A record 15 120 voters as of Oct. 14 had registered to participate in the Nov. 5 elections in the Northern Mariana Islands according to the Commonwealth Election Commission.

Besides electing officials and deciding the retention of two supreme court justices and one superior court judge those voters will also face a ballot that includes the issue of whether or not a constitutional convention is needed.

The constitution states that voters should be asked every 10 years if they would like to hold a constitutional convention. However the last question was posed in November 1993. The legislature did not pass a resolution to put the question on the ballot. As part of the provision in the constitution Gov. Juan Babauta then had the responsibility of making a proclamation putting the question on the ballot.

One article of the constitution has for many years been a point of discussion. Article 12 relates to the ability of people who are not of Northern Marianas descent to own land and the limitation of such people to lease private and public land.

Samuel McPhetres professor of political science at the Northern Marianas College said the article was originally designed to protect local people but new wrinkles in the issue have emerged from a changing population. “The whole part of Article 12 is to protect the land for the indigenous population but in order to do that you have to define the indigenous population. This is done by a provision in the constitution. It says that if you were born or were present in the Northern Marianas — excluding Guam — before 1950 when the Organic Act was given to Guam — and you are a Trust Territory citizen sometime after 1950 you are then 100%. And from that point on you have to measure the percentage of the children from subsequent marriages. And if you have enough intermarriage and the chilrend reach 25% the constitution says that is the last generation able to own property. We are reaching the 25-percenters now and it is creating a lot of headaches.”

The article adopted more than 25 years ago allows for the lease of private property to those not of CNMI descent for no longer than 55 years and public property for 40 years. McPhetres said these restrictions limit the revenue native landowners can receive. It is also creating difficult decisions now within families who want to pass property onto their children who are 25% “The 25% children are able to inherit the land but if they don’t marry somebody else of at least 25% to have their children then those children will never be able to inherit the land and it will return to government property unless otherwise disposed. So we have a growing group of people wondering where they stand now: if they are going to be forced to marry people they don’t want to if they want to keep their land which one is more important?”

Alex A. Sablan marketing and administration manager for Saipan Shipping Co. and president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce said the law has served its purpose of protecting the people of the Northern Marianas but is no longer necessary “In certain respects within the constitution we have grown past the need for this article. But land alienation is no longer a cause of alarm because many of us believe our citizens have matured to a point where they can make a determination about transactions on their land.”

The issue comes at a crucial time for the Northern Mariana Islands. In recent years Saipan suffered many economic blows including the collapse of the garment industry as well as the recent pull out of JAL flights from Japan. These factors are only part of the poor economic picture.

In the mid-1980’s lawsuits began questioning leases by foreigners. McPhetres said “The legislature passed the Article 12 Rationalization Act which gave conditions where if an investor lost his property and was not at fault they were entitled to full restitution of his investment.” Also prohibited contingency fees for lawyers and set terms for the expiration for lawsuits at six years. The combination of these conditions on future lawsuits all dried up but the memory is still bitter in a lot of areas and investors are no longer seeking private property to lease. “Because that was one of the insecurities of the lease itself and the whole issue of whether or not the landowners will respect the lease for its duration. Plus the fact that when the lease expires the original landowner has the right to not renew the lease and take whatever developments that might be on that property.”

Investors are indeed staying away. In fact according to the Saipan Contractors Association building permits fell from 597 in 1998 to only 320 in 2000.

Other losses attributed to Article 12 were seen in the banking industry. The Commonwealth Development Authority was slow to grant home loan agreements in recent years due to Article 12 restrictions which do not allow the banks to forfeit land or real estate properties as collateral if the borrower defaults on the loan.

Sablan said the time to change the law is important now to get the economy moving. He said the chamber feels the current article diminishes land values and hinders average citizens from receiving needed loans. “It has been difficult for the common Joe on the street to get a loan at a banking institution while having these provisions in place. Market values of land would exponentially grow by having a bigger market place to go to whether it be U.S. citizens and/or foreign ownership. The current state of the situation of the economy here is dismal. The market value of land has diminished greatly from the early 90s of the Japanese bubble era and they will continue to diminish if we do not find an opportunity for our land to be marketable under a few simple programs.”

If voters decide a convention is called for 27 delegates (the same number as in the Legislature) will be elected in a non-partisan manner. The delegates will then gather to discuss proposed amendments to the Northern Mariana Islands constitution. All voters would then vote on the proposed amendments. MBJ