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  • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
  • Samuel F McPhetres (bio)

From July to November 2005, the main issues in Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) were electrical power, the cancellation [End Page 189] of Japanese Airlines flights between Saipan and Tokyo, and, not surprisingly, the general election in November. Other issues in the news included the continuing upswing in gasoline prices, the commonwealth budget deficit, and the drying up of foreign investment.

In the months preceding the general election of November, four political parties pulled out all the stops in financing, campaigning, and mudsling­ing to achieve victory. The Repub­lican Party, represented by incumbent Juan Babauta and his lieutenant governor Diego Benevente, and the Covenant Party under the direction of former House Speaker Benigno Fitial and his running mate Timothy Villagomez, were challenged by newcomer Heintz Hofschneider and David Apatang, as well as former Governor Froilan Tenorio, whose running mate was Tony Santos. In a campaign in which money did not appear to make a ­difference (although much was spent), the end result was what could be called a three-way technical tie. ­Former Speaker and former executive of Tan Holdings Ben Fitial won with 28 percent of the total votes cast. ­Former legislator Hofschneider ­(Independent) came in second with 27 percent of the vote, followed by former Governor Babauta (Republican) with 26 percent of the vote. Former Governor Tenorio (Democrat) came in a distant fourth with 18 percent. There were over 14,000 registered voters and an 80 percent turnout.

This election was painful for the general population because the traditional family unity behind a single candidate broke down early in the campaign. Many families had two or more candidates calling for loyalty because of blood relationships. In addition, voters not of Marianas descent, who now account for an ­estimated 25 to 30 percent of the ­registered voters (higher in some ­voting precincts and lower in others), made their presence felt. Because votes cast on island yielded such close results, absentee ballots from voters in Iraq and elsewhere became extremely important. However, when they were finally counted, almost a month after the actual election, the outcome at the gubernatorial level remained unchanged.

Once inaugurated, Governor Fitial wasted no time in proclaiming that the economy was his priority. One of his first measures was to continue the surcharge of 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour on utility bills, and he put the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation directly under his supervision through the Department of Public Works. In his State of the Commonwealth address in March, Lt Governor Tim Villagomez gave a detailed account of the condition of the utilities agency. Noting that there had been no maintenance and no capital purchases of equipment in many years, he painted a picture of imminent doom. The ­governor himself, using a PowerPoint presentation, described the economy in similar terms. He told the crowd that there would have to be salary cuts, reductions in personnel, or both, if the commonwealth was to get out from under its burgeoning debt. He said he was going to ask the legislature to cancel the government's contributions to the retirement fund for government employees, and organize a US$40 million loan from the retirement fund for the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation to purchase new [End Page 190] generators. He also promised to sell approximately five hundred government vehicles to the public and cancel all but the most essential individual telephone services, including government-owned cell phones.

As of this writing, telephone services have been cancelled, a directive has been issued that in October 2006 all government agencies will be responsible for their own utility bills, and an inventory has been conducted on government vehicles (some of which turned up missing). Some "non­essential" employees were given letters of termination. The governor reassured them that they would be rehired if he got his debt-reduction plan through the legislature. So far, even though a little over half of the legislators are members of the Covenant Party, no substantial legis­lation has been passed except those allowing the governor to cease employer contribution to the retirement fund, and authorizing the US$40 million loan. However, there are legal...


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