CNMI Governor Withdraws Casino Commission

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

Move comes as Senate considers repeal, reauthorization of Act

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, July 10, 2014) – Gov. Eloy S. Inos withdrew yesterday afternoon his three nominations to the regulatory Casino Commission, on the eve of today’s Senate vote on a controversial bill that seeks to fix ambiguities in the Saipan casino law.

The governor withdrew his nominations of former senator Maria Frica T. Pangelinan, businessman David C. Sablan, and former Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. chief executive officer Alvaro A. Santos.

Press secretary Angel Demapan, when sought for comment, said two of the three nominees—Pangelinan and Santos—declined their appointment to the commission.

The Casino Commission is supposed to come up with regulations and regulate the casino industry, among other things. A separate body, the Lottery Commission, has only two functions: to review the casino applications and decide whether to award an exclusive license or not and to whom.

Rep. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan), chairman of the 21-member Saipan and Northern Islands Legislative Delegation, said yesterday it’s the administration’s "prerogative" to withdraw or recall its nominations.

"The ad-hoc committee is more than 60 percent done with the nominations’ review," Tebuteb said in a phone interview.

Tebuteb said the withdrawal may be "in anticipation of the passage of House Bill 18-195" at the Senate, two days after the House passed it by a vote of 15-3.

Demapan said the governor withdrew his three nominations "because the 90-day expiration is coming up and no hearings have been scheduled yet."

Inos sent the nominations to the Saipan delegation on April 17, almost three months ago.

"Additionally, Ms. Pangelinan and Mr. Sablan have regretfully declined their nominations. Governor Inos will submit his nominations anew in the coming days," Demapan told Saipan Tribune.

The governor’s appointments to the Casino Commission are subject to the Saipan and Northern Islands Legislative Delegation’s advice and consent.

Senate vote

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on the Senate today as it takes up a House bill repealing and reenacting the Saipan casino law to fix its ambiguities.

Clyde Norita and Gregorio "Kazuma" Camacho are urging retirees and former defined benefit plan members to show up at the Senate at 2pm today to persuade senators to pass HB 18-195, HD1.

Retirees believe that the bill’s enactment will pave the way for the award of an exclusive Saipan casino license and the release of $30 million for payments of retirees’ 25 percent pension and former defined benefit plan members’ accrued contribution interest.

The governor, in a separate interview yesterday, said he’s pleased with the House’s passage of the bill on Tuesday and hopes that the Senate will also pass the measure.

"Obviously it shows that the members who dissented previously have changed their minds and hopefully it was a result of, after due deliberation, and showing of support by community members, that they’ve actually changed their mind and now voted for the legislation," Inos said yesterday.

The original Saipan casino bill passed the Senate by a vote of 5-4 early this year. There’s no telling whether the same voting record will happen in today’s voting on the bill to fix the Saipan casino law anew.

‘Do not pass it’

Concerned citizen Glen Hunter, in a letter to senators yesterday, asked them to vote "no" to HB 18-195 and instead allow Saipan voters to "decide on the future of Saipan."

"The voters of both Tinian and Rota were afforded this same opportunity in respect to altering our CNM Constitution and allowing casino gaming. While you may believe that passing HB 18-195 is a solution, that is not true and it just compounds the problems. The ends do not justify the means and on a matter as large as changing our CNMI Constitution the voice of the voters needs to be heard," Hunter said.

Hunter said HB 18-195’s passage is a "sad attempt to pull the wool over the faces of the same people who voted you into office."

"The ‘repeal and re-enactment’ trick will negate the referendum signed by over 4,000 voters. Have you ever done such a thing before? Why would you stoop to such tricks now?" Hunter said.

Inos said he intends to immediately sign HB 18-195 once it reaches his office.

‘Legal mess’

While HB 18-195 will kill the referendum, the argument that HB 18-195 will side-skirt legal challenges that currently sit in court and stop any other legal challenges "is not accurate," said Hunter, one of the individuals who sued the government over the Saipan casino law.

He pointed out that the Saipan casino law "is a legal mess."

"Aside from currently being the focus of three ongoing court cases, it will still be subject to many more challenges. The most paramount has yet to reach the court system. That legal challenge is whether the Legislature had the right to alter the constitutional ban without a vote from the people. Such a legal challenge will bog down any advancement of the SCA for months or more likely years and will eventually have to be heard in the CNMI Supreme Court. The precedent set by the passage of the SCA has put all CNMI Constitutional provisions in jeopardy," he added.

He said if Saipan casino gaming is "paramount" in their mind, lawmakers should pass a legislative initiative that asks Saipan voters if they would like to allow casino gaming on Saipan.

"It can be placed on the November ballot and the solution can be seen in just a matter of four short months. This will halt all lawsuits and create a stable environment. This will also send a strong message to the people of Saipan and the rest of the CNMI that their voice matters," he added.

Another concerned citizen, Leila Staffler, submitted petitions to reject the Saipan casino and electronic gaming laws with over 4,200 signatures on Monday. Once the petition and signatures are validated and certified to have met requirements, the question will be placed before voters in November.

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