Am I the only one who suspects Howard Willens, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's volunteer legal counsel, was asked to 'find something wrong with Article 12'?* Article 12 of the CNMI Constitution was meant to stop alienation of Commonwealth land by limiting ownership to those of Northern Marianas Descent (NMD).
No luck so far, but the Governor wants the Commonwealth Election Commission to stop registering Northern Marianas Descent voters.** A pretty obvious move: you don't want those with a vested interest in Article 12 being the only ones voting in 2011.
The Administration has led an increasingly vocal campaign against Article 12. Their main argument, which has merit, is that it discourages long-term investment. Who's going to spend money with five or ten years left on the lease? And, who but a few of the wealthy can pick up the 60 percent of mortgages that are in default.
A lot of tricks and end-arounds have been tried. There was a fashion for leases that would magically turn into sales 'if the laws ever changed'. Some investors gave their money to a 'more cooperative' person who then bought land and leased it to them. You'd see local attorneys cut out the middleman and 'buy' land themselves. That's a no-brainer; it costs you nothing and you can give the land to your heirs. Who loses?
There's an argument, and I've even heard Tina Sablan make it, that Article 12 encourages fly-by-night investors. Does anyone really think Saipan's garment factories and their camp followers would have acted any differently if they were owners? And, with no property tax, there's no penalty for just abandoning the land.
An article of faith
Personally, I don't like Article 12. I never have. Then again, it's the law of the land and nobody ever hid that fact. Guam is only 100 miles away. The intent, to keep ownership local, is understandable.
In practice, it hasn't done much for the average person. The rich get richer, only it's the NMD rich. Still, I wonder how much worse things would be now if anybody could buy land in the boom years.
The definition of NMD is arbitrary too; the Governor's got a point. Chamorros and Carolinians who were off-island on the magic date don't qualify. Non-indigenous people who were here do.
Article XII: Section 1: Alienation of Land. The acquisition of permanent and long-term interests in real property within the Commonwealth shall be restricted to persons of Northern Marianas descent.
Article XVIII, Section 5(c): (c) In the case of a proposed amendment to Article XII of this Constitution, the word "voters" as used in subsection 5(a) above shall be limited to eligible voters under Article VII who are also persons of Northern Marianas descent as described in Article XII, Section 4, and the term "votes cast" as used in subsection 5(b) shall mean the votes cast by such voters.
Source: Original provision (ratified 1977, effective 1978); amended by Second Const. Conv. Amend. 39 (1985); new subsection c) added by Section 1 of Senate Legislative Initiative 11-1 (1999).