Saipan—Critics of the island’s casino say it was “rammed down the people’s throat.” They also like to point out that voters have twice rejected previous casino measures. These are the “facts,” they say.
If you look back at CNMI history, however, you may notice that elected officials can’t “ram” anything down the people’s throat if a majority of them are opposed to it. In November 1978, when the Legislature overrode Gov. Carlos Camacho’s veto of the casino legislation, the local people organized. Groups such as the Ladies United Against Gambling and the Citizens United Against Casino Gambling collected enough signatures for a referendum petition. The future bishop of Chalan Kanoa, then-Monsignor Tomas A. Camacho, later Bishop, publicly opposed the casino measure. Bishop Felixberto C. Flores of Guam — the first Chamorro bishop — personally campaigned against it.
On Oct. 20, 1978, Marianas Variety published a letter to the editor from Susan Guntis who said, “Gambling. The very word induces a catatonic state. I am convinced, in its Latin form, it’s a four-letter word. Except for an occasional [political] prostitute, everyone I’ve talked to opposes the establishment of gambling casinos on Saipan.”
In the November 1979 elections, 70 percent of the voters rejected the casino law. The people disgorged it, so to speak.
In the mid-1990s, Gov. Froilan Tenorio openly advocated the legalization of casino gaming on Saipan, but it went nowhere and he failed to win a second term in 1997. During his administration, Gov. Ben Fitial repeatedly tried to push Saipan casino legalization in a Legislature that was supposed to be friendly to his administration, but again, no cigar.
In 2007, amid a still declining economy, gambling advocates managed to put on the ballot a Saipan casino initiative, but it was rejected by 58 percent of the island’s voters.
On March 3, 2014, however, the unthinkable happened. The CNMI Senate — dominated by Rota and Tinian which had historically and consistently opposed Saipan casino measures — approved by a vote of 5 to 4 the legalization of casino gaming on Saipan. Then-Gov. Eloy Inos signed the bill during the GOP kickoff rally for the November 2014 elections. His running mate was then-Senate President (and now Gov.) Ralph Torres who voted for the bill. The GOP and its slate of candidates made the Saipan casino law the highlight of their campaign. It was up to the voters then to decide whether to have a pro-casino administration and Legislature, or not.
On July 10, 2014, when the CNMI Senate passed — this time by a vote of 7 in favor, 1 abstention and 1 voting “present” — an amended version of the Saipan casino law, a “crowd of mostly retirees and former defined-benefit members erupted in cheers and applause.”
The casino law was challenged in court, but it was later dismissed with prejudice after CNMI officials, as part of a settlement agreement, admitted to violating the Open Government Act in the passage of the Saipan casino law.
There was also a petition to repeal the law, but in contrast to what happened in 1979, it didn’t get on the ballot. Here’s what an anti-casino advocate told Variety in September 2014: “Just because the law passed…does not mean we are locked into this deal. The people have the power of the vote. I foresee this election to be the first step; it reminds me of the last one where the majority of the incumbents were replaced because they refused to respect the people who voted for them in the first place.”
Yet Inos-Torres garnered the most votes on Election Day (46 percent), and won 57 percent of the votes in the runoff. The GOP also won control of both houses of the Legislature.
In 2016, Governor Torres and his GOP campaigned on their record, which included the additional revenue generated by the Saipan casino. The GOP dominated the elections.
So no, the Saipan casino wasn’t “rammed down the people’s throat” — at least based on the dictionary meanings of those words.
There are, of course, people who are opposed to the Saipan casino, and they will insist that voters never approved the casino law, which is true. But, so far, they haven’t repealed it either.
Zaldy Dandan is a long-time resident of Saipan and editor of Marianas Variety.