of local immigration law.

The local wage rate of US$3.05 was set in 1996 and the CNMI business community says that any abrupt wage increases will further worsen the deteriorating economy.

Cohen at the same time said federal labor ombudsman personnel on island are reviewing local immigration policies, situations and operations in the CNMI.

He said the new chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and its ranking member, Pete Domenici, R,N.M., have asked Interior "24 very detailed questions about the CNMI that we have to answer in the next two weeks and we’re expecting a hearing on (these questions)."

The deadline for the submission of answers is January 26 but Cohen said his office will have to submit them 10 days in advance.

He declined to disclose what the questions were, but he said they were "major concerns."

Cohen said "difficult adjustments" have to be made by the CNMI government.

"The CNMI should expect challenges and a lot of scrutiny (about the) situation in the CNMI. There’s potential that this place will be different place a year from now compared to yesterday," he added. "In fact these radical changes may begin happening in the next few months."

Cohen said "not all members of Congress know about the real situation" in the Northern Marianas.

"In order for them to know and hear what’s happening and what the sacrifices here are," he added, "I encourage the people of CNMI to speak for themselves and let Congress hear what you have to say."

Cohen, however, said he is not encouraging the CNMI to hire a lobbyist for this purpose.

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