2007 ANOTHER TOUGH YEAR FOR NORTHERN MARIANAS

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SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Dec. 31) - 2007 has been another tough year for the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, which has been experiencing an economic downturn since 1998.

This year, however, also saw frequent blackouts, a sharp increase in power rates as well as the prices of gasoline and basic commodities as tourist arrivals continue to decline and businesses, including garment factories, close one after the other.

2007 will also be remembered as the year when local control over minimum wage ended and the passage of legislation to federalize local immigration became inevitable.

The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the federalization bill which the U.S. Senate is also expected to unanimously approve early next year.

The year also saw the historic visit of U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in June, the holding of a U.S. House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs public hearing on Saipan in August, and the resignation of U.S. Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs David Cohen.

The private sector continued to struggle in 2007 and some businesses had to shut down following the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.’s doubling of power rates.

But Press Secretary Charles Reyes Jr. said if the electric rates were not increased, more blackouts would have occurred.

"If it wasn’t for the governor’s intervention, we would have more blackouts. CUC remains vulnerable," he told Variety.

He described 2007 as "challenging" and not "the worst."

"We also have notable achievements," he said. These, he added, include the $26.4 million in cover-over reimbursements from the U.S. Department of the Treasury; new investments from Asiana Airlines’ parent company, Kumho Asiana Group; and Northwest Airlines’ resumption of flights between Saipan and Osaka, Japan.

Finance Secretary Eloy Inos remains optimistic that the CNMI economy can still recover. "In my own personal view, I think we have essentially hit rock-bottom and I think we’re going to remain flat but…we’re going to be on the upswing (eventually)," Inos said.

The once mighty multibillion-dollar garment industry continues to be weak.

Just more than a dozen garment factories in Saipan remain operating from over 30 during its heydays.

The tourism industry also marked the year with a bellicose diatribe with fewer tourists from Japan visiting the islands.

With both the garment and tourism industries down, the government’s revenues continue to sharply fall.

From a budget of $213 million in 2005, the government now operates on a $163.5 million spending level.

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