BUSINESS AS USUAL IN CNMI: ‘WE’RE DOOMED’

Editorial

Marianas Variety

SAIPAN, CNMI (April 9, 2010) - Now that the elections are over, the crisis at the Retirement Fund seems to have been swept away like old campaign flyers, but the problem lingers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and it is now clear that flogging the central government to make payments will not accomplish anything — as has been the case for going on 12 years and counting. Nothing short of a bankruptcy proceeding will force this administration to settle the mountain of debt owed to the Fund.

No one, to be sure, is particularly interested in bailing out government employees and their families, and nearly everyone concedes that in some cases, the Fund was much too generous to elected officials and judges. But the past cannot be undone, and there are over 3,000 families relying on Fund money to survive, which is why this issue is important to the local economy. The community cannot afford to have the Fund go belly up.

Right now, a pension obligation bond seems to be the most rational approach.

The bond, however, should rely not on the central government for repayment, but on the Retirement Fund itself.

To make this work, it will need the guarantee of the federal government which has a strong interest in seeing all pension systems remain intact. The Fund currently generates enough resources from its own earnings to pay the monthly bond obligation, but it must closely regulate its investments and expenditures in order to maintain this position.

Right now there is no sense of urgency and there is even a general disbelief at the notion that the Fund or the government, for that matter, could implode. But private conversations with lawmakers and people who work with government finances will reveal an even bleaker scenario. Hence the governor’s willingness to bring in Futenma, the rush to legalize casinos on Saipan, and now the proposal to decriminalize marijuana. "Quick-fixes" that are iffy at best and far away in real time to count on in any way.

The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee says they must pass an austerity bill or the governor will implement harsher measures. But those in the minority are against it, and some members of the leadership have conceded that it is difficult to make these kinds of cuts when the government continues to fill new non-essential government positions. Employees who have been promised their cost of living allowance (COLA), promotional pay and various raises for over a decade are outraged by the disparities, making it more difficult for lawmakers to vote for more hardship. Cuts will come, but they will be small ones so that the government can slowly bleed to financial death. Surgical cuts to save essential public services are not even being considered.

Meanwhile, government organizations are rotting from the inside out. The attorney general promises to hire new lawyers to replace the experienced ones jumping off the sinking ship as though replacements will come overnight. Recruitment will be slow. The Internet makes research about the crisis in the CNMI a lot easier and candidates will be harder to come by. This might explain why the Public School System (PSS) must send five people to recruit new teachers on the U.S. mainland. Also, it takes months to recruit as PSS knows which is why it is starting now for next year.

At the Attorney General Office (AGO), it takes a government lawyer at least two years to comprehend the system they are working in, to grasp the nuances and understand the law, the courts, the government, the community. And this is true for most organizations which is another reason why most successful organizations, government or private, work very hard to keep their most valuable resource: qualified and experienced employees. But not at this AG’s office.

WHERE is the CNMI headed? Where is this administration taking us? Does it even want to go anywhere? Where are the transition reports? Were they that bad they couldn’t even disclose the findings to their favorite media outlets?

What is the administration’s recovery plan? Casino on Saipan, military on Tinian and pot for everyone? Wait for November and hope the Republicans re-take control of the U.S. Congress, and then hire a lobbyist to beg U.S. lawmakers to give back immigration control to the governor? Meanwhile, the administration is kicking out non-Covenant supporters working for the government and using federal grants to hire true believers. It is pulling out government offices from Joeten buildings so they can move into those owned by friendlier businesspersons.

If the administration really wanted to reduce costs, it could have simply renegotiated the lease payments.

Relocating, however, will mean more expenses and require funds this government doesn’t have.

And what is the minority doing on Capital Hill? Instead of studying the budget, like what former Senator Frica did, so they can identify nonessential expenses and offer better alternatives to the governor’s austerity measures, they would rather…talk about the worsening crisis.

We’re doomed. And, soon, probably stoned, too.

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