CNMI Native Land Ownership Initiative Stalled

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House reportedly rejected Senate’s amendments to lease period

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, July 9, 2012) – Barely a month before the deadline for all initiatives to be submitted for placement on the Nov. 6 ballot, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) House of Representatives and Senate are deadlocked on an Article 12 legislative initiative that would change the 25-percent blood quantum requirement to "at least some degree" of Chamorro or Carolinian blood or a combination of these, in order to be considered a person of Northern Marianas descent (NMD).

Under Article 12 of the CNMI Constitution, only persons of Northern Marianas descent can own land in the CNMI.

The deadlock came as a result of the House's rejection on Friday of the Senate's amendment to the initiative, which raises the maximum number of years that private lands can be leased-from the current 55 years to 99 years.

Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) said last night he was "surprised" by the rejection of the Senate amendment, adding that it is not unconstitutional to put the two issues together-the blood quantum and land lease-since they are in Article 12.

"If anything, adding the 99 years would help their cause to amend the blood quantum requirement because there are also many people who want the 99-year lease and would therefore vote for that initiative during the election. That would increase the chance of that initiative being ratified by voters. If the House wants to address the blood quantum issues, I don't see why they object to another concern that many people also wants addressed," Manglona told Saipan Tribune.

All the 15 House members present during Friday's session voted "yes" to floor leader George Camacho's (Ind-Saipan) motion to reject House Legislative Initiative 17-3, House Draft 1, Senate Substitute 1.

Acting House speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan), author of HLI 17-3, said the House leadership chose to shoot down the Senate-amended version of the initiative because it now contains two different and major subjects-the NMD blood requirement and the 99-year lease provision.

"The House wants to make sure that the initiative contains only one major subject, and that is the blood requirement. It's not because we oppose the 99-year lease, but we want to make sure the initiative carries only one major issue. We could agree to separate the two, and go ahead with the original version of the initiative," Ogumoro told Saipan Tribune after the session Friday afternoon.

Manglona reiterated that the Senate's amendment to the initiative does not render it unconstitutional.

House members interviewed said they need further clarification about the Senate's amendments to HLI 17-3. But Manglona said the only amendment was the 99-year lease.

Previously, the Senate drafted a different version that included not only the 99-year lease, but also amended the Article 12 provision on NMD corporations and adoptions. That draft was scrapped and the final version contains only the 99-year lease amendment.

Still, Ogumoro said, the House needs clarification.

"I am for the two houses coming together on this initiative. In the end, we might agree with the Senate's version but right now, we need clarification on the amendments," Ogumoro added.

Senate Vice President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) said the Senate will work with the House on this Article 12 initiative.

This comes two months after the Senate killed a legislative initiative to repeal Article 12 in its entirety.

Hofschneider said if the House does not object to raising the maximum number of lease years from 55 to 99, then maybe it's time for the House to act on a separate Senate bill that proposes a 99-year lease. This bill has been with the House for months.

Manglona called for special sessions today and Wednesday, but Hofschneider said the priority is to act on the concurrent resolution capping the fiscal year 2013 budget at $114 million. The House adopted that resolution on Friday.

Ogumoro appointed three House members to the conference committee on Friday: House Natural Resources Committee chair Joe Palacios (R-Saipan), Rep. Ray Tebuteb (R-Saipan), and herself.

Manglona said he will name the Senate conferees this week.

Lawmakers supporting an amendment to the blood quantum requirement said as NMD's continue to marry non-NMD's, future generations of Chamorro and Carolinian families will not own land merely because they fall below the 25-percent blood quantum requirement.

They also said a constitutional proposal to amend the one-quarter blood quantum requirement to "at least some degree" will continue to preserve the culture and traditions of the indigenous Chamorros and Carolinians and allow future generations of Northern Marianas descendants to own ancestral lands.

The House also rejected the Senate's amendments to House Bill 17-214, authored by Rep. Stanley Torres (Ind-Saipan), which seeks to strengthen the Commonwealth Public Utilities Commission. Ogumoro said the conferees will be named at a later date.

The House also passed on Friday a 15-month-old legislative initiative that could pave the way for floating millions of dollars in bonds to help pay the government’s outstanding debt to the beleaguered NMI Retirement Fund, now at over $320 million in unpaid employer contributions and interest.

Manglona said the Senate supports a pension obligation bond but would have to take a closer look at the initiative.

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