Death by a thousand fees

PUBLIC Law 21-42 will supposedly discourage “fly-by-night” importers by requiring excise tax payment prior to the release of cargo. When the legislation was still being discussed by lawmakers, local businesses pointed out, in so many words, that the biggest delinquent and/or (very) late-paying entity in the CNMI was the government itself — the same government that would not even want to wait for 30 days before it could collect the excise tax it imposed on importers.

Long story short, the version of the bill that became law included an exemption for “qualified importers.” Now there is a new bill in the House that would allow the government to — wait for it — collect fees from importers that want to be considered “qualified importers.” Why? Because, according to H.B. 22-27, many importers are claiming that they are qualified importers and therefore are entitled to a grace period under P.L. 21-42. “Pursuant to such high demand,” H.B. 22-27 stated, “the Legislature finds that it would be extremely pertinent to provide the Division of Customs with the authority to assess fees for such applications. The funds realized and generated from such fees can be used to stimulate the CNMI’s economy and provide financial cushion to our ailing situation.”

Really?

The “high demand” is the direct result of a new government rule. And what amount of fees could Customs possibly collect to “provide financial cushion” to a government whose so many obligations include a $779 million judgment and whose revenue projections have dropped by over 40% since FY 2019? Moreover, how can you “stimulate” the economy by making it more expensive to bring in merchandise?

Concerns regarding fly-by-night importers and other delinquent taxpayers (yes, we’re looking at you IPI) are real. However, for many government agencies, their idea of “addressing a problem,” such as “lack of revenue,” does not involve reducing their unnecessary expenses that usually involve personnel and payroll — no. Their go-to “solution” almost always involves adding another red tape, reducing services and/or making them costlier. Everyone is struggling in this bad economy, but apparently some government entities believe that they should suffer less even if it means that the rest of us should suffer more.

Universal moratorium on universal solutions

THE Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers says it is “exploring” the concept of universal garbage collection for the CNMI.

Why? Mainly because some individuals are dumping their trash in public areas and on privately owned vacant properties. The favored dumping grounds are well known to everyone, except perhaps to the government agencies tasked to enforce a 1989 anti-littering law as amended by another law in 2016 that was supposed “to beef up enforcement and improve the efficacy of the litter control program.”

Five years later, with practically no tourists to blame for littering, we ask: Where’s “the improved efficacy”? Where’s the “beef”?

An overwhelming majority of island residents are not littering, and many of them are regular and tireless volunteers of cleanup activities. There are, moreover, not one or two but eight — eight — government agencies that are supposed to enforce the litter control law: BECQ, DLNR, Public Health, the mayor’s office, DPW, the zoning office, DPL and DPS. Two years ago, the government announced that 51 personnel underwent “litter control apprehending officer” training. “That means litterbugs on Saipan need to shape up,” a government press release stated, probably even meant it. “There is a fresh batch of newly certified anti-littering watchdogs in the community.”

Right.

And so the government — with so many agencies, and so many personnel — is unable or unwilling to enforce its anti-littering law, so the “solution” — that scary word again — is to create another government mandate?

You say universal garbage collection? We ask, who will collect the garbage? Two more questions: 1) Who’s paying? And 2) Will the government tell us that if you like your current healthcare, er, garbage collection plan, you can keep it?

Let’s put it this way. The government’s track record in enforcing the anti-littering law — to be charitable about it —  is spotty. But the same government can oversee a “universal garbage collection” program?

Perhaps a better way is to open transfer stations in areas with known dumping grounds. Maybe that’s something worth considering. And maybe more government personnel, especially those employed by the agencies tasked to enforce the anti-littering law, should join community volunteers in cleaning up the island.

But no to yet another unfunded mandate, and no to yet another government solution that may end up as another and bigger problem.

Editor

Zaldy Dandan is the recipient of the Best Editorial Writer Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the CNMI Humanities Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism. His three books are available on amazon.com

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