Committee Reviews Legislation for U.S.-Affiliated Islands

Oversight of Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund and Northern Marianas Worker Permit Extension

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today held a hearing to receive testimony on legislation to address two time-sensitive issues related to U.S.-affiliated islands. The bills were S. 2182, the Bikini Resettlement and Relocation Act, and S. 2325, the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act.

Following World War II, Congress created a trust fund for the people of Bikini for the rehabilitation and resettlement of Bikini Atoll in the wake of U.S. nuclear testing. Today, Murkowski expressed her concerns about reports of an immediate $11 million drawdown from the Trust Fund – nearly 20 percent of its value at the time – by the KBE Council (Bikini’s local government) after the Department of the Interior (DOI) agreed to end its financial oversight.

“I am very sensitive to the notion that Washington, D.C. should not dictate local government decisions. I am also mindful, however, that the Trust Fund was established for the people of Bikini, with its statutory purpose being the ‘rehabilitation and resettlement of Bikini Atoll’ as a result of the United States’ nuclear testing,” Murkowski said. “The U.S. government has a responsibility to the people of Bikini, which is ensuring that the fund is properly utilized to take care of Bikinians’ needs today, as well as in the future, in a manner that is consistent with its intent.”

The Department of the Interior conducted financial oversight of the Trust Fund until the KBE Council adopted a resolution ending recognition of DOI’s authority for budget approval in November 2017. In December 2017, Murkowski sent a letter to Secretary Zinke questioning Interior’s decision to reinterpret its authority. She concurrently introduced S. 2182, which would provide the Interior Secretary with statutory authority to disapprove of Trust Fund withdrawals until a resettlement plan for Bikini has been submitted to Congress, while capping the amount that can be withdrawn on an annual basis at five percent of the Trust Fund’s market value.

The second bill considered at today’s hearing, S. 2325, is the result of a bipartisan, bicameral working group led by Murkowski that included Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, I-MP, and Northern Mariana Islands Gov. Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres. The bill addresses the Northern Mariana Islands’ foreign labor needs and will help ensure that U.S. workers are not unfairly disadvantaged by the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker (CW) permit cap.

“S. 2325 seeks to address foreign labor concerns in the Northern Mariana Islands as we reach the end of the worker transition period to fully implement federal immigration controls as established by Congress,” Murkowski said. “While I am willing to support its extension, I remain committed to the intent of the transition, which is to increase the number of U.S. workers in the CNMI economy while reducing the dependence on foreign labor. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues and CNMI leaders to find good solutions that promote economic growth and protect the islands’ workforce needs so we aren’t back here ten years from now working on another extension.”

S. 2325 extends the CNMI worker transition period to 2029, while setting a cap of 13,000 CW permits starting in fiscal year 2019 with annual decreases of 500 permits for the remainder of the transition period. The bill also creates a new CW-3 permit category for long-term foreign workers who have been working in the CNMI under a CW permit since 2014. 

Murkowski is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Archived video of today’s hearing can be found on the committee’s website. Click here and here to view Murkowski’s questions for witnesses.