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    Wednesday, December 12, 2018-4:39:26P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Senate passes bill to extend some public land leases to 55 years

THE Senate on Thursday unanimously passed Senate Bill 20-35 which would extend certain public land lease terms from 40 years to 55 years. Introduced by Senate President and Lt. Gov.-elect Arnold I. Palacios, the measure now goes to the governor.

All eight senators present expressed support for the bill. Only Sen. Paul A. Manglona was absent.

S.B. 20-35 is only applicable to public land leases that involve hotels and golf courses. It would allow the Department of Public Lands to discuss an extension of the current land lease agreements with the Hyatt and Fiesta Resort under new terms and conditions without going through a Request for Proposals process.

The two hotels’ land lease agreements expire in 2021.

During the session on Thursday, the Senate gallery and lobby were filled with supporters and opponents of the bill.

Hotel employees, businesspersons and other community members sit in the Senate gallery during the session on Thursday.  Photo by Cherrie Anne E. VillahermosaHotel employees, businesspersons and other community members sit in the Senate gallery during the session on Thursday. Photo by Cherrie Anne E. Villahermosa

Former Speaker Pedro Guerrero, who opposes the bill, said only the people of Northern Marianas descent —

the rightful owners of public lands — can change the Constitution to extend public land lease terms beyond 40 years.

Daisy Demapan of the governor’s office, speaking in her personal capacity, said while she supports the bill’s intent, a legislative initiative must be drafted to allow the people to decide on the issue.

She said the bill “will be another problematic policy and will not address any concerns of the NMDs.”

Before voting on the bill, the senators explained why they supported its passage.

Sen. Justo Quitugua said he doesn’t want other hotels to suffer the same fate as Mariana Resort which was forced to shut down after its land lease agreement expired, causing many local employees to lose their jobs.

The senator added that the government is not the best entity to manage a private business.

He said instead of the NMDs making money out of Mariana Resort, NMDs are now spending money to safeguard the property.

“I would like to see some changes in our laws, including the constitution, to ensure that public lands belong to the NMDs and lease agreements are negotiated properly for the best interest of the people of the Northern Marianas. I just hope that the Legislature will continue to examine the negotiations closely to make sure that both the investors and the owners benefit from the negotiations,” Quitugua said.

Sen. Jude Hofschneider said he supports the bill to ensure the continuous partnership between current hotel investors and the CNMI government.

“They have been our partners for so many years and I just want them to move forward with their development plans,” he added.

Sen. Terry Santos and Senate Vice President Steve Mesngon said they conducted public hearings in all three senatorial districts, and there was overwhelming support from the people, including from Rota who know that the extension of the leases will also benefit them.

Senate President Arnold I. Palacios said they can talk about “benefits and NMDs over and over again, but if there is no economy, if there are no resources and revenues, there will be no benefits for NMDs.”

He said the primary purpose of the bill is to protect the current economy so that everybody, especially the NMDs, will benefit.

Josephine Mesta, human resources director of the Hyatt Regency, welcomed the bill’s passage, saying it would entail Hyatt’s continuing presence in the CNMI and that NMDs like her would continue to have jobs.

“But even if this bill is approved, we will still have issues because we don’t know yet the terms and conditions. But at least this will be the start of the negotiations,” Mesta said in an interview.

Former Lt. Gov. Diego T. Benavente, who supports the bill, said its passage shows that the CNMI is doing something about the future and is making an effort to continue the growth of the tourism industry.

“Tourism is our bread and butter, and these are among our major hotels and largest operators in the hotel industry. Hyatt, the name alone, contributes so much to our tourism industry.  Fiesta Resort is owned by Tan Holdings which also owns Kanoa Resort and Century Travel which helps bringing in tourists. We need to keep them here to ensure that our tourism will continue to grow,” Benavente said.

In an earlier interview, Department of Public Lands Secretary Marianne Concepcion-Teregeyo said “if the bill is passed, then we will look into the constitutionality of it. If it’s legal then we will entertain existing leases for negotiations.”

She said “the key factor is the constitutional provision on land-lease terms. If that provision is not changed then [the hotels] will need to submit a proposal when we issue an RFP.”