By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Saipan— CNMI Gov. Arnold Palacios said his administration will explore the economic perks that come with the territory’s broadened role in U.S. defense strategies on the heels of “the rapidly shifting geopolitical sands aﬀecting" the Paciﬁc region.
“I emphasized the vital role the Marianas plays in the security of our nation and America’s position in our region,” Palacios said, addressing the Saipan Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.
On Tinian, the Department of Defense is building an international airport to expand the facility's ability to act as a divert airfield for the U.S. military should there be an actual conflict in the region. Tinian will also be home to a fraction of Marines who will be relocated from Okinawa.
“Looking ahead, we see tremendous potential in leveraging our relationships and our position in the region, to place the commonwealth on the road to stability and prosperity,” the governor said. Using the Covenant and key federal policies to its advantage, Palacios said the commonwealth has the potential to become a regional hub for shipping. But first, the administration must clean the government's books. Palacios said he has asked the federal government for technical assistance in auditing the commonwealth’s federal and local accounts and expanding the local government’s capacity for tax collections and enforcement. “You all know the dire state of our government’s ﬁscal aﬀairs. It’s been covered extensively in local news and social media, and I don’t have to repeat it all here,” Palacios said.
“When our administration took oﬃce six weeks ago, Lt. Gov. Dave Apatang and I inherited massive budget deficits, and a government and economy in deep distress," he added.
The governor also sought help in lifting the obstacles hindering construction activity in the CNMI. “I asked for support in breaking bottlenecks in federal review processes to allow hundreds of millions of dollars in federally funded infrastructure projects to move forward,” Palacios said. He called for the passage of key legislative initiatives in the U.S. Congress such as Congressman Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan’s HR 560, also known as the Population Stabilization Act, which proposes to grant permanent status to certain Commonwealth-only transitional workers and to foreign investors, who were originally admitted under commonwealth immigration law.
Also pending in the U.S. Congress is a bill that would repeal the touchback provision in the U.S. Workforce Act.
“In the coming days, I will be directing our regulatory agencies to track and report on turnaround times for permit reviews and decisions, and to cross-train employees so that government services aren’t disrupted just because one person goes on leave,” Palacios said.
While strengthening the commonwealth’s relationship with the federal government, the governor said he is also exploring other opportunities to
expand the CNMI’s reach in the Korean and Japanese tourism markets, and among military personnel and their families.
“The commonwealth can be a regional hub for targeted educational programs - such as in the areas of healthcare and English language training,” Palacios said.
“And as we move closer to completion of a renewable energy feasibility study and a strategic energy plan for the Marianas in the next few months, the commonwealth can become a leader in the region in transitioning to clean, renewable energy that will lower the cost of business and beneﬁt all ratepayers,” he added.
As for the bureaucratic reforms he promised during the campaign, Palacios said his administration is seeking to identify ways to streamline government processes, reduce costs, and improve public service and responses.
“We are ﬁlling vacancies on critical boards such as Zoning and CUC, and insisting on the appointment of qualiﬁed individuals to positions of leadership and trust. We have mandated ethics training for cabinet members and employees across the executive branch,” Palacios said.
“We are also revisiting recommendations put forth during the Fiscal Response Summit held three years ago. The Chamber of Commerce played a key role in that Summit, and members from the public, nonproﬁt, and business sectors worked together to identify creative and practical solutions to the commonwealth’s ﬁscal troubles, including speciﬁc ways to improve government eﬃciency, reduce costs, and raise revenue.”