- Northern Mariana Islands
"We have suffered enough" (mv, 31 Dec 2020). This statement from a local lawmaker pretty much sums up what the period in review meant for the people of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) as they—like the rest of humanity—tried to make sense of, and cope with, the staggering social and economic costs imposed by a rampaging [End Page 176] global pandemic. The tiny and remote Northern Marianas, with a tiny population and a tiny economy, has only one tiny industry, tourism—and covid-19 put it in a coma (mv, 29 July 2020).
On 3 July 2020, Marianas Variety reported that Republican Governor Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres's administration had submitted a revised fiscal year (fy) 2021 budget amounting to over $82.6 million, which reflected a sixty-four-hour work week for government employees. In fy 2020, $144.8 million was projected to be available for general appropriation, but this had to be reduced by 48 percent due to the covid-19-induced economic crisis (mv, 3 July 2020).
In the same month, local company Triple J announced the closure of two of the most well-known restaurants on Saipan: Tony Roma's and Capricciosa. "The economy is posing unprecedented challenges for many local businesses as a result of the covid-19 pandemic—most especially businesses like our restaurants that rely heavily on our tourism and hospitality industry," Triple J chairman and chief executive officer Robert Jones said (mv, 6 July 2020).
On the same day that the Public School System told lawmakers that it had to cut its personnel costs by 40 percent, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Blas Jonathan T Attao, announced the creation of a new special committee to review the "executive expenditures" of Governor Torres. Four of the committee's eight members belonged to the House minority bloc (mv, 7 July 2020). According to the governor's press secretary, Kevin Bautista, "In the midst of a pandemic, economic shortfall and unprecedented crisis … the governor does not have the same luxury as the individuals in the Legislature to play politics." Governor Torres, for his part, said: "All of my expenditures are in public records, so whatever they want to ask and whatever they find, I'm here. I'm confident that [the] expenditures … [were] according to the law" (mv, 15 July 2020).
During a House Committee on Ways and Means hearing on the budget of the Department of Public Safety, its commissioner, Robert A Guerrero, walked out after a heated exchange with Democratic Representative Tina M Sablan of the House minority bloc. When Sablan asked him about his two sons who had been hired by the department, Guerrero said, "Congresswoman, half of the people here are my relatives. What do you say to that?" (mv, 16 July 2020).
Meanwhile, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce said 55 percent of businesses that participated in a survey had either made large operational reductions or were temporarily closed—72 percent had either reduced staff or decreased hours; 79 percent had seen reduction in revenue; and 47 percent had foregone over $100,000 in revenue due to covid-19 and the economic downturn (mv, 29 July 2020). On 5 August 2020, government and business leaders met to discuss the state of the economy and how to revive it. According to Chamber of Commerce President Velma Palacios, many local businesses were still dealing with the problems created by the federally mandated prevailing wage survey, while those that were trying to reopen had found out that [End Page 177] permitting agencies were charging higher fees. Despite this, government officials said there was light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, referring to the half a billion dollars in federal assistance for infrastructure that would be allotted to the CNMI by the United States government (mv, 7 Aug 2020).
In a letter to CNMI officials, Saipan's controversial casino investor, Imperial Pacific International (ipi), said it would not be able to pay the annual $15.5 million license fee that was due in August. "In all likelihood, ipi will remain closed and have no income for the next eight months...