U.S. COMMITS $1 MILLION TO HELP CNMI ECONOMY

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Funds to provide job training

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, May 31, 2011) - Six months after a forum on economic and labor development, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs has committed up to US$1 million in financial aid for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) to be able to develop an economic revitalization program and train U.S. citizens.

This is a one-time grant from OIA's existing technical assistance and other scarce resources.

The Interior, through Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Tony Babauta, released on Friday its report on the results of the Nov. 9, 2010, forum.

Providing a technical assistance program for the CNMI is among the requirements of U.S. Public Law 110-229 that placed CNMI immigration under federal control. This program should be in consultation with the CNMI governor and the secretaries of Labor and Commerce.

OIA's Babauta held a forum on Saipan last year to gather input and advice to begin the process of developing and implementing the technical assistance program.

PL 110-229 or the Consolidated Natural Resources Act (CNRA) does not appropriate funds for the aid it mandates. But in the 17-page Interior report, a copy of which Saipan Tribune obtained yesterday, Interior says OIA has committed up to US$1 million in financial aid, from existing technical assistance funds, to fulfill the requirements of the CNRA.

Other business community members want to know whether the OIA funding will be handled by the CNMI government, or portions of it will also be handled by the private sector.

The Interior report says OIA funds will be devoted to two main programs: (a) assisting the CNMI to develop an economic revitalization program as Gov. Benigno R. Fitial suggested, and (b) enabling the CNMI government to work with local agencies and non-profit organizations to provide on-the-job training for eligible U.S. workers.

Fitial, when asked for comment yesterday, said he will soon be responding in writing to OIA's report. He declined to comment on it at this time.

The Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organization in the CNMI with some 150 members, also has yet to comment on the OIA report. Chamber members were among those who attended the invitation-only forum.

Chamber president Douglas Brennan, in a phone interview, said he has yet to see a copy of the report.

"I'm very interested in looking at it," he said.

Using the forum's list as the guide, OIA designated areas of the economy and the labor market for technical assistance grants that would generate the greatest possible benefit for the CNMI.

These are tourism, the labor market, and renewable energy/agriculture/aquaculture.

OIA cites tourism as the CNMI's largest income source and has growth potential, while the labor market currently relies on foreign labor and whose stability is crucial to the transition and beyond.

By developing renewable energy, agriculture and aquaculture, the CNMI will be able to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, contribute to the food supply, and create jobs.

"OIA's technical assistance will be committed to these areas," the report says.

Although not the first priority, OIA has identified other areas of concern: healthcare industry, education, transport, and communication.

Forum participants also listed support for and against Article 12 of the CNMI Constitution, which limits ownership of land to persons of Northern Marianas descent.

"Article 12 has often been the subject of debate between proponents and opponents and resolving any aspect of it is best left to the CNMI," the report says.

It also says the implementation of federal immigration and border security controls in the CNMI has been a major undertaking.

"The FELD held on Saipan and this report are the steps for the federal government, the CNMI and local stakeholders to work together and forge ahead toward a common goal of growing and diversifying the CNMI economy," it says.

At the November forum, participants provided a list of areas for federal aid considerations, including subsidy for shipping costs and the promotion of education tourism.

For example, they suggested subsidy for shipping costs to, from, and within the CNMI. This aid would reduce shipping costs and promote the CNMI as a strategic regional transshipment location to serve Japan, the Philippines, Micronesia, Australia, and the United States.

The forum also suggested that the purchase of vehicles or vessels be subsidized to reduce shipping costs.

It also suggested that subsidized air service may encourage foreign carriers to establish bases in the CNMI and explore regional cargo revenue opportunities.

As valid and legitimate as these issues are, the Interior report says "they lie largely outside the scope of the technical assistance program mandated by the CNRA and the fiscal capacity of OIA."

"Addressing these and other issues would require separate aid provisions which may require congressional action," Interior says.

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