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  • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
  • Zaldy Dandan

When the period in review began, one of the two biggest concerns for Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) leaders and policy-makers was the looming end of the federal cw (CNMI-only Transitional Worker) program, which provides special cw-1 visas that allow non-US citizens to work in the CNMI. Set to expire in December 2019, the cw program has provided the bulk of the workers making up the CNMI private sector, providing much-needed support to the economy. The other concern was the November 2018 general election.

During the period under review, the party in power, the local Republican Party, could feel the wind in its sails. The local economy, whose spectacular downturn started in 1998, was finally recovering. For the first time in so many years, tourist numbers were up, and there were new investors actually investing in the CNMI (US Government Accountability Office 2017). More economic activities meant more government revenue, and the issues that had bedeviled previous administrations and legislatures—the lack of funding for critical services, agencies, and outstanding obligations, among them the pension fund—could now be addressed. But, as the late veteran newscaster Eric Sevareid is widely attributed to have said, the chief cause of problems are solutions.

For some residents, their main concern was no longer the economy but "overdevelopment" (mv, 29 June 2018). For these residents, the gaudy Saipan casino, still under construction, symbolized larger issues in the Commonwealth.

Opponents of the Saipan casino argued that voters should have been able to approve its legalization. Proponents, however, argued that the casino legalization went through the proper legal process. The casino bill was signed into law by then-Governor Eloy S Inos, who said that it was the only way to prevent the collapse of the pension fund. Opponents of the new law challenged it in court, saying that its passage violated the Open Government Act's requirement that the legislature issue a meeting notice at least seventy-two hours before the meeting. The CNMI Legislature responded by passing another Saipan casino law that complied with the notice requirement.

Since the exclusive us$2 billion casino license was awarded in July 2014 to Best Sunshine International, now known as Imperial Pacific International, opponents have doubted its viability. For their part, the casino owners have seemed to have a knack for attracting or creating controversies. Imperial Pacific management hired contractors from China who turned out to have brought in construction workers on tourist visas—the "quickest" way, given the federal restrictions on the hiring of guest workers (mv, 29 May 2017). This illegal activity unraveled just as quickly following the accidental death of one of the "tourists" at the casino's construction site (mv, 3 April 2017). Imperial Pacific then did what it should have done from the get-go: It employed a US contractor who hired h2-b (employment visa) workers (mv, 16 July 2018).

In July 2017, the casino had a "soft [End Page 180] opening" at its still-unfinished hotel in Garapan, where it had relocated from its previous site, an area in nearby T Galleria (mv, 7 July 2017). Meanwhile, the remaining Chinese "tourists" hired by Imperial Pacific's contractors staged protests near the new casino, demanding back wages and additional compensation (mv, 13 Dec 2017).

On Guam, the island's legislative committee on ethics announced that it was launching a full investigation into a complaint against Guam Senator James Espaldon for facilitating a questionable us$11.5 million generator deal, which the CNMI's Commonwealth Utilities Corporation (cuc) ultimately had to scrap (gdp, 17 May 2017). The controversy over this project also resulted in CNMI Governor Ralph Deleon Guerrero (D L G) Torres's decision to "ask" cuc board members to resign (mv, 15 May 2017).

In the health sector, Esther Muna, chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation (chcc), expressed her desire to evict Pacific Health Inc (phi), the privately owned pharmacy doing business in the CNMI's only hospital, the Commonwealth Health Center, if phi would not agree to a rent increase. But Muna said the governor "disagreed" with the higher amount that chcc...


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