Marianas Variety

SAIPAN, CNMI (Dec. 24, 2010) – For the last several weeks, Department of Finance officials have presented grim numbers to the Legislature, which cemented lawmakers’ resolve to pass "revenue-generating" bills and, once again, miss the main point about the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) economy.

Instead of increasing the cost of doing business, the CNMI must boost its marketability to investors. This will be a tall order since all revenues are siphoned to support the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation and mostly nonessential government jobs at a huge cost to the people who have to pay higher fees and rates for deficient public services. Even though the Commonwealth still has much to offer the shrewd investor, the commonwealth appears unappealing compared to Guam.

That isn’t any reason to give up. But the government will have to wake up and fix its finances. The government, for example, must cut as many non-essential positions as is necessary to support critical services especially at the hospital and the Department of Public Safety. The mostly extraneous administrative employees can be referred to those thousands of jobs that the Department of Labor says are available to U.S. citizens.

Government leaders must be realistic. The Lieutenant Governor will have to forget direct financial assistance from the federal government, larger states and territories are in the same sad fiscal shape and there is no promise of a bailout for them. They have had to make painful cuts with no help from the federals and the CNMI will be forced to do the same thing.

Recently, the Retirement Fund announced that it will liquidate another US$60 million to cover expenses. Here is another example of government inertia. Rather than arrive at a lower and uniform retirement sum for everyone, the Fund will continue to liquidate assets to pay benefits that it can only afford in the short term. Most of the pensioners at the top end can afford to live without government pension, but most cannot. Most of the retirees are still able bodied and can earn a living, but what of those who are old and infirmed? A formula must be developed to protect those at the lower end of the pension benefits scale, making downward adjustments at the very top of the scale. This would be the only way to ensure that an unprecedented social and economic upheaval doesn’t occur in the Commonwealth.

It is very likely, however, that while everyone is worrying about the Fund going belly- up, the government will declare bankruptcy first.

At the end of the day, CNMI leaders must take stock of the best features of the commonwealth and market those but not as lamely as Marianas Visitors Authority (MVA) is in its promotions job. While top government officials continue to receive large paychecks, Japanese arrivals now hover in the 190,000 range, a figure comparable to what the Commonwealth had in the mid-1980. Now even though the chairman of MVA cannot make airlines fly into the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, there is a lot that the Visitor’s Authority can do to motivate lawmakers not only to make cash payouts for travelers to Rota, but also to implement destination enhancement plans gathering dust on government shelves.

Jump-starting this economy takes imagination and a get-up-and-go attitude, something sadly lacking in nearly every quarter of officialdom which is why the non-profits shine by comparison, and nothing improves.

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