Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP) expressed “dismay” Thursday over Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's signing of an agreement in July that cuts food stamp benefits for CNMI families, but the Fitial administration belied this claim.
Sablan said that Fitial and Department of Community and Cultural Affairs Secretary Melvin Faisao traveled in July to San Francisco, California “where they negotiated and signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that cuts benefits. [Former] attorney general Ed Buckingham also approved the cuts.”
The delegate said the maximum a family of four can get under the agreement that Fitial negotiated is just $444 a month.
This is $60 less than the $504 per month that Sablan said has been in effect since he got the USDA secretary to increase the CNMI's food stamp grant in early 2009.
“We don't yet know the amount the governor and the secretary negotiated for next year's grant. We don't even know if they asked for more, so benefits could go up. Agriculture officials do have the power to increase the NMI food stamp grant, as they did at my request last year. But since then, Governor Fitial and Secretary Faisao had to give back $4.5 million of food stamp money that they failed to use since 2006. And it is very hard to ask for more money when you are returning money unused,” Sablan said in a statement issued by his campaign.
He said that people in Guam get twice as much help from the federal government to buy food. Yet, he said, people know that the costs of food, along with gas, electricity and other basic necessities, are higher in the CNMI.
Sablan said Fitial has to “end this second-class status.”
Press secretary Angel Demapan, when asked for comment, said “obviously, the campaign season is once again forcing Delegate Sablan’s campaign to distort the facts in an effort to make people believe that he’s making things happen.”
“The truth is in the records and the records reflect that in 2009, the DCCA NAP [Nutrition Assistance Program] funding level was awarded a capped amount of $11.525 million. DCCA NAP then received an additional funding amount of $622,000 under a block grant, not a congressional action by Delegate Kilili, increasing the funding to $12.148 million,” Demapan told Saipan Tribune.
He said last year, NAP received a one-time additional funding of $1 million, for a funding level of $13.148 million through a block grant, “not because Delegate Kilili told USDA Secretary Vilsack to do it.”
Demapan said in July this year's consultation meeting with USDA, the issue on the additional $1 million was discussed “and USDA made it clear that the grant it provided is only a one-time funding opportunity.”
“So if Delegate Kilili really had a hand in it, he should have gotten Secretary Vilsack to do more than a one-time deal. Because of the one-time restriction, Gov. Fitial and Secretary Faisao pushed to ensure that the CNMI would then get the funding level given in [fiscal year] 2009, which was capped at $12.148 million, in order to ensure that the benefits will continue to be available to recipients,” Demapan said.
The press secretary added that a legal clause on “carry-over” was successfully negotiated by the governor and incorporated into the fiscal year 2012 memorandum of understanding.
“The carry-over clause as agreed upon allows for any lapsed funds in [fiscal year] 2012 to be carried over into the succeeding fiscal year so that it can be earmarked for benefits and any other NAP expenses. This clause has a grant life cycle of two years to be expended in accordance with the identified earmarking purpose. This special clause was incorporated to ensure that lapsed funds that are earmarked will not be de-obligated by the grantor,” he added.
Sablan said he has continued to work to increase food stamp benefits for needy families in the CNMI.
“After spending the last month going door to door on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota, I know more than ever that our people need the same food stamp benefits as other Americans,” he said.
Within months of being elected to Congress, Sablan said he was able to get the CNMI food stamp grant increased by $1.45 million to $12.148 million each year. He also got the Agriculture secretary to add another $1 million last year, bringing the CNMI's total grant to $13.148 million.
“As a result, food stamp benefits went up and families had more food. Having enough to eat is especially important for children. Studies show that better nourished kids do better in school. Lack of food during their growing years can leave children less productive and ultimately dependent on society. Adults, too, need adequate food to do a full day's work. And without enough to eat our elderly are condemned to shorter and less healthy lives,” he said.
'There's still hope'
Sablan, however, said there is still hope for the 10,000 people in the CNMI forced to take food stamps because of these tough economic times.
He said the $33 million needed to bring the CNMI into the national food stamp program is included in H.R. 6083, the reauthorization of farm and food laws that Congress will have to act on this year. “Party politics may delay action on this bill until after the November elections,” he said.
The Fitial administration is opposed to having the CNMI included in the national food stamp program, citing the requirement for the CNMI to shoulder half of the administrative costs.
Sablan, however, said this will mean increased benefits to food stamp recipients and millions of dollars in multiplier effects to the economy. He said the benefits outweigh the extra administrative costs.
“But as long as I am in Congress I will keep working to bring the Northern Marianas into the national food stamp program, so our people get the same benefits as other Americans. I know how hard life is for many of our people. It's time to end this second-class status,” Sablan added.