Friday, May 2, 2008

The State of the Commonwealth

Food For Thought 5-2-08

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

I guess I’ll start this week with a few of my thoughts from the Governor’s State of the Commonwealth speech and the address by the Washington Representative. Yes, I did go and sit through both of the addresses. I was actually there at 8:30 because I thought it started at 9 am for some reason, but when there were only 3 of us in the audience at 9 am, one of us got the bright idea to go and find out what was up (I wasn’t the bright one, just in case you were wondering). That’s when we found out it didn’t start until 10, but by that point, we had frostbite in most of our limbs because of the ridiculously cold air conditioning, so we just sat tight and waited.

There were no surprises in the Governor’s address; he was touting the fact that the Kumho investment at Lau Lau, the increased flights from Asiana and Northwest, and the new casino developments on Tinian were all signs that there is hope. He did not indicate that he thought things would be improving anytime soon, and indicated that more cuts needed to be made in the government so that we can live within our means. He did announce that the CNMI government has reached an agreement with the U.S. government over the release of $16.1 million dollars for the federal stimulus program. He said we should be receiving that money within the next couple of weeks and the government would then start the distribution of it toward the end of the month. It is $600 per person, or $1,200 for a couple and an additional $300 per child living at home. It’s certainly not the answer to all of our problems, but it may pay for one month’s CUC bill, or 2 months of your gasoline bill. I know that I’m personally happy to hear about it, and think I can probably find a good use for at least a little bit of my $600 allotment.

The Governor also talked a bit about the impending federalization of our immigration system, and the fact that he isn’t hopeful that we will be able to avoid the next .50 cent per hour minimum wage increase set to take effect later this month. While talking about the federalization of our immigration system, he went out of his way to say that many of the congressmen and congressional staffers they had talked to in Washington had never heard of the CNMI or our situation. He said that we have not been effectively represented in Washington DC, and hoped that situation would be changing in the future. It has been no secret that the Governor and Pete A. Tenorio, the Washington Representative have been polar opposites on most of the issues revolving around the federalization of our minimum wage and immigration, and the Governor was using this opportunity to bash the Washington Rep. for it.

The Governor did show a slide that indicated the progress of the repair work on the CUC engines. He said that within 6 months we would be at 90% of our operating capacity at CUC, our megawatt capacity would go from roughly 28 to over 80 megawatts. He didn’t say whether our generators would be improved from operating at 40% efficiency to over 90% where they should be operating though. If that were to happen, we would be using half as much fuel and lube oil, and obviously we could lower prices accordingly. Because he didn’t mention it, I’m guessing that the efficiency of the engines isn’t being worked on, we’re just simply getting them up and running, but it’s probably still at about 40%.

The Governor did come out and criticize the legislature rather harshly for their bill lowering the rate that CUC can charge to residential customers, and I’m not saying they didn’t deserve it. He said that the utility is experiencing a huge cash shortage as a result, and that the government can no longer afford to subsidize the utility. It was rather obvious that the Governor was more than a little frustrated with the actions of the legislature, and didn’t mind pointing fingers and laying the blame where he believed it belonged. You could see legislators rolling their eyes and looking at each other, which makes me question whether anybody will really be trying to work together or cooperate to address our problems, or whether they’ll just be too busy pointing fingers and playing political games.

For his part of the address, Pete A. Tenorio told how he had testified in favor of the minimum wage increase up to $4.05 an hour and how he was supporting the federalization of our immigration system. He said he wasn’t happy about the fact that they put the non-voting delegate in congress in the same bill as the immigration federalization, but that he felt as long as they were federalizing our immigration, it was vitally important that we have representation in Congress. He also seemed intent on convincing the audience that he has indeed been busy in Washington working with the powers that be on the federalization bill, getting concessions for us. He started off definitely on the defensive from the lambasting he took from the Governor, but he didn’t seem to deviate from his speech much to respond to any of the accusations or to make any accusations of his own.

The reaction of the crowd was the thing that I think was the biggest difference this year. A couple times you could hear one person start to clap in the middle of the speech, but then when they realized no one else was going to join them, they quickly stopped. There was no applause or encouragement whatsoever during the body of either of the speeches, and the response afterward could only be described as lukewarm at best. Even though at least half of the crowd seemed to be various cabinet secretaries, department heads and government employees, none of them seemed to be leading the cheering section or to be that enthusiastic in their applause. To me, the reaction of the crowd seemed to speak volumes and was probably more of an indicator of the state of the Commonwealth than the speech itself.

I think one of the biggest challenges we currently face is that our people are losing hope. They are losing hope that our leaders are capable of doing anything about the myriad of problems we are currently facing. They are losing hope that anyone has a plan that will actually make any difference. They are losing hope that our leaders will finally put politics behind them and just all roll up their sleeves together to get serious about planning where we want to head as a Commonwealth, and then implementing that plan without all looking for their own reward or kickback. They are losing hope that anyone we elect as Governor will truly be any different from all the rest. They are losing hope that they will be able to provide an adequate standard of living for their families if they continue living in the islands.

I have talked to numerous people recently, who are either in the process of moving away or are taking a very hard look at whether the time has come for them to leave as well. None of the ones I’ve talked to have only been here a year or two, most of them have been here for at least a decade, and some of them have lived here their entire lives. None of the people I’ve talked to want to leave, this has become their home and they had planned on staying here for a very long time. But if your quality of life erodes to the point where you’re having to make major sacrifices just to stay, you have to ask yourself whether it is really worth it or not.

Some of the problems that we are currently facing are global and not specific to just us. We can’t do anything about the cost of gasoline, and the point may be coming very quickly where it simply is no longer economically viable to drive our cars to work. That will mean that a public transportation system will be a necessity for many people’s survival. However, we don’t have a public transportation system, and to my knowledge no one is looking into the feasibility of creating one.

With the price of oil, renewable energy has become more important than ever to our long term survival and to the ability of businesses to remain profitable. But what are we doing about it? Sure we passed a law mandating that we have to have a certain percentage of renewable energy each year, but we really aren’t doing anything about making that happen. Our government has said that it’s not in the business of research and development and our utility can’t even afford to pay for fuel, not to mention invest in alternative energy. So where does that leave us? Can we really expect a business to want to just come in and invest tens of millions of dollars into renewable energy plants and have to hope for the best when dealing with our government? Our track record would scare away even the most adventurous and risk taking companies.

Is it any reason that more and more people are losing hope and are moving away? When will enough finally be enough for you? What will your breaking point be? When will your quality of life have slipped to an intolerable level that you’re no longer willing to put up with? Are you willing to live in a cave with no power or running water, and to eat fish and drink coconut milk every day? I was really hoping that there might be a splinter of hope in the Governor’s State of the Commonwealth address for people who need something to help them hang on for just a little longer, but if it was there, I totally missed it. There is plenty of blame to go around, but sadly no solutions anywhere in sight.

Food For Thought is now available online at and if you want it by e-mail distribution please send me an e-mail at

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

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