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Saipan Senate candidates discuss economic downturn

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FORMER Secretary of Labor Edith Deleon Guerrero, the Democratic senatorial candidate on Saipan, and her Republican opponent, Sen. Sixto Igisomar, participated in the virtual Saipan Chamber of Commerce general membership meeting on Wednesday to discuss issues affecting the CNMI.

In a segment called “Coffee with the Senators,” the two shared their views on the state of the economy.

Igisomar, who is seeking a third term, said he has authored, pushed, and supported numerous bills that have become public laws, among them Public Law 20-20, which created the Office of Planning and Development that was inspired by his experience as  secretary of Commerce.

He also noted his work on Public Law 19-14, which established a drug court and created a collaborative non-adversarial system that supports the rehabilitation and recovery of drug offenders through continuous court monitoring, regular drug testing, and holistic drug dependency treatment.

Building upon his experience in multiple fields, he said he chose to serve the public “in order to expand our economy and to help the investors driving our economy.”

He added, “I am more than willing to continue to work hard for our people and our businesses.”

Deleon Guerrero, for her part, noted her experience in banking and insurance since she left the government in 2017.

Moderator and Saipan Chamber of Commerce executive director Maxine Laszlo  asked the two candidates what they believed are the critical steps the CNMI can take to stabilize the economy.

“We do understand and we do know that we have a lot of federal money that came in from the United States government, and one of those funding is, for example, the [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] money and [the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation],” Deleon Guerrero said. “We need to accelerate the release of these funds [and] get it out there into the community so that we can spur more consumer spending.”

Igisomar, for his part, said, “Now more than ever, for me, we need everyone at the table,” referring to government agencies and the private sector.

He also emphasized the importance of supporting local businesses such as Inas Kitchen and local vendors who sell coconuts.

“It brings tears to my eyes to see families coming together, spending quality time and trying to connect with our economy,” he said.

The senator also emphasized the importance of economic diversification, using the concepts of “think big, start small” and “getting back to basics,” such as agriculture, fishing. He is also for developing the concept of “one island, one product.”

He said the CNMI has an opportunity during this pandemic to work on building a more sustainable economy.

Igisomar reiterated the need for collaboration.

He said small businesses and business organizations, including the chamber of commerce and the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, should be brought to the table to express their needs to the Legislature, then collaborate and provide solutions that everyone agrees on.

“The key here, for me, is to ensure [that there is] an open dialogue for our officials to listen to businesses and also community members,” he said.

Deleon Guerrero is also for organizing stakeholders and other organizations to discuss how to jumpstart the economy.

Citing Paycheck Protection Program monies as an example, she said that these funds from the federal government pass through local lending institutions and need to roll out to small businesses and existing businesses that need the working capital to keep their businesses going.

She said banking institutions can offer more to the people in terms of more generous loan terms.

“We also need to look internally. Where can we access capital, where can businesses access capital to sustain their operations and sustain their employees?” she said, adding that the Commonwealth Development Authority is a viable option.

If elected, Deleon Guerrero said: “The first thing is we really need to get our financial house in order. We need to know where exactly the money is going.”

She added, “As a state government, when people look at you from the outside… you need to have good credibility. You need to know how to manage yourself financially. So in order for us to get ourselves onto the right track, we need to really figure out where we stand financially.”

She said the CNMI government has incurred deficits for the past three fiscal years.

“We’re looking at close to $90 million ending fiscal year 2020,” she said, adding that “it’s very alarming.”

“We can talk about economic development,” she said. “We can talk about economic activities, but if we still have not learned to fix our financial house, we will always be in chaos.”

Igisomar said he is always solution-driven and forward-thinking.

“We have a very small engine trying to help these big demands on our general fund, the public service demand, what our people want,” he said.

He said the overall goal is to achieve expansion, support small businesses, provide more opportunities to CNMI residents so they will be encouraged to take risks to contribute to the local economy.

“[They] are vital to our survival,” he added.

He said local economic activity is sustained by the tourism industry, which has shut down because of the global pandemic.

“We must go back to basics…. We, as a community, can come together, share our talents and resources, to allow us to survive the current crisis, and continue to live within our means.”

Deleon Guerrero said even though the CNMI economy once generated more than $1 billion, financial management remains crucial.

“When you have excess money, even for yourself, what do you do? You don’t go out and overspend it. You don’t go out and bankrupt yourself. This is exactly what is happening in our system. We need to learn as a government to take care of that excess money and save it for the rainy days,” she said.

“At this present time, there’s no money to help our people. We are just so out of money and right now, we’re only depending on Uncle Sam. Not only that, but we are beginning to tap into other entities, like [the Marianas Public Land Trust]. You start to touch your revenue or your cash money that you’re hoping to save you for some rainy day.

“Every time we talk about these issues, it just takes us back to money management, and this is what our system is having problems with: learning to manage money and making sure that it saves money for the rainy days.”

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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