Governor Torres Delivers First State Of The Commonwealth Address, Includes $24M Increase In The Gov’s Budget For Fiscal Year 2018

Total employment up more than 9% and have more U.S. eligible workers in local labor force than at any time since 2004

By Cherrie Anne E. Villahermosa

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, April 03, 2017) – On a day when most people were talking about the CUC board’s controversial procurement decision and the raid conducted by the FBI at the office of one of Imperial Pacific’s contractors, Gov. Ralph D.L.G. Torres delivered his first State of the Commonwealth Address to highlight the good news that comes with a recovering economy — including a $24 million increase in the government’s budget for fiscal year 2018.

Torres on Friday noted the $40 million in additional government revenue last year that benefitted several critical agencies and programs including the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., the Commonwealth Utilities Corp., the Public School System, Northern Marianas College, the Northern Marianas Trades Institute, payments for land compensation and judgments as well as bonuses for retirees and their beneficiaries.

For FY 2018, which starts on Oct. 1, 2017, the governor said he will submit a budget that “makes critical investments in key areas, while ensuring that we continue to fully address our government’s longstanding obligations in a fiscally sustainable manner.”

He said to “expand opportunity for all of our people…we need to focus on developing our economy.”

He said “tourism numbers are strong…. Our GDP has risen by $86 million since our taking office and is now calculated at $922 million — the highest it has been since 2009. With one year in office, this administration has reduced the CNMI’s deficit by more than $23 million — a reduction of more than 10 percent. In addition, business revenues are quickly rising, increasing by 41 percent since 2009.”

He said total employment has increased by more than 9 percent “and we can all be proud knowing that today we have more U.S. eligible workers in our local labor force than at any time since 2004.”

He said “growth has provided more jobs to our residents and is allowing both new and existing workers a competitive wage that can better lift them from living paycheck to paycheck. Wages for our workers have increased 54 percent since the lowest point in 2006.”

He added that the number of individuals who require food stamp benefits is on the decline — dropping 18 percent since 2015 — a reduction of 1,400 individuals, and nearly 400 households. The lowest levels for the program since 2004, he said.

“Never since the beginning of our modern economy have we had a greater ratio of U.S. to foreign workers.

“Since the beginning of this century, we have gone from 30 percent domestic workers in the labor force to nearly half of all workers.”

Torres then cited his administration’s plans to further improve tourism arrivals while ensuring “that the benefits of the economy are fostering local entrepreneurship.”

He said since coming into office, “this government has witnessed more than 1,500 new businesses open up shop to provide goods and services, offer new restaurant opportunities, and accommodations for our tourists. In 2016, we saw a remarkable 36 percent increase in new business applications compared to 2013. The CNMI is and will continue to be a land of promise and opportunity for all with an idea and a dream.”

He added, “To those dreams still waiting to be chased, the resources are here, the market is growing. The time is now to make your dream a reality. Your government is standing ready to support you. We are your partners.”

He said his administration “will [also] continue its efforts of advocating to the federal government for our right to succeed, and our right to provide more jobs and more opportunities for all who call these islands home.”

The CNMI, he added, must have access to the labor force it needs to grow.

“The simple fact is that there are not enough U.S. qualified workers living here to meet the demands for labor our economy requires today. [And] it is clear that the presence of foreign labor does not take a job from a worker born in the CNMI — it allows more jobs to be created for everyone.”

At the same time, Torres said the CNMI will do its part to “curtail the practice of illegal immigration into the commonwealth.”

To be clear, he said, “the practice of bringing in workers under the guise of being tourists will harm the overall economy and it will not be tolerated.”

He added, “If you exploit workers in the CNMI, if you threaten our economy, if you put at risk the many families relying on our success, we will stop you.”

Torres also reported the ongoing road projects and the rehabilitation of “our aged power generation system” which includes the acquisition of “newer, more efficient generators and the pursuit of alternative energy sources.”

He said the government is also “increasing our efforts to locate, fix, and maintain our water lines throughout Saipan, taking significant steps toward providing quality 24-hour water access to all Saipan residents.”

He said the CNMI’s “first public transit fixed route system” will be launched soon, and that his administration will likewise “take the necessary steps to build a network of vocational training institutions so that our workers of tomorrow can be found right here at home.”

As for Saipans’s gaming industry, Torres said it is an “ambitious project that will bring the CNMI into a new era of prosperity, but we must carefully implement its phases and even delay its full implementation so that we can ensure we have the infrastructure and plans in place to strengthen our economy and protect our community.”

Torres cited his administration’s efforts to help improve the economies of Tinian and Rota, and his plan to review regulations and “eliminate the barriers to prosperity.”

He reiterated his administration’s pledge “to protect the well-being of our retirees” by ensuring that they continue receiving their pensions.

“I will continue to ensure that the commonwealth does all it can to protect them because to do otherwise, is more than bad policy, it strikes at the very foundation of who we are.”

In addition, he said the CNMI must not “allow our greatest asset — our environment — to be harmed or disrespected. I will continue to balance and encourage economic growth and development, but not at the price of harming our natural beauty.”

Torres reiterated his opposition to the U.S. proposal to use Pagan for military exercises and Tinian for high-caliber, live-fire training.

These proposals, he added, are “contrary to what we agreed to when joining in political union with the United States almost 50 years ago.”

Torres acknowledged the problems plaguing the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., saying “we are in the midst of a healthcare crisis.”

He said “it is important that we help CHCC efficiently manage its finances.”

This, he added, “is the reason I signed a law establishing the CHCC governing board to efficiently manage our hospital’s finances by preparing a business plan that not only addresses current revenue shortfalls, but also ensures that the hospital becomes fiscally sustainable for the future. And as our revenues continue to increase, I will personally make sure that our hospital gets its supplemental appropriation this year so that we can focus less on financing and more on the health care concerns facing our community.”

In line with the “war on ice,” which Torres said will continue, the government has already established a drug court and a rehabilitation program “to provide recovering drug addicts with the tools necessary to reintegrate into society.”

He said he also “made it a personal commitment to give our law enforcement their first salary increase since 2001. And with our growing economy, I will continue to make sure we give them what they rightfully deserve so they can enforce our laws efficiently and effectively.”

According to the governor:

“With all the problems that exist in our community, I have spent many stressful nights wondering what the solution is…if there is a solution….

“It may be difficult at times to maintain idealism, and cynicism is a logical response to everything negative you see in the papers or on Facebook about a problem that can’t be solved. But this isn’t the only response.

“You can be a critic who throws rocks from the sidelines because it’s easy and requires little creativity, or you can choose to be a part of the progress through collective action and constructive conversations.

“… [D]espite our shortcomings and flaws, we chose to move forward with the goal of bettering the lives of our people.

“And if we can understand and appreciate that it takes a home, a village, an island, and a community to build on this progress, we will find that it is easier to believe that our islands’ best days are definitely ahead and confident that the state of our commonwealth will be strong.”

The joint session of the Legislature to hear the governor’s 7,000-word address took place at the multi-purpose center in Susupe from 10 a.m. to 12 noon.

Marianas Variety
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