CNMI Seabed Ownership Bill Only Awaits Obama’s Approval

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

News Release

Office of the CNMI Congressional Delegate Washington, D.C.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A bill conveying ownership of the seabed around each of the Northern Mariana Islands to the Commonwealth government passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 415 - 0.

The Northern Marianas is the only U.S. coastal state or territory that does not have ownership of these offshore lands, which can be leased for economic activities and managed to preserve environmental resources. S.256 passed the Senate by unanimous consent on August 1, so the bill now goes to President Obama for signature and enactment into law.

The bill also stretches out the timeline for increases in the minimum wage in the Northern Marianas. The annual 50¢ raise will be deferred this year and in 2015. The wage will still go up in 2014 and then in 2016 and every year after until reaching the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr in 2018. Congress previously authorized a deferment in 2011.

U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, who has seen his own territorial sea bills pass the House without dissent in the 111th and 112th Congresses and in the 113th Congress this May, managed S.256 for the Democrats during floor debate today.

"I am grateful to Chairman Ron Wyden and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who introduced S.256 at my request and navigated the bill through their committee and through Senate approval," Sablan said. Previously, the Senate failed to act on House-passed bills conveying submerged lands to the Northern Marianas.

"I also want to thank the Republican and Democratic leadership, who found a space for S. 256 in the very crowded House agenda this week," Sablan said. "With only nine legislative days in September and votes on authorization of force in Syria, a continuing resolution for fiscal 2014 spending, the debt ceiling, immigration, the farm bill reauthorization — all needing attention — I know there was intense competition for floor time.

"I very much appreciate the help of Chairman Doc Hastings and our new Ranking Member Peter DeFazio at the Natural Resources Committee and Chairman John Kline and Ranking Member George Miller at the Education and the Workforce Committee. They all worked together once S.256 passed the Senate a month ago to make sure that we could quickly get a vote on the bill in the House. Their assistance reflects a long-standing tradition of treating territorial issues as essentially nonpartisan. And their cooperation certainly helped the Northern Mariana Islands today."

S.256 gives the Northern Marianas control of the seabed three miles out from the coast of each of the Commonwealth’s islands — the same as most U.S. states and the U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. The Northern Marianas is the only U.S. coastal jurisdiction without ownership of its offshore areas.

Regarding the rescheduling of the minimum wage, Sablan called it one of the toughest decisions he has had to make in his five years in Congress.

"The minimum wage has gone up 82 percent since 2007. That’s a very sharp increase. Labor costs for businesses have risen 16.5 percent on average year after year, even when sales have gone down.

"I want to see more money in workers’ pockets," Sablan said. "But I have to be a realist, too. Slowing down the wage increase was just a very difficult decision."

New data on gross domestic product in the Northern Marianas compiled by the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis is expected this year; and the Government Accountability Office has begun work on a report on the impact of the minimum wage due out early next year.

"If new data and the GAO analysis show that our economy can afford a higher minimum wage," Sablan added, "then there is certainly nothing to stop the Northern Mariana Islands Legislature from raising the minimum wage in 2014. The federal minimum is just that: a minimum. Many states have a minimum wage that is significantly higher than the federal level."

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