CNMI House Approves Casino Gambling For Saipan

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

Bill 18-45 passes muster with seven floor amendments

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, June 6, 2013) – After more than six hours of wrangling that lasted until almost 8pm last night, the Northern Marianas House of Representatives passed a bill legalizing casino gambling on Saipan by a vote of 13-7.

The vote on House Bill 18-45, as amended, didn't come until after most members defended their stance on the casino bill which its proponents claimed would save the dying NMI Retirement Fund while others insisted is a "slap in the face" of Saipan voters who had already rejected similar proposals twice.

House Bill 18-45, House Draft 7 now goes to the Senate which, only two years ago killed a similar proposal twice.

"Times have changed," floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), main author of the bill, said during the session. Eight other House members co-sponsored the bill.

Demapan pointed at lawmakers who were previously strongly against any Saipan casino bill but are now supporting it as the Retirement Fund is only less than eight months away from dying unless massive cash infusion is pumped into it.

The bill's proponents believe the Senate this time will pass this Saipan casino bill.

All the 20 House members were present at the session yesterday that started shortly after 9:30am yesterday. But it was only after a lunch recess at 1:30pm that the debate on the casino bill started and the first adopted floor amendment didn't come until 5:49pm.

Members offered nine floor amendments, two of which were defeated.

The defeated amendments came from Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan), who wanted 100 percent of Saipan casino revenues, fees, penalties, and taxes to go toward the Retirement Fund and remove the $50,000 annual salary of Saipan casino commissioners, as well as from Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan), who wanted a casino license to be issued to a Northern Marianas Descent (NMD) casino owned by NMDs which is required from making any advance payments for a casino license.

The lengthy debate wrapped up at 7:56pm, when the vote on the last of the seven adopted floor amendments came in.

Of the seven adopted amendments, six were offered by Rep. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), and the last one was from Rep. Richard Seman (R-Saipan).

Sablan's adopted floor amendments included removing the provision on an "exclusive" casino license. Seman's adopted floor amendment removes all poker and gaming devices on Saipan within a year after the granting of casino licenses on Saipan and reserves $3 million for SHEFA from Saipan casino money.

At 7:59pm, the House passed HB 18-45, HD7 by a vote of 13-7.

The 13 members who voted "yes" to the Saipan casino bill were Reps. Antonio Agulto (IR-Saipan), Antonio Benavente (IR-Saipan), George Camacho (R-Saipan), Lorenzo Leon Guerrero (IR-Saipan), Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), Christopher Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan), Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan), Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), John Paul Sablan (Cov-Saipan), Teresita Santos (R-Rota), Richard Seman (R-Saipan), Mario Taitano (IR-Saipan), and Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan).

The seven who voted "no" to the casino bill were Reps. Roman Benavente (IR-Saipan), Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian), Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan), Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan), Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan), Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan), and Ralph Yumul (IR-Saipan).

When the House session began yesterday morning, members received public comments including from those supporting the Saipan casino bill including former representative Daniel Quitugua, former speaker Pedro R. Deleon Guerrero and retiree Antonio Cepeda. No one testified against the bill.

During a session break, Rep. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan) told his colleagues who were in the chamber that he hopes no one in the chamber promised any prospective casino investor anything because this "will get you into trouble."

"The potential investor can be anybody. I hope no one made a promise to anyone," Sablan said.

Maratita later told Saipan Tribune that the passage of the casino bill is "a slap in the face" of Saipan voters who already rejected similar proposals twice before.

Dela Cruz said Japan visitors may be discouraged from visiting the island if there are casinos here, citing a survey.

"This is Japan, our main tourism market. We are basically taking a gamble here. We are basically beginning a gamble right now," Dela Cruz said.

When Dela Cruz exceeded the five-minute limit on comments, the House suspended its rule to allow up to 10 minutes of comment on each round of comments.

Tebuteb said if the members are so concerned about the Retirement Fund's lifespan, then they should dedicate all money from the Saipan casino industry to the pension agency.

Conner, for his part, said the reason why Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino did not prosper was "a lot of political play," including the unfulfilled promise from the then administration to the Dynasty investors that within two years of Dynasty's development, the Tinian airport will be developed into an international one.

Demapan read his prepared six-page speech justifying the need to pass the Saipan casino bill mainly to save the Retirement Fund. The government owes the Fund over $300 million in unremitted employer contribution.

"Honestly, can we afford to gamble on doing nothing? I for one will vote and have no regrets because I prefer to try and fail than to sit and do nothing," he said.

Yumul cited the social ill effects of having casinos on Saipan. Other members later on asked that the casino bill be referred back to committee but this was defeated because the same committee that reviewed it-Commerce-recommended that the full membership act on the bill.

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