CNMI Legislature Rejects Bill To Extend Time Poker Arcades Could Operate In 'Non-Conforming Areas'

Arcades will need to close in villages; move into appropriately zoned spaces

By Erwin Encinares 

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, June 21, 2017) – After much debate and discussions, the Saipan and Northern Islands Legislative Delegation voted yesterday not to pass a bill that would have given poker arcades more time to operate in non-conforming areas.

That means that, as per the requirement of the law, poker arcades must move to a conforming area designated by the Saipan Zoning board by this October.

Rep. John Paul Sablan’s (R-Saipan) House Local Bill 20-12 had sought to extend by two years the period to allow poker arcades to operate in non-conforming areas. Its defeat in yesterday’s delegation session scotched that.

Sen. Arnold Palacios (R-Saipan), who led the discussion on the issue, cited that the Saipan Higher Education Financial Assistance program, which is mainly funded by a portion of poker licensing fees, has $4.7 million in its bank account as of May 2017.

Because of this, he said, SHEFA has enough funds to last it for at least a year—an amount of time that Rep. Ed Propst (Ind-Saipan) said is ample enough time to find one of many alternative funding options for SHEFA.

Propst also pointed out that the law merely relocates poker parlors to conforming areas on Saipan.

According to Sablan, there are currently 25 poker parlors located in non-conforming areas.

Including those that are in conforming areas, there are over 50 poker parlors altogether on Saipan.

Sablan said these were the numbers he retrieved from the Department of Finance’s Division of Revenue and Taxation. Sablan said the 25 affected poker parlors represent 309 poker machines.

Each machine is subject to a poker license fee amounting to $12,000 per machine. At 309 poker machines, Sablan said there is a guaranteed $3.7 million in poker license fees that the central government and the Saipan Higher Education Financial Assistance program could look forward to—an amount of money Sablan said he is just trying to protect.

Rep. Gregorio M. Sablan Jr. (R-Saipan) pointed out that $3.7 million is significant. “What is two years?” he asked delegation members. “You sometimes have to make tough decisions to support others.”

Sen. Sixto Igisomar (R-Saipan), who could not help but raise his voice during the discussion, pointed out that poker parlors were given four years to move to a conforming area.

“If you want to change my mind to support the extension, where are these companies?” he asked, adding that he wanted to support the bill but because of the lack of data, he could not. “Who’s the idiot? Am I the idiot or are they the idiots? There was a law [passed], there was a rule—you must move in four years. Now we are going to give them another two years. Of course, why would we not listen to our constituents’ concerns?”

Rep. Angel Demapan (R-Saipan) said the lack of rules and proper regulations has allowed poker parlors to become breeding ground for crime.

Although poker parlors are “somewhat regulated by the [Department of Finance],” Demapan said that Finance regulations focus more on poker compliance fees and not on poker parlors’ operating hours as well as how poker parlors were supposed to operate. He added that legislation is currently in the works to allow for greater regulation of poker parlors.

Rep. Donald Barcinas (R-Saipan), who initially signed as a co-sponsor of the bill, withdrew his support after he said his constituents urged him to do otherwise.

Rep. Blas Jonathan “BJ” Attao (Ind-Saipan) mentioned one of the main intentions of the poker parlors in the past was to provide entertainment for tourists. He said that somewhere along the way, the parlors started to cater more to locals rather than the former. Attao then introduced a substitute bill proposing to tax gaming revenue. Delegation legal counsel John Cool deemed that Attao’s bill was not relevant to Sablan’s bill, an opinion that ultimately killed the substitute bill.

Sablan told Saipan Tribune that the intent of the bill was merely to “protect every revenue [source] and maximize [revenue sources] from all types of businesses.”

“Our job as policymakers is to protect those sources of funding we can get for the government,” he said.

Sablan added that Public Law 18-56 has a provision that bars the addition of poker machines. This means that the number of poker machines can only be reduced.

“Come October 2017, if these poker parlors that are not in conforming areas cannot find a conforming area and [opt] not to renew their licenses, the number of poker machines will drop by half, with no way to renew,” he said, adding that the existing 309 machines amount to $3.7 million in guaranteed revenue.

In support of the bill were Rep. Gregorio M. Sablan Jr. (R-Saipan), Joseph “Lee Pan” Guerrero (R-Saipan), House Speaker Raphael Demapan (R-Saipan), Rep. Alice Igitol (R-Saipan), and Rep. Janet Maratita (R-Saipan).

Those who voted against it were Rep. Frank Aguon (R-Saipan), Attao (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Ivan Blanco (R-Saipan), Rep. Francisco Dela Cruz (R-Saipan), Rep. Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan), Demapan (R-Saipan), Rep. Jose Itibus (R-Saipan), Propst (R-Saipan), Rep. Vinson Sablan (R-Saipan), Rep. Edmund Villagomez (R-Saipan), Rep. Donald Barcinas (R-Saipan), Igisomar (R-Saipan), Sen. Justo Quitugua (R-Saipan), and Palacios.

Saipan Tribune
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