CNMI House Approves Electronic Gaming Bill For Saipan

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Despite vice speaker’s opposition, bill passes 14-5

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 25, 2013) – After almost two hours of debate mainly on feared social ill-effects of gambling versus the need to generate new revenues in the face of growing government obligations, the Northern Marianas House of Representatives approved yesterday by a vote of 14-5 a bill allowing electronic gaming in hotels with at least 100 rooms and only on Saipan.

At the same time, the House passed a Senate-amended bill funding the pension of retirees who opted out of a global settlement deal in Johnson v Inos. The bill now goes to the governor for action.

The House passed Rep. Tony Sablan’s (Ind-Saipan) electronic gaming bill in a format approved by a joint House-Senate committee.

House Bill 18-51, House Draft 4, Senate Substitute 1, Conference Committee Draft 1 also has to pass the Senate before heading to the governor for action.

This comes a little over two weeks after Gov. Eloy S. Inos signed into law another gaming measure, video lottery.

The governor, in a news briefing yesterday, said the draft regulations for the video lottery law are almost done.

Once the regulations are finalized, that’s the time the government will issue a request for proposal for investors interested in operating video lottery.

The governor also noted that a House-passed Saipan casino gambling bill remains with the Senate.

"You know times have changed. What do we need to do? We’re at a point where we really need to address areas that will generate revenue," the governor told reporters.

Electronic gaming

Of the 19 members present in yesterday afternoon’s House session, 14 voted "yes" to the electronic gaming bill while five voted "no." The bill passed at 4:54pm, almost two hours after discussions started.

House Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan) was the most vocal opponent of the bill, and has been consistently opposed to any gambling measure. He cited the social ill-effects of gambling and expressed concern that these would rise once electronic gaming becomes law.

The others who voted "no" were minority leader George Camacho (R-Saipan), Reps. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan), Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan), and Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan). The rest voted "yes," while Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan) was absent.

"There are many questions regarding gaming and its social effects as of right now. The bill does not have proper regulations or safeguards to ensure there are no ill effects on society. I understand the earmarking and those are important issues but there are other means that we will continue to look into," Camacho told Saipan Tribune.

Sablan, the bill’s main author and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said members can speculate on all the good and bad things about electronic gaming but unless the industry is given a chance, there is no telling what the actual impacts will be in the face of huge government obligations, including more than $20 million annually that needs to be paid to a global settlement fund.

"We can’t just sit around and do nothing," Sablan said, adding that strict "enforcement" will address most of the concerns from members opposed to the bill.

Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) echoed Sablan’s statement that the implementing regulations will address worries about social concerns.

The speaker, along with other members, said that unlike poker machines that are found in villages, electronic gaming machines will be confined to hotels and are subject to more strict regulations.

A new section also makes businesses engaged in gambling "ineligible for a qualifying certificate, which provides tax breaks to certain businesses.

The governor supports this. "I do not support QC benefit for a gambling-type operation… It’s not an industry that the general public embraces. To give them that added benefit is just pushing the envelope," he said.

Opt-out funding

By a vote of 16-2 with Tebuteb voting "present" and one absent, the retiree opt-out funding bill passed the House at 5:07pm yesterday, sending the measure to the governor for action.

Prior to the House session, members met with the governor’s special assistant for management and budget Vicky Villagomez on the Senate amendment to insert the $107,258 that the governor earlier identified for this purpose.

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