Palacios, Sablan gang up on Torres
Updated: Oct 10
Impeachment issues, court cases hound CNMI governor
By Bryan Manabat
Saipan— He may have survived the impeachment but on the campaign trail, CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres continued to be hounded by the same allegations cited in the failed proceedings.
Torres, who is seeking reelection in a three-way race, received jabs from his two opponents— Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios and Rep. Tina Sablan-- during a gubernatorial debate hosted on Sept. 29 by the Saipan Chamber of Commerce at the Saipan World Resort.
In their remarks, Sablan and Palacios both highlighted Torres’ criminal case in CNMI Superior Court pertaining to his first-class off-island travels and failure to comply with a legislative subpoena.
The two challengers also alluded to the Federal Bureau Investigation's raid on the Governor's Office in 2019, and the impeachment proceedings against Torres.
"There is so much at stake in this election,” said Sablan, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate. “It’s not just about winning in November. More than the next four years, this is about planting seeds for the future we want, the commonwealth we want to live in."
Sablan said it starts with good governance.
"Change will come to the Marianas when we vote for it,” said Sablan, who is running with Rep. Leila Fleming Staffler.
Palacios, an Independent candidate, described this year’s election as “our defining moment," Palacios said.
"Together we will rebuild trust in our government-- trust that was lost during the FBI raid, trust that was lost with the impeachment, trust that is lost during the present case in court,” said the incumbent lt. governor, who is running with Saipan Mayor David Apatang.
“Under a Palacios-Apatang administration the commonwealth will be a shining example of government of the people, for the people, and by the people,” Palacios said.
Torres, Sablan and Palacios answered questions relating to workforce, tourism, utilities, solid waste management, public health, casino gaming, among other issues. The debate was moderated by Guam's talk-show host Patti Arroyo.
Palacios vowed "to rebuild our economy, to improve our public health system, to reduce the cost of utilities, to invest in our children, and our workforce, to create opportunities for families, by increasing home ownership, to support our retirees and our veterans."
Torres, for his part, defended his performance in office, saying he spearheaded the most successful Covid 19 taskforce in the nation, "while no playbook ever existed."
"Remember the Federal Emergency Management Administration projected what would happen in the commonwealth in May 2020— over 6,000 cases, over 400 would be hospitalized, and over 300 of our own people casualties. Our ER would be backed up, hospital beds will be insufficient, and the morgue will be overcrowded,” Torres said.
"That did not happen under my leadership, as I made numerous tough decisions even though they are unpopular to save our healthcare," he added.
“One thing I want you to remember from this: all the solutions and the success do not happen on this stage; it could not happen with mere speeches. It happens with the dedicated team going to the frontline, with the first responders going to the airport at 2 in the morning to receive critical supplies, conducting zoom meetings at 4 a.m. with our federal partners to make sure we get proper resources,” said Torres, who is running with Sen. Vinnie Sablan.
Solid waste management
Sablan said she supports a ban or restriction on plastic bags and Styrofoam.
“We are one of the last places in the Pacific that do not do that yet. We have passed legislation a number of times in the House and we continue to try to get it out of the Senate,” she said.
“What we really need CNMI-wide is a comprehensive system of solid waste management that includes sanitary landfills, for which we have funding to help, especially our neighboring islands of Tinian and Rota, to develop sanitary landfills, as well as transportation,” Sablan added.
Palacios said through U.S. congressional support, $56 million was provided to the CNMI for solid waste management.
“We need to get out of our seats and do something today. Tinian has a transfer station but doesn’t have a landfill. Rota has a dock that needs to be addressed. [As for] Saipan, we’re still trying to address the overfill of the landfill,” he said.
Torres, for his part, said, “When you want something done, you need something that’s comprehensive for the entire commonwealth, and I am proud to announce that we have done that and we continue to do that.”
“Again, as governor, we continue to make sure that our environment is taken care of,” added Torres.
In her rebuttal, Sablan said, “There has been a lot of talk for many years about the need for a universal solid waste collection system. Talking about it doesn’t equate to action.”
Palacios said CNMI students leave after graduating from college because of "the lack of opportunity and the low pay scale that we provide."
"We will take a look at raising the minimum wage. I know that is probably going to be something very unpopular with the Chamber of Commerce, but at the end of the day, do we want to continue sending our kids to school and not coming back home? We need to provide them with that opportunity," Palacios said.
“We've spent so many millions of dollars in scholarships, in financial aid for our children, and many of them do not have the same opportunity that they see in the United States or in Hawaii or in Guam, for that matter. We need to give them the opportunity to come home," he added.
Torres said he is proud to support the Northern Marianas Technical Institute and the local workforce.
He said the Department of Defense has an allotment of $165 million for projects that seek to encourage returning residents to realize that there are opportunities here in the CNMI.
Sablan said a strong workforce is a key to economic development. “I agree completely that the time is now to raise wages and the standard of living and strengthen worker protections in our laws,” she said.
Sablan said residents leave not just because of scarce opportunities, but also because of a lack of fairness.
“We want to establish the foundations to assure them that there will be equal opportunities for gainful employment and success in the small businesses that they may want to come home to,” she said.
“We need to continue to bring in new investors to show them what the CNMI has to offer: our beauty. We're working on making sure that there's better access and better resources and permitting and so forth so that it’s business-friendly,” Torres said.
“At the same time,” he said, “I would like to also give new investors an incentive, perhaps even a tax break, new money to come in, an incentive [for] new employment here in the CNMI.”
Sablan said the Zoning Board must first come up with regulations to enforce the Nuisance Abatement and Blighted Property Maintenance Act of 2018.
“That has been pending for a long time, and we just need to do it. That’s part of enforcement,” she said.
“Second, I’d like to bring up the big white elephant in the room that's actually in Garapan, the hugest blighted building on this island, in the heart of our tourist district, the casino and the failure that that represents. The responsibility for that blight falls squarely on this administration,” she added.
“Let's be honest about that. It's a failure, and it's probably structurally unsafe at this point, and we need to do something about that, and in our administration, we will have to assess the structural viability of that blighted building. Before we can even move forward with revitalizing Garapan, we have to address that elephant,” she said.
Noting that the Zoning Board has been in existence for over a decade, Palacios said when he was in the legislature, the Saipan and Northern Islands Delegation passed the blighted property legislation.
“Here we are asking, going out, and looking for investors when the first thing that investors look at [and say is], ‘Wow, this place is dirty. There doesn’t seem to be any order,” he said.
Torres, in his rebuttal, said the CNMI has done all that it can to enforce these said regulations.
“Let’s be honest, the days of the CW-1 status or program are numbered,” Palacios said.
He said the CNMI should “embrace” the H visas, and a pathway to improved immigration status.
“Guam is thriving with the H visa. Why can’t we? The problem is that we seem to be afraid and scaring ourselves. Today is the day we need to begin that [program],” Palacios said.
“The U.S. Congress told us, ‘Don’t come to us again.’ They told us that [U.S. Congressman Gregorio “Kilili” C. Sablan] is not going to help us with this because he has already helped us [so] many times [with] the CW-1 program,” Palacios added.
Torres, however, said the CNMI will still need to hire contract workers even if local companies employ every U.S. citizen who is able to work. "That is a fact. And I am proud to say that I have invested in NMTI millions of dollars to continue to promote our own resources here,” he said.
Sablan said she and her running-mate envision all educational institutions working in concert, as well as the CNMI Department of Labor working with employers, to create pathways for job training and apprenticeships.
“We will build a robust apprenticeship program in our administration,” she said, citing her “Marianas Jobs Now” initiative.
The casino resort in Garapan is the most divisive presence on Saipan.
“We do have regulations to regulate our gaming industry,” Torres said. “If there's anything to change, if anyone's going to complain, it is the legislature, which makes laws and amends laws. I have not seen any bill to amend anything in regards to either gaming, whether to reduce it from [being an] exclusive [license] to three or other business licenses.”
Sablan said gaming can be a productive part of the CNMI tourism economy, but only if it’s well-regulated and run by responsible operators selected in a fair and open bidding process.
“But this casino has been a complete and utter catastrophe. And again, the responsibility for that falls on this administration,” she said. “It all started with those fact-finding trips, all-expenses-paid, which Mr. Torres went on, to Hong Kong and Macau. We don't know what happened on those trips, but we know the disaster that happened when they came back.”
Palacios said he would place a lien on IPI’s assets.
“I cannot believe that this government has yet to do that. They owe us $50 million! What are we waiting for?” he said.
He added that he will also abolish the exclusive license and open it up to others. “We need to vet [applicants]. This is a very sensitive industry, and we need to properly vet the applicants and the proposals that come in.”