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‘The lawmakers are trying to kill us’

By Tammy Doty SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Nov. 10, 2011) – Owner Harry Blalock of Axe Murdered Tours is livid about another proposed tax on tourists, which is scheduled for a final reading in the Senate on Thursday and follows Gov. Benigno Fitial’s approval of a $15 tourist surcharge on every arriving passenger from South Korea, Russia, Taiwan, China and Japan.

"This is another ridiculous bill written in a vacuum without industry input," Blalock said.

The strong reaction comes in response to H.B. 17-75, authored by House Floor Leader George N. Camacho, Ind.-Saipan, that would impose a $1 surcharge on every customer of dive shops and marine concessionaires (parasailing, banana boats etc.).

Northern Marianas Diving Operators Association director Hitoshi Yamaguchi said his 33 members are in shock that in this economic downturn, the government would look to them once again to provide revenue.

"The timing is terrible, we’re already suffering…the lawmakers are trying to kill us."

H.B. 17-75’s stated objective is to raise revenue for the Commonwealth Health Center to purchase, install, operate and maintain three hyperbaric chambers at CHC and the Tinian and Rota health centers.

The other half of revenue produced from the proposed $1 surcharge on marine concessionaire customers goes to the Marianas Visitors Authrority’s promotions and advertising budget.

Specifically on the point of acquiring hyperbaric chambers, the NMDOA cites only two known cases of decompression sickness (the bends) among scuba divers in the last five years throughout the CNMI.

Even in light of the miniscule need in the dive community for a HB chamber, the NMDOA threw its support behind the acquisition effort spearheaded by CHC’s Volunteers Association.

"We’ve raised a lot of money for the HBC project and the volunteer’s association has spent a lot of time on this effort, but CHC has dragged its feet on making decisions — so the project has no finish line," Blalock said.

Since the HBC project was launched in 2006 by CHC’s Volunteers Association, over $100,000 was raised according to a financial statement provided to Variety.

The estimated price tag for the HBC initiative ranges from $400,000 to $600,000.

Dive operators are currently required to pay for two separate business licenses and emphatically oppose the government looking once again at their industry for desperately needed dollars.

"Another small-business tourist tax is crazy," stated Yamaguchi, "when is enough, enough?"

Dive operators also wonder why money is not collected from Coastal Resources Management, to whom a yearly fee is paid for marine access by dive shops.

The vast majority in the dive and marine concessionaire community think the real objective behind the proposed tax is to provide back-door revenue to purchase specialized equipment for health care.

According to the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is recognized by Medicare as a reimbursable treatment for 14 UHMS "approved" conditions including diabetic-derived illnesses such as open-wounds.

Although dive and marine operators are sympathetic to the idea of acquiring a HBC for the island, they will not accept that they and their customers pay for the expensive machine(s) exclusively.

Senate Vice President Jude U. Hofschneider, R-Tinian, welcomed the dive and marine concessionaire’s comments on the proposed bill awaiting the Senate’s final reading and vote.

"Of course we want their input…the community is always encouraged to offer comments during open sessions on any piece of pending legislation."

For the dive community and marine concessionaires such suggestions appear insincere considering they would bear the extra burden.

"Why didn’t Capital Hill consult small business owners affected by this proposal before drafting the surcharge?" wondered Blalock.

"Tourism already supports the island … the government and the healthcare system need to fund their own budgets, not suck the life-blood out of small business and their customers."

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