FITIAL SAYS FEDERALIZATION WILL HURT CNMI ECONOMY

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By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, ) – Mariana Islands Governor Benigno R. Fitial yesterday said he is opposed to the federalization of CNMI immigration because it will "damage" the economy, and not because it will grant nonimmigrant status to thousands of long-term foreign workers.

Fitial, in his first speaking engagement before the Rotary Club of Saipan since he became governor in 2006, also said he does not support having casinos on Saipan "unless the people tell me to do so."

"I will not take the initiative to establish casinos in Saipan," he told Rotary Club members and guests during the club’s regular meeting yesterday at the Hyatt Regency Saipan.

The governor is among those scheduled to testify at the hearing to be conducted by U.S. House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs Chairwoman Donna Christensen, D-V.I.

Fitial said he opposes federalization of CNMI immigration for one main reason: "I know it will be damaging to our economy."

"If passed into law, federalization, whether ‘flexible’ or not, would fall on top of a declining garment industry, a weak tourism industry, a government budget shortfall, record fuel prices, and federalized minimum wage hikes," he said.

Fitial said he is wary of the prospect of several different bureaucratic federal agencies working together to set CNMI immigration policy 8,500 miles away in Washington, D.C.

"Federalization will produce uncertainty and at least five layers of federal bureaucracy. It will limit our local government’s ability to quickly adapt to local market conditions," said Fitial, adding that these federal agencies "may be slow in responding and adapting to local market conditions."

"And, certainly, these agencies do not have a vested interest or a stake in the success and prosperity of our local communities. They can not be voted out of office if the people and businesses of the CNMI are not satisfied with their performance or their management of our local economy," he said.

Fitial spoke of his administration’s efforts to reduce spending and lure foreign investors including ongoing talks with a low cost carrier to provide service to the CNMI, and said that his greatest concern is that federalization would interfere with his plans for the CNMI’s economic recovery.

"It would produce delays when my policy is one of ‘no more delays’. It may dissuade investors from coming in and investing in our islands. Under the proposed federalized immigration system, if an investor had a problem or concern, to whom would he turn to for assistance? The Department of State? The Department of Homeland Security? The Department of Interior?" he added.

He said that even Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs David Cohen has acknowledged that federalization poses an economic risk for the CNMI in its current weakened state.

During the question-and-answer period, Fitial was asked by the Rotary Club’s Agnes M/ McPhetres about the impact of land alienation on the CNMI’s ability to lure investors. The governor said the CNMI lost at least two potential investors because of the land alienation issue — the parent company of World Resort, the World Construction Co., and Asiana Airlines.

The Rotary Club’s Ken Kato asked Fitial about what the government is doing to help "existing" investors and not just new investors, to which Fitial offered the government’s qualifying certificate program.

He also said that he will not approve any tax increases, even if the Legislature calls for them. "Even without tax increases, many local businesses have closed down, including Marianas Electronics, AJ’s Restaurant, Memphis Blues Smokehouse, Urban Outlet and Concorde Garment Manufacturing," he said.

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