CNMI LEGISLATURE TO ADDRESS STAGNANT ECONOMY

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Major tourism campaign planned

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 10, 2011) – In the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), the Fitial administration and the 17th Legislature will start working this week on three pieces of legislation that will help grow the stagnant economy, including removing the current US$250 million requirement to privatize the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. (CUC), amending the smoking law, and giving US$6.2 million to the Marianas Visitors Authority's airline incentive program.

Acting governor Eloy S. Inos said these three bills are either being readied or reviewed, in time for further discussion at the next meeting, tentatively set for Friday.

"These are very significant bills, and we also set milestones," Inos told Saipan Tribune in an interview at the Saipan Chamber of Commerce installation dinner at the Hyatt Regency Saipan poolside on Saturday.

Inos and Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, who left Sunday morning for Hong Kong and Taiwan on official business, held a five-hour close-door meeting with 24 of 29 lawmakers at the Saipan World Resort on Friday.

The administration will be submitting the proposed bill on the US$6.2 million Marianas Visitor’s Authority (MVA) incentive program to the Legislature either today or tomorrow. Inos said most of the funding may have to come from the hotel occupancy tax.

Under the tourism campaign, MVA will provide a US$100 incentive to travel agents for every passenger they will be bring to Saipan from the Japanese cities of Osaka and Nagoya during so-called low peak periods.

The two other bills: CUC privatization and amending the smoking law to allow smoking on hotel balconies-are currently pending at the Legislature.

House minority leader Rep. Diego T. Benavente (R-Saipan) said these bills are expected to be acted on in the next few sessions of the House and Senate.

"There's no question they are priority bills. One of the major accomplishments of the full leadership meeting is to get everybody together and agree on bills and steps to be addressed immediately and those that will be addressed later," Benavente said yesterday.

Inos, who also oversees government finances, said the Executive Branch and the Legislature also agreed to closely review Article 12 of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Constitution, particularly to extend the maximum land lease beyond 55 years.

Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota), who insisted on imposing deadlines for every plan agreed upon at the leadership meeting, said they agreed to come up with concrete plans on the land lease issue by end of March 2011.

Just like Inos, Manglona pointed out a pending Senate legislative initiative, introduced by Sen. Luis Crisostimo (D-Saipan) seeking to extend private land lease from the existing 55 years to 99 years.

But Inos said further talks are needed to decide whether to push for up to 99 years, or limit it to 70 or 75 years.

Over the years, proposals to extend permissible terms for private land leases in the CNMI have been unsuccessful.

Foreign nationals can own land fee simple in Guam, Hawaii, and the U.S. mainland. Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia offer 99-year leases for both public and private lands.

The land alienation provision of the Commonwealth Constitution restricts land ownership to people of Northern Marianas descent.

Manglona and Inos said part of further talks will be to facilitate public participation in deciding whether to amend or retain the land restriction provision.

Inos and Benavente said proposals to reduce government costs-including shrinking government size by merging duplicative functions and agencies other than letting go of employees-will be further discussed.

The Fitial administration hired Virginia-based Management Analysis Inc. last year to conduct a desk audit on the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs and the Department of Public Safety.

It found many unnecessary and duplicative positions, functions and programs at both departments and recommended merging positions and divisions to cut costs.

Inos said expects the administration to implement the desk audit recommendations by March 31.

The administration estimates a US$6 million budget shortfall in the first quarter of fiscal year 2011 alone.

In fiscal year 2010, the budget deficit reached US$18.586 million. This includes over US$16 million in over expenditure and over US$2 million in lesser collections than estimated.

House Speaker Froilan Tenorio (Cov-Saipan) were among the five of 29 members of the House and Senate who were absent at the closed-door meeting.

Fitial, in an interview after the meeting on Friday, said it takes time for all the agreed upon plans to be implemented.

The government may again reprogram funds to address the budget shortfall and avert further payless paydays.

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