U.S. interior secretary affirms Pacific isle ties
Dirk Kempthorne visits workplaces, clinics, schools and villages on remote islands
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has concluded a two-week tour through the Pacific in the most extensive trip for a Cabinet member to remote U.S.-affiliated islands in years.
The trip included stops at the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and American Samoa, as well as Hawaii. He also visited Midway Atoll for the 65th anniversary of the battle that marked a turning point in World War II.
"Those who have a presence in the Pacific will be positioned strategically very well. We don't want to be absent from that," he said Friday before returning to Washington. "So it's important to continue our friendship and assistance to these islands."
As interior secretary, Kempthorne oversees federal policy in the U.S. territories and manages U.S. assistance to three independent Pacific nations. His department provides those islands more than $300 million a year.
The former Republican governor of Idaho visited schools, health care clinics, villages and work places to get an understanding of each island's culture. He also met with political, business and civic leaders to hear their concerns.
"It was really very beneficial. It gave me some perspective," said Kempthorne, who was confirmed last summer.
The secretary also attended a funeral of a soldier from Guam who was recently killed in the Middle East.
"These islands, per capita, send more of their sons and daughters to the military of the United States than most areas of the country," Kempthorne said. "They understand service and sacrifice. They believe in freedom and democracy.
"These are our allies. These are our friends. We will continue to be their partners."
Kempthorne's visit to Guam is likely to be followed in the coming years by many other U.S. officials as 8,000 Marines and their families are relocated to the U.S. territory from Okinawa in southern Japan.
The U.S. and Japan are spending some $10 billion for the move to Guam, of which Japan is paying $6 billion.
The Marines' arrival could add an additional 30,000 people to the island's population of about 170,000 and be a boon to the local economy.
In American Samoa, the biggest issue was the ramifications of the annual minimum-wage increases, the first of which will take effect next month.
Officials fear the local economy will suffer under a new federal law that will raise the hourly minimum wage by 50 cents July 24. There will be additional annual hikes of 50 cents until it reaches the new federal wage minimum of $7.25 an hour.
Depending upon the type of job, current minimum wages in the territory range from $2.68 to $4.09 an hour.