Friday, May 2, 2008

224. State of the Commonwealth-Redux

I attended the State of the Commonwealth address by Governor Benigno R. Fitial and Resident Representative Pedro A. Tenorio.

I did not take notes. I occassionally zoned out (oops!). But here are my impressions of what was said.

On Immigration and Minimum Wage:
Governor Fitial thinks S. 2739 is terrible. He thinks the increase in minimum wage is terrible, too. Together, he believes these will damage our economy. He said there are 3 ways to respond: 1) litigation challenging the law(s); 2) negotiation on the regulations; and 3) seeking future amendment.

He continued with the mantra that the CNMI's right to self-government includes the right to control over economic factors which includes labor and immigration. He stated that S. 2739 violates the Covenant. These arguments would presumably be the basis for some legal challenge.

He said that he would be putting together a group of business leaders and government officials to work on the implementing regulations, distorting (oops, that's my word) the intent of the new immigration laws.

He said that he would push for the U.S. to do a better job gathering reliable economic data so that reports, like the recent U.S. Labor Report, would not be subject to easy attack when it supports suspension of the increase in minimum wage.

He said that in the future, there is room to have these laws changed and he will work for that. He did not mention whether he would once again be hiring an expensive lobbying firm.

Representative Tenorio said that the Covenant never provided for nor anticipated that the CNMI would have permanent control over immigration; that the CNMI's control over immigration was always thought to be temporary. He said the time for control has passed and that, as part of being a full member of the U.S. with its immigration laws here, we also get to be a full member by having an elected representative in Congress.

His pitch (whether on immigration or other issues) was for developing a cooperative working relationship with the U.S., helping the feds to understand what we need and why we need it, but also accepting and living up to our role as part of the U.S. He said the CNMI is "America's face in Asia."

He explained that he supported the federalization of CNMI immigration, despite some nasty attacks on him. And that we cannot deny that scam artists took advantage of our lenient immigration handling and that abuses of alien workers occurred here.

Although he supports federalization of immigration and the minimum wage hike in general, he also believes that our economy is hurting. He supports a two-year suspension of hikes in the local minimum wage after it reaches $4.05 this May 2008.

On environmental and cultural preservation and conservation:
Governor Fitial: Perhaps I missed it, but I didn't hear anything on this.

Representative Tenorio: He stated in general terms how the people of the CNMI are tied and defined by the land and sea, how we recognize the importance of our cultural heritage and how we need to protect it.

He lauded Governor Fitial's signing of some agreement that commits the CNMI to preserving 30% of shorelines and 20% of forests for conservation.

And then mentioned the debate on the Pew Charitable Trust Fund's proposal for a National Marine Monument. He chided the Legislature for their "untimely," premature rejection of this project. He said he supports it, that we need the financial help that this project offers. He said whether we miss this opportunity or not, we need to develop a plan for future conservation and preservation.

Governor Fitial said that we've gotten a huge grant from the U.S. and will have our power plant repaired with it, up to 90% capacity, when completed. But that the fuel issues and lack of adequate funding persist. He chided the Legislature for its political short-sightedness in suspending the power of CUC to set its own rates, needed to keep it on an even financial keel. He also promotes privatization, but thinks that the preference for local owners should be scrapped.

Representative Tenorio said basically that CUC is a local problem,. He mentioned that we can all be grateful that it is still keeping the lights on despite its severe situation, and that the U.S. can and does help us with this type of problem. We need to be attuned to ways that we can accept and use this help.

Other issues:
Governor Fitial recognized (and this is where he started, it was very touching) the military men and women of the CNMI who have died in action, especially the 4 who died since he gave his last state of the union address.

Representative Tenorio spoke a little about other places where our lives in the CNMI intersect with our federal government, mentioning the increases in Medicaid caps, problems with veterans benefits, etc.

Most notably, Representative Tenorio spoke of the duty of elected officials to represent the entire community, while Governor Fitial spoke only of coalitions of his department heads, indigenous citizens, and selected business leaders.

My impressions:
I thought Governor Fitial's praise of the Department of Labor and the Chamber of Commerce were totally offensive. He completely ignored the reality that the CNMI has unfortunately earned its reputation as a place of sweatshops and sex trafficking. He completely ignored large segments of the community, and would continue the racism and nepotism that has corrupted the CNMI.

I was appalled that he wants to continue fighting against the federalization of immigration and the raise in the minimum wage. His statement that no community in the U.S. would be subjected to such US control (over immigration) is an outright lie.

I thought Governor Fitial did get it right when he spoke of the Legislature's failure to grasp the reality of our economic slide as to CUC. The higher rates may be unpopular, but they are necessary.

I thought Pete A. acted as a leader when he said that it is important to include all segments of the community in any problem-solving and that we need to work together. I appreciated his support for the national marine monument but wish it had been stronger. I loved his clarity on the scope and intention of the Covenant as to immigration control, shining the light on the Governor's lie.