Saipan — It’s been a year since the new administration and legislature were sworn in, and to the surprise of no one (who is not a fanatical partisan), the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is still in a deep financial and economic hole. Why? To quote former President Bill Clinton, “Arithmetic!” The government is the islands’ largest employer, and its employees and retirees comprise the largest voting bloc.
However pure their hearts may be, and regardless of the number of college degrees they may hold, the CNMI’s elected officials — like their predecessors — are unable to implement, let alone propose, necessary and painful budget cuts that reflect the government’s actual revenue collection. To do so would deeply upset many voters.
But although government can, and does, run out of money, elected officials will never run out of excuses when explaining why they can’t fulfill their election promises.
In the CNMI’s case, this means that the current elected officials will have to continue talking about the federal funds “squandered” and/or “misspent” by the previous administration, and the Saipan casino fiasco.
Otherwise, they will have to mention fee and tax hikes, which, they’ve learned, are as popular as a colonoscopy.
So they will have to continue blaming the previous administration — which was already given the boot by the electorate — for their inability to do something about the problems they knew they would inherit. (They said so themselves during the campaign season.)
Last April, to mark its first 100 days in office, the new administration mentioned, for the nth time, the “immense and unprecedented” challenges it was facing — as if previous administrations didn’t have to deal with, more or less, the same problems whenever the local economy was in a deep slump.
Nevertheless, the new administration touted its “biggest accomplishment,” which was “the continuity of the critical services provided by the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., the Public School System and the Department of Public Safety despite the fiscal disasters we walked into.” (With eyes wide open.)
So yes. The people in charge of running the government are claiming credit for spending available public funds on public health, public education and public safety. The administration is like a basketball player who hasn’t scored but wants to be praised for dribbling the ball and passing it to a teammate. That’s how bad things are in the CNMI.
I expect more of the same “accomplishments” from the administration when it talks about its first year in office. For sure, the current leaders will also talk about “resilience,” and the need to “work together” and “work harder” while “moving forward” with “hope” “in a place we call home.” And other feel-good, worn-out phrases that politicians find handy.
To paraphrase an old joke, “A politician is falling from the top of a skyscraper. As he passes by the 50th floor, he yells, ‘So far, so good!’”
I’m not saying that the current leaders are incompetent. But they’re not miracle workers either. Worse, no one is when they’re up against arithmetic.
Barring another global catastrophe — like another pandemic or a war in Asia-Pacific — CNMI tourism figures should continue to improve. But would it be enough to prevent more businesses from downsizing or shutting down in the next few months?
According to the Marianas Visitors Authority, arrivals grew 45 percent to 15,800 visitors in November 2023, compared to 10,931 visitors in November 2022. But this figure is 60% lower than pre-pandemic levels of November 2019, when arrivals reached 39,717 visitors.
In November 2019, MVA said, “66 percent of total visitors were from Korea and 24 percent were from China, the second largest source market at the time. In November 2023, only 2 percent of all visitors are from China, underscoring the need to further expand the Marianas’ source market mix to increase arrival numbers and revenue generation.”
In a recent meeting with CNMI lawmakers, a small-business owner said, “I’m hurting…. I'm down 25 percent. I don't know how long I can last. Honestly, I really don't know how long I can hold on. At a 25 percent reduction in sales and [as a small] business, I don’t have a big line of credit.”
2024, in any case, is an election year. We should expect more pandering and demagoguery from those seeking re-election and those who, God knows why, want to replace them. We’ll soon hear more of the usual recycled promises and garden variety rhetoric.
Meanwhile, if things don’t improve anytime soon, the population exodus will continue, which will further reduce the CNMI’s consumer and tax bases.
To be sure, CNMI elected officials, like many of their counterparts all over the world, truly want to “make a difference.” They do want to “serve,” to “make things better,” to be of “assistance.”
But it appears many of them are astonished to realize that good intentions are not enough — and the main problem is that the government is a bloated, overspending entity, which can only spend what it can collect, which depends on the state of the economy, which has so many moving parts, seen and unseen, that are interconnected with so many global factors that are way beyond the CNMI’s control.
Some say, “We need smart people to run for office.” Maybe. But the smarter ones would rather have a colonoscopy.
Zaldy Dandan is the editor of the CNMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on amazon.com/.