NMI Lawmakers Could Vote On Saipan Casino Bill

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

House speaker: ‘let the chips fall where they may’

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, June 4, 2013) – The Northern Marianas House of Representatives could vote as early as tomorrow on a massive bill allowing casino gaming on Saipan, more than a year after a similar proposal was killed at the Senate for the second time and six years since Saipan voters rejected the idea, also for the second time.

As of yesterday, however, there is no telling whether the casino bill will muster enough votes to pass the 20-member House.

A committee that reviewed House floor leader Ralph Demapan's (Cov-Saipan) casino bill pre-filed its report on Friday, recommending that the full House act on House Bill 18-45.

Once Rep. Edmund Villagomez's (Cov-Saipan) Committee on Commerce's report is adopted, it could be immediately placed on the bill calendar for action tomorrow.

House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan), in an interview after a leadership meeting yesterday afternoon, said the casino legislation was discussed at the meeting but there was no telling whether the bill would have enough votes to pass because the prospective votes were not counted in the first place.

"Let the chips fall where they may," Deleon Guerrero told Saipan Tribune. "We didn't count the votes. Let those in support of it and those opposed to it decide on it. They could debate it if they need to; hopefully it's done in a respectful manner."

Besides Demapan, there are eight other House members that co-sponsored the bill.

The speaker also hopes that whatever the outcome of the Saipan casino bill vote is, it will be "respected."

The speaker added that the purpose of tomorrow's session is to "clear" the House calendar in preparation for the fiscal year 2014 budget bill that is expected to be introduced before the end of June.

All the seven members of the House Committee on Commerce signed off on the report recommending full House action on the casino bill.

They are chairman Villagomez, vice chair Rep. Ralph Yumul (IR-Saipan), Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan), Rep. Antonio Agulto (IR-Saipan), minority leader George Camacho (R-Saipan), Rep. Mario Taitano (IR-Saipan), and Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan).

The panel said it recognizes the potential financial benefits of establishing casinos on Saipan while also cognizant of the negative impacts it may have on families.

Committee members also said they are aware that voters said no to casino gambling twice during previous general elections, and "members feel that the question should be asked of the voters once again, instead of passing the legislation."

"The committee is left in an indeterminate state and highly recommends that the full membership of the House decide upon this highly divisive bill. In the event that the full body agrees to pass HB 18-45, the committee would like to recommend that the CNMI Retirement Fund's recommendations be incorporated into the existing bill and will be introduced as a floor amendment to HB 18-45," the committee report states.

Demapan, main author of the bill, said allowing a casino industry on Saipan will pump more money into the NMI Retirement Fund and support other services such as public health, education, and safety.

Up to 80 percent of casino license fees, gaming taxes, other taxes, fees and payments associated with Saipan casino operations will go toward the pension agency.

The Retirement Fund is expected to expire in March 2014 unless it receives an immediate infusion of $60 million to $70 million annually starting this year.

The bill's co-sponsors said there is no revenue-generating measure that will have major and immediate impact than a Saipan casino authorization.

Investors have the option of securing a 40-year "exclusive license" for $2 million a year or a total of $80 million, half of which is payable in advance within 90 days of the license's approval, or a "non-exclusive casino license" which is limited to three casinos in three separate locations on Saipan. This is for $3 million a year for 10 years or total of $30 million, half of which is also payable within 90 days of the license's approval.

Rota and Tinian each gets 5 percent of these funds, while the remaining 10 percent goes to Saipan projects. Tinian and Rota allow casino operations but so far, only Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino is continuously operating.

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