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  • Pacific Island Times News Staff

CNMI workforce bill to be reintroduced at U.S. House

Washington, D.C. — Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah has agreed to re-introduce the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act in the House next week, Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan said.

“We have been working through certain parliamentary and constitutional issues with the U.S. Workforce Act, as passed by the Senate three weeks ago,” Sablan said. “After considering a number of options, Chairman Bishop and I spoke today and he graciously agreed to take the lead on a new bill, which I will cosponsor. That was our best option.”

Bishop was part of the bicameral, bipartisan congressional working group that over an 18-month period was able to agree on the principle policies in the U.S. Workforce Act. Sablan and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced that original bill in the House and the Senate on Jan. 19.

The Senate passed the Murkowski bill with a number of amendments on April 23. One, an anti-fraud fee that employers must pay, is the source of the parliamentary problem in the House.

“The Constitution requires that bills generating revenue may only originate in the House,” Sablan explained, “and the House Parliamentarian has ruled that the anti-fraud fee is a revenue.

“By introducing the bill anew in the House, as Chairman Bishop has agreed to do, we avoid the origination clause problem.

“We are keeping the anti-fraud fee, however,” Sablan added. “A major feature of the U.S. Workforce Act is to crack down on ‘bad actor’ businesses that abuse the CW system and foreign workers.

“The anti-fraud fee will give federal agents more resources to stay on top of that problem.”

There is growing anxiety in the Marianas over the fate of the CW program. The Trump administration has cut the number of permits from

12,998 to 4,999 for fiscal year 2019, leaving hundreds of businesses without access to workers. The administration also instituted a lottery system to dole out the 4,999 permits without concern for foreign workers who fill positions critical to public health and safety.

“Although this parliamentary issue has slowed down the progress of the bill, I feel that we are still on track to get it out of the House in the next few weeks and, eventually, signed into law,” Sablan said.

“All of my efforts are focused on getting that result. And with good partners like Chairman Bishop and Chairman Murkowski, with whom I have worked for years on Marianas legislation and who have taken the time to come with me to the Marianas and see our islands, I am optimistic that we will be successful.”

One of the solutions to the origination clause issue, which the House considered, was to append the language of the Senate-passed bill to Sablan’s original, H.R. 4869. That, too, would have made the fee “originate” in the House.

“Of course, I would like to have the U.S. Workforce Act that gets signed into law be my bill,” Sablan admitted. “But with the Committee Chairman’s name on the bill we have a much better chance of passing the House and the Senate. That is just the political reality.

“And what is most important to my constituents—and, therefore, what is most important to me—is to get the bill signed into law. One way or another.”

The U.S. Workforce Act extends the immigration transition period in the Marianas for another ten years to 2029. Sablan was previously successful winning a five-year extension (from 2014 to 2019) in Public Law 113-235.

The U.S. Workforce Act also increases the number of Commonwealth Only Transition Workers to 13,000 next year, an increase of 8,001 workers over the number set by the Trump administration. Instead of leaving it to the Executive Branch to make future decisions about the number of permits, the Act specifies an annual reduction, winding down the program entirely in ten years.

Sablan was able to have legislation enacted last year, Public Law 115-53, that also increased the number of CW permits. P.L. 115-53 also set aside a certain number of permits for public health and safety needs. The U.S. Workforce Act follows the example of the Sablan law by giving the Governor the authority to recommend set-asides year-by-year.

“Educating decision-makers in Congress about the continuing need for foreign workers and all of the surrounding issues was an underlying purpose of last year’s bill,” Sablan said. “Without laying that foundation the U.S. Workforce Act would never have seen the light of day.”

Sablan also pointed to the new protections for U.S. workers in the Act. “No one will be able to get a CW permit unless the U.S. Department of Labor certifies that there is no U.S. worker—on island or elsewhere—able, willing, and available to take the job. And no foreign worker can be paid a wage that will drag down what U.S. workers are paid.

“The days of cheap, foreign labor are going to end,” Sablan added.

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