CAPITOL HILL Saipan — A petition by the Saipan Chamber of Commerce that would ban poker arcades in the villages and limit their operations to three specific areas across Saipan has stirred up controversy here and put pressure on the legislature to pass a similar measure.

The chamber’s petition was not certified by the attorney general’s office which stated in its determination issued July 18 that the chamber failed to get enough signatures of registered voters to have it included on the ballot for ratification in the November 2005 elections.

In six days starting July 2 the chamber was able to get 2 080 signatures indicating widespread support for the initiative. The chamber submitted the initiative to the attorney general’s office on July 7. "I am amazed at the depth of emotions that the people have. We had so many people coming in calling in to make suggestions [during the petition signing]. It is clearly an issue that the residents want to address " Christine Parke executive director of the chamber told the Journal.

Of this number Pamela Brown attorney general said only 1 889 were valid signatures. By law the chamber needed signatures of 20% of Saipan’s registered voters or 2 031.

"Because you need to submit 2 031 valid signatures for certification your petition cannot be certified " Brown said in her letter to Alex A. Sablan marketing and administration manager of Saipan Shipping Co. and president of the chamber. Sablan said the chamber was "pleased that we collected as many signatures as we did in just six days of trying. Unfortunately our numbers did not hold up for varying reasons."

He said the chamber was still optimistic noting that a similar measure — House Bill 14-267 introduced by Rep. Claudio K. Norita — had been calendared for action on the floor. "We are still not giving up hope that the 14th Legislature will pass some form of Rep. Clyde Norita’s Poker Bill — the most important item being to place these game rooms on the two major highways on Saipan and out of the residential villages."

Charles P. Reyes spokesman for the office of House Speaker Benigno R. Fitial told the Journal that the house had opted to defer action on Norita’s bill pending outcome of the initiative. "Now that we have this development we can go back and reconsider the bill in view of this development " he told the Journal.

Reyes said the public’s enthusiastic response to the chamber initiative "will be taken into account when deliberations resume on the matter." The chamber initiative contained highlights of Norita’s bill.

Journal sources said the initiative was launched to push the poker issue in case the legislature fails to act on the bill. Proponents of the measure maintain that the petition would help address social problems attributed to gambling addiction. Those against it say the measure is anti-business claiming that the chamber has forgotten its mandate. Poker is a multimillion-dollar industry in the CNMI and is one of the government’s major revenue sources.

Saipan generates $16.06 million in license fees a year from poker machines excluding taxes like business gross revenue and the 10% jackpot tax.

The initiative — the Third Senatorial District Initiative Petition for Local Law on Poker and Pachinko Machines of 2005 — would prohibit poker establishments from the villages and limit them to only Garapan’s business area Middle Road going north to Marpi and Beach Road going south to Agingan.

But it would ban poker arcades in Garapan’s Paseo de Marianas pedestrian mall and nearby Coral Tree Avenue fronting Dai-Ichi Hotel Saipan Beach and the Hyatt Regency Saipan. It would also ban poker establishments within 250 feet of any school the Northern Marianas College day-care centers early childhood centers and churches. It would likewise not allow poker rooms near laundromats grocery stores or pawn shops.

Moreover the initiative would require poker arcade operators to limit their signage to two feet in height and four feet in width and these should only read "Game Room." Illuminated neon or flashing signage would not be allowed.

Dr. James U. Hofschneider secretary of Public Health who was among those who signed the initiative said "removing the poker arcades from the villages is the most important step. "I believe that every family in the community probably has a member who has a gambling problem " he told the Journal.

Angie DeLeon Guerrero executive director of Karidat Social Services said poker machines "have caused a lot of problems in our community." Karidat is a nonprofit group providing support to the disadvantaged.

Several people with gambling problems have also formed "Gambling Anonymous" as a support group according to the Department of Public Health’s Community Guidance Center.

Joseph Kevin P. Villagomez addiction services manager of Public Health’s Community Guidance Center said 40 poker addicts are under treatment and counseling. He said about 14 of them were referred to CGC by the court in connection with crimes committed because of their addiction.

Paul Trombetta owner of Pacific Amusement Inc. told the Journal "It seems odd that businesses that are members of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce would gang up on an industry sector and attempt to pass legislation that would affect these competing businesses."

He owns 80 poker machines and also heads an informal group of poker machine operators lobbying the government to address concerns about "some poker operators who do not pay taxes and licenses properly do not follow labor rules and security rules and break other rules minimizing their operating costs and thus are creating an unfair competition."

Tombetta said the government’s zoning board should be working on where to place poker arcades not the chamber. "We have a zoning board that is qualified and has a mandate to regulate how business is conducted in various parts of the island. I think the chamber should stick to what it is supposed to do and not attempt to inhibit other legal competing businesses on the island.

There were 1 678 poker machines in the CNMI in 2004 -—1 338 on Saipan; 143 on Tinian; and 197 on Rota. The number is expected to further increase said Roman V. Reyes manager of the Division of Revenue and Taxation. DRT said there were 1 357 poker machines in 2003. The license fee per Saipan poker machine is $12 000 per year. On Rota $8 000 each; and on Tinian $6 000.

Saipan’s poker machines alone account for $16.06 million in license fees.The government also imposes a jackpot tax on winning players.

In the 13th Legislature Rep. Arnold I. Palacios introduced House Bill 13-285 the Zoning Code Improvement Act of 2003 which would allow municipal governments to implement their own zoning codes. The measure would also create the Garapan Planning Improvement District a governing body that would require poker establishments massage parlors and adult shops to move out within two years of the bill’s enactment or change their businesses into family-oriented ones.

He said the bill was shelved because it was the attorney general’s opinion that the measure was redundant as there already exists a zoning law that was enacted in 1993 and that a zoning board is already in place working on the implementing regulations with AGO. "We didn’t act on it because of the AG’s position " Palacios said.

To date however the regulations have yet to be finalized. Attorney Allen Barak an assistant attorney general who is working with the zoning board declined to comment on why it has taken so long to come up with the regulations.

Rep. Joseph P. DeLeon Guerrero reintroduced Palacios’s bill in the 14th House of Representatives. The bill is with the House Committee on Natural Resources chaired by Rep. Janet U. Maratita. MBJ