CNMI LT. GOV. TO APPEAR BEFORE SENATE COMMITTEE

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By Moneth G. Deposa

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Jan. 10) – Lieutenant Gov. Timothy Villagomez will represent the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) government at the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on local labor and immigration policies that is expected to take place this month or in February.

Press Secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. said Villagomez is now preparing for the hearing where he will be asked about the CNMI’s ability to run an immigration system that is satisfactory to the federal government.

In 1999, the Republican-led U.S. Senate passed "federal takeover" legislation that was backed by the Clinton White House, but was blocked in the U.S. House of Representatives by then Majority Whip Tom DeLay at the behest of the CNMI’s lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.

"The lt. governor is ready to go for the U.S. Senate hearing and we’re just waiting for the definite schedule," Reyes said. "The administration is confident that he will do his best to represent our position on the federal issues."

Due to the government’s cash-strapped condition, only a "small" delegation will join Villagomez on his trip to Washington, D.C.

Reyes said they are encouraging community members to express support for the CNMI government position by writing letters to Congress.

The CNMI government remains opposed to any extension of federal minimum wage and immigration laws to the islands, but says it will support a "gradual wage hike" provided a wage review board is also created.

Asked who among the CNMI lawmakers will join Villagomez in Washington, Reyes said lawmakers have their own discretionary funds.

He said Gov. Benigno R. Fitial met with the leaders of the Legislature yesterday to discuss the federal wage hike measure that the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass this week.

The bill will raise the nation’s minimum wage rate over two years from $5.15 to 7.25 an hour, which will also apply to the CNMI where the rate has been $3.05 since 1996.

"With the garment and the tourism industries already struggling, potential major changes in the CNMI could further worsen our problems…we have to be very careful about our moves," Reyes said.

"It’s the general consensus here that if the wage is raised too much and too soon…the CNMI may not able to stand it," he added.

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