CNMI, Lottery Commission Should Rule On

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

Casinos Tomorrow
Follows bill fully empowering commission in the licensing matter

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, July 14, 2014) – Members of the public can now draw their own conclusions whether Marianas Stars Entertainment Inc. or Best Sunshine International Ltd. deserves to win a hard-fought license to build a casino on Saipan once consultants reveal this afternoon the results of their investigation and review. The Lottery Commission could award an exclusive casino license as early as tomorrow.

This comes after Gov. Eloy S. Inos signed into law on Friday a controversial bill that fixes the ambiguities of the Saipan casino law and fully empowers the Lottery Commission to grant a casino license.

Inos is optimistic that an exclusive casino license would be granted soon, giving the CNMI economy a "shot in the arm."

The governor signed House Bill 18-195, House Draft 1 into Public Law 18-56 in the presence of mostly retirees who once again trooped to Capital Hill to ensure the bill is enacted to pave the way for a grant of a license, which would trigger the release of $30 million to pay for the retirees’ deferred 25 percent pension and interests on withdrawn defined benefit plan contributions, among other things.

Inos said retirees and former defined benefit plan members’ efforts to band together "made a lot of impact" to ensure that the repeal and reenact bill would pass the House of Representatives and the Senate last week.

Concerned citizen Leila Staffler, meanwhile, said yesterday the legal opinions that they have sought mentioned the "high possibility" that the newly-signed law will kill the casino and electronic gaming referendum petitions signed by more than 4,200 individuals.

"This tactic also bears to question that if lawmakers can repeal laws that are being litigated in court, then there really is no justice. A lawmaker can always go in and change a law that they have a liability for while in court," Staffler told Saipan Tribune when sought for comment.

Rating

Lottery Commission chair Sixto Igisomar said casino investigator B2G Global Strategies and gaming consultant The Innovation Group will be presenting this afternoon a report on their review and investigation of the two casino applications, including the scores they obtained in each of the criteria, including financial capability and business experience in gaming.

The presentation will be held during the Lottery Commission’s meeting at 2pm today at the Pedro P. Tenorio Multi-Purpose Center in Susupe.

The Lottery Commission will meet again tomorrow at 2pm at the same location to, among other things, decide on a "casino license" as stated in their public notice on Friday.

Law signing

On Friday, retirees crowded the governor’s main conference room and the lobby of the governor’s office building on Capital Hill to witness the governor’s scheduled 1pm signing of the repeal and reenact bill. The bill was signed at 1:20pm.

The governor also recognized three individuals for organizing the retirees: Greg "Kazuma" Camacho, Clyde Norita, and Joe Aldan. Joe Pangelinan also represented former and active DB plan members.

"We have proven that we are an important part of the community. We have a powerful voice," Aldan said, hoping that the same kind of interest and enthusiasm would be seen on other issues affecting retirees.

Norita, for his part, said he’s "touched" by retirees’ show of force.

"We won because of our collective efforts," he said, likening the events of the past months to a sleeping bear that’s been poked several times and will surely "roar" and fight back. He said his other disappointment is the lack of action by an existing group that’s supposed to represent the interests of retirees, the Commonwealth Retirees Association.

Lawmakers who pushed for and supported HB 18-195 also spoke, including House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), Senate vice president Victor Hocog (R-Rota), Sen. Pete Reyes (Ind-Saipan), and bill author House floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan).

Retirees also shared their views, including former representative Joe Palacios and Roman Tudela.

Before the start of the ceremony, retiree Pedro DLG. Pangelinan, 69, told his fellow retirees that in an island community, many of them could be related to lawmakers who did not support the passage of HB 18-195.

"I don’t care if they are your relatives—they didn’t want us to get our 25 percent. Why would we give our votes to them? They didn’t support us, why should we support them?" he said.

Tony C. Cruz, 66, said he’s happy and relieved that HB 18-195 is now law, so that a casino license could be granted and therefore release $30 million in bank deposit that will be used to pay retirees, among other things.

"Utility bills are too high. I get $643 cut every month, that’s a big amount that could have gone to paying my utilities and food," he said in an interview.

Cruz also said if the former NMI Retirement Fund was not made into a "loan agency," there would still be more funds left for retirees. He mentioned that government agencies that owe the Fund money are not being "made" to pay back.

"Who is monitoring their payment? I heard they owe some $7 million. That would have gone to retirees," he added.

Retirees plan to meet again on other issues, including a possible revival of a cost-of-living adjustment. The governor acknowledged this.

Inos said he will also submit and resubmit to lawmakers as early as this week nominees to the regulatory Casino Commission. He withdrew his three nominations because the 90-day was approaching without a public hearing set for the nominees, plus two of the three nominees declined their nomination.

Referendum petitions

Individuals leading the referendum petitions to reject the Saipan casino and electronic gaming laws and instead put them on the ballot have reiterated their concerns about the repeal and reenact bill, especially now that it’s law.

"Although the AG has not made a decision as of yet, the legal opinions that we have consulted did make mention of the possibilities, the high possibility, that to repeal and reenact a law makes the law in question moot," Staffler said.

Their petitions were directly tied to Public Laws 18-43, 18-43, and 18-30. The first two were repealed and reenacted in their entirety as a result of the governor’s signing of HB 18-195 on Friday and Staffler said PLs 18-38 and 18-43 "do not exist anymore."

"The law that is in existence is HB 18-195 [now PL 18-56]. There is no petition for 19- 195. Nor can we get a petition for 18-195 because the due date for petitions to get on this November ballot was Monday last week," Staffler added.

Options

Staffler said there are still options to rally voters again, this time to put something on either during a special election or in the 2016 ballot "where we can have an option to allow voters to vote on the issue through a public initiative."

"This will require signature gathering from the beginning again and will probably need more than the 4,000 originally gathered. It is a very arduous journey ahead but it is a worthwhile journey because the people deserve to be heard," she said.

Another option, she said, would be for new elected leaders to make amendments to the current law "that would put it on hold so that people could have a vote in a special election or through a legislative initiative—all of this with the intent to get the consensus of the people."

"This will also let us have time to look deeply into what happens when casinos come into a community; to look at the big picture and plan ahead so that our infrastructure, our power grid, and our social outreach is adequate to accommodate an industry such as this. We must plan ahead or we risk making mistakes of our past. And I know we can agree that it is the mistakes of our past that make us so desperate to rush this through in the first place. Again, until the AG disqualifies the petitions, I will pray that we will all get a chance to vote on this issue in November, but I’m not going to hold my breath," Staffler added.

Authorizing casino operation on Saipan continues to be a divisive issue in the CNMI.

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