Saipan — Some critics of casino legalization ask, usually rhetorically, “At what cost?” Fair enough. In discussing any public policy, it is always good to know the cost of implementing it. However, it is also advisable to find out the cost of inaction.
Not a lot of local people, I believe, want a casino on their island. But many of them have also considered the cost of not having one and, so far, they have, more or less, tolerated the casino’s presence — as long as it delivers what its proponents say it will deliver: additional government revenue specifically for retirees.
Not a lot of people, it seems, remember news stories that are at least two days old. How many of us still recall the NMI Retirement Fund crisis and the role it played in accomplishing what many had long thought as inconceivable: the passage of a Saipan casino bill in the CNMI House and the Senate whose six of nine seats are held by two islands that had already legalized casinos and did not want to compete with Saipan’s: Tinian and Rota.
The Saipan casino law was passed in 2014, an election year. An anti-casino resident said the elected officials who supported casino “disrespected the people,” and would be rejected by the electorate. In the general elections, the pro-casino candidates won big time. (They also won in the 2016 and 2018 elections.)
These were among the news headlines before the enactment of the Saipan casino law:
“Retirement Fund files for bankruptcy”
“Retirement Fund crisis ‘painful for everybody’ ”
“Retirement Fund has 2.1 years left”
From a letter to the editor published by Marianas Variety:
“What will happen to all those retirees who have been receiving a steady semi-monthly retirement income who are solely dependent on such income? One doesn’t need a crystal ball to foresee the dire, indeed, tragic consequences of many pensioners of advanced age when they no longer have the financial security provided by the retirement program.”
In February 2012, a financial consultant of the NMI Retirement Fund told Variety that if “nothing is done to reduce benefits or increase contributions or both, the [pension] fund will be insolvent in 2.1 years. ‘It will be depleted on Feb. 1, 2014.’ ”
Like many of their counterparts across the U.S., NMI retirees were very much aware of a New York Times report published in Dec. 2010 regarding a small city in Alabama whose pension fund had ran out of money. The city simply stopped sending pension checks to its retired workers.
Saipan casino opponents insist that voters did not approve casino legalization. True. But, so far, they have also not rejected it. The first CNMI casino law was repealed by voters through the initiative process. If the Saipan casino was “rammed down the people’s throat” in 2014, voters have had over four years and three elections to disgorge it. Where is the petition to repeal the casino law? Where are the politicians publicly campaigning for a repeal and/or shutting down the casino?
In any case, federal authorities are responsible for immigration, workplace safety, labor and wage issues involving the casino. The FBI and other federal agencies are on island. A casino commission and several other local regulatory agencies are also tasked to oversee casino operations and the investor’s compliance with the law. Concerned citizens and the local and international media report any alleged casino misdeed. Abuse and/or criminal wrongdoing is neither condoned nor tolerated.
Meanwhile, casino revenue has allowed the local government to regularly pay its obligations to retirees — 75 percent of their pension as required by the settlement agreement. With the overall improvement of the economy, moreover, the local government can afford to voluntary pay 25 percent of the pension plus bonuses. Prior to Typhoon Yutu, there were additional funds for public education, public health, public safety and other critical public services.
The casino has provided the NMI what its proponents say it will provide.
Now some say that the casino is in “trouble.” Casino critics have been saying that from the get-go, but there is no doubt that the investor is currently struggling.
Still, are the casino critics actually saying that because the casino may shut down this year or next year, the island should have turned down an opportunity to continue paying retirees for several years? The pension fund was supposed to be wiped out five years ago.
So depleting the fund was the better option? To whom?
The other “option” back then was to reduce pension, lay off government employees and raise taxes. In short, across-the-board hardship that not a lot of politicians or voters would support.
However, if you believe that an economic catastrophe is still preferable to a Saipan casino then circulate a petition for the repeal of the casino law. Form a political group with an explicitly anti-casino platform and nominate like-minded candidates. For anti-casino politicians already in office, introduce the necessary bill, call for public hearings and work for its passage.
Please put your money where your mouth is.
Zaldy Dandan is editor of Marianas Variety, the NMI’s oldest newspaper. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org