More please

WE commend the House Gaming Committee for conducting a public hearing on the e-gaming license-fee hike law, or S.L.L. 22-6, and internet gambling. As the MP Holdings general manager would put it, such public discussions would provide lawmakers — and community members — with facts that can help them make an informed decision.

S.L.L. 22-6, in particular, aims to “generate revenue,” but its current version, if implemented, will result in business closures, job cuts and revenue losses — the exact opposite of the new law’s avowed goal.

Happily, there is still a way to fix S.L.L. 22-6, and lawmakers have taken a crucial step toward drafting a more sensible piece of legislation that will actually raise revenue for the government without killing an existing and regular source of revenue.

Friday’s public hearing also showed how important it is for lawmakers and other policy-makers to deliberate, study, seek feedback and discuss pertinent data before acting on bills and/or policy proposals, especially those that involve tax/fee hikes and/or economic issues. For lawmakers and other policy-makers: the first question they should ask themselves when evaluating controversial legislation  is, Who are opposed to this proposal and why?

The more “urgently needed” a bill is the more careful and deliberative lawmakers/policy-makers should be.

So please lawmakers and policy-makers. More public hearings. More public discussions. More deliberation.

The real issue

ULTIMATELY, S.L.L. 22-6 and the internet gambling bill, H.B. 22-47, are not about gambling. Well, many lawmakers and policy-makers would want these measures to be about gambling so they could talk about its “social and economic impact,” and how truly deplorable, unfortunate and tragic it is. In other words, they would rather preach to the proverbial choir. (Incidentally, casino gambling has been a topic of discussion for NMI policymakers and the general public since the Trust Territory days. Then and now, there have been several studies, public meetings, reports, etc. about this most contentious of topics.)

The real issue, however, is also an old one and it remains a big headache for elected officials:  how to pay for the government’s ongoing and mounting obligations. Today these include the over $700 million judgment owed to the federal-court-created NMI Settlement Fund. And then there’s government payroll, medical referrals, public health, utilities, public safety, the justice system, public education, the college, scholarships, land compensation, bond payments, public works, payments to vendors, homesteads, etc., etc.

As CNMI history has so far shown, a booming economy helps pay the bills. A booming economy, however, requires new investors/investments and a significant increase in tourist arrivals. (Both of which, as some may still recall, were not exactly “popular” in the not-so recent past.)

For this year and next year,  generous financial assistance provided by the federal government will help pay for many of the CNMI’s most pressing obligations, but once the ARPA funds are gone…then what?

Amid a declining economy, elected officials have very few politically feasible options, and these do not include significantly reducing government costs or imposing new or higher taxes on all businesses and all taxpayers. Politicians, however, can always bloviate and, so far, on Capital Hill, one of the most heated debates is about which group of politicians should have a bigger say in spending ARPA and other federal funds.

As for casino gaming, internet gambling or gambling in general — if lawmakers/policymakers believe that these are “bad” for the public, then, as we’ve said before, they should ban these activities. Never mind what history teaches us about banning gambling. Just ban them already so we can all finally begin serious discussions on how lawmakers/policymakers intend to pay retirees, government employees, off-island hospitals, air transportation for medical referral patients,  CUC, government vendors, etc., etc.

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