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Opinion: You can't get water out of a stone

By Edwin K. Propst

This is the idiom I think of whenever I hear someone talk about the Legislature coming up with revenue-generating bills.

So what exactly can the Legislature, or anyone, do to generate revenue? Legalize cannabis? We did that. How much money has the CNMI made thus far from cannabis? Not even enough to pay for the salaries and operations of the Cannabis Commission. It likely would have been much cheaper and less bureaucratic if we had just simply decriminalized marijuana, as was stated by a few proponents of marijuana at the get go.

Some have suggested we raise fees and taxes. The problem is, this affects the struggling middle class and poor which makes up 90% of our population, as businesses will just pass the buck to the consumer, all of whom are already paying through the nose with rising fuel prices at the pump and at CUC.

Before we even begin to talk about revenue-generating bills, let’s first focus on some housekeeping and cleaning for our CNMI government.

For starters, let’s ensure Imperial Pacific International (IPI) is up front and honest with us. No more playing three card monte with us…no more fine wining and dining and jet travels for politicians, or extravagant gifts and lavish consultancy contracts (perhaps mostly because IPI can no longer afford it). IPI promised a $7 billion investment here on Saipan, and today, they can’t even afford to pay their former guest workers what they are owed and send them home. While IPI is locked in with multiple lawsuits, they have over 100 former guest workers and their dependents who are stranded on our island, awaiting their three-fourths guarantee and PTO and plane tickets home. These workers have been helped by non-profit organizations along with the kindness and generosity of friends, family, and our loving community. They are now all out of status and cannot legally work here, so they have no legal ability to find a job and earn a living. The only option right now is to provide closure and lessen the burden on our community by sending them all home with their rightfully earned wages from IPI. The crazy thing is, they are not asking for much, as many of these workers seem to be owed as little as $7,000. For a billion dollar company, we are talking about peanuts. Why should these workers have to be burdened with hiring an attorney to force IPI to pay them what they are legally owed? They shouldn’t. And this community should not have to put up with these shenanigans.

The casino proponents and those who enriched themselves and their families by IPI remain eerily silent, as they don’t know what to say. That is fine, as we can do the talking for them and here is what we all need to say: “IPI, pay up or ship out.” You need to pay up for your developer’s infrastructure tax, the community benefit fund, the casino license agreement, for taxes, for multiple lawsuits, for penalties. Before a few of your proponents shout, “But it’s COVID time!”, let us all remember back before COVID, IPI’s excuses were “Soudelor” and “Yutu” and “not enough CW-1 and H2B workers to complete the hotel and casino in Garapan,” among others. This is a company that supposedly had deep pockets and planned on building the world's largest water park, and a former FBI director in its Board of Directors, and a lot of pull and money to throw around, and they did, including buying up and hoarding land and properties all over Saipan.

But of course, we could put IPI on a “payment plan” as is being suggested by several leaders. But here is the thing: how is it that a corporate giant can get away with a “payment plan” while a poor customer at CUC cannot? If a CUC customer is late, s/he is disconnected. Can we also put small businesses on payment plans for their BGRT and other fees, including utilities? Why is IPI once again being an exception to the rule? Is it because the CNMI has so much to lose if IPI does not succeed? If IPI fails, they fail not only because of their own mistakes, but also the mistakes of this government, from removing the completion bond, to ensuring IPI buy up land for several times the actual value of the land, to paying consultancy fees to the well connected. While the cash was flowing, there were a few who were the first in line to ensure they got their full share, while the rest of the CNMI got crumbs.

All this talk about generating revenue should be replaced with talk about cutting costs and addressing all the wasteful spending we have all become so accustomed to. Being fiscally conservative and real cost-cutting measures starts from the top, from all of our leaders in the government and private sector. We also must ensure that sole source contracts no longer go to off-island companies and that all local companies are prioritized when it comes to government purchases and services. Invest local, buy local, yes?

As usual, our best bet is our dependence and reliance on the Federal government. While we hear clamoring for greater independence from the Feds, it is all too clear our government cannot survive without federal bailouts. We are hoping for a $515 million blank check from the Federal government to keep the CNMI’s economy alive for the next few years. The question is, will we be able to ensure that money is invested properly and not misspent? Every penny must be accounted for and taxpayers should have a monthly report on how and where it is being spent. Nothing less will do.

When we talk about revenue-generating bills, I think of all the poker parlors and e-gaming facilities that are open. How do these wonderful companies contribute to our economy? Through taxes. These businesses thrive off addicted gamblers, and of course have a few gamblers who are not “addicted” but just enjoy playing for "fun and entertainment." But most of them do not have money to burn. They are hoping for that Royal Flush and the rush they get when they win. But the sad thing is, the House always wins. Gambling Inc. is programmed to win and to take your money, not lose to their customers. Do we know of any millionaire poker players on island? So we take that blood money and we use it to do good, like SHEFA and scholarships and pet projects around island. If we are going to raise any taxes, we can begin with a gross gaming revenue tax for all gambling within the CNMI. Why not? Every other place has gaming revenue taxes. Why are we exempted?

Before we can have an adult conversation about revenue generating bills, let’s talk about how we can save the CNMI from itself, from nepotism, favoritism, corruption, and greed. Until we have that adult conversation sans the trolls, we will keep spinning our wheels, and trying to get water out of a stone. It is time to stand up to IPI and bad government policies and norms that have gotten us to where we are today that includes four straight years of deficit spending.

We can do better. We must do better. Our people are counting on us.

Edwin K. Propst is a member of the CNMI House of Representatives, chairman of the House Gaming Committee, and a resident of Dandan, Saipan.

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