Transparency, spending cuts, revenue-generation, and saving the pension and healthcare systems were among the key areas that Gov. Eloy S. Inos, along with Lt. Gov. Jude U. Hofschneider, asked lawmakers yesterday for help in this period he described as a “perfect storm,” given the looming federal funding cuts, a still delicate tourism industry, and too little time left for this term to turn things around.
The new governor got the lawmakers' cooperation during their first joint leadership meeting that lasted three hours on Capital Hill yesterday.
As of yesterday, the Inos administration got confirmation of federal grant cuts for the CNMI Office of Homeland Security and expects more reports in the days ahead.
This is a result of the so-called “sequestration,” a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts to U.S. government agencies totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years taking effect March 1. The CNMI has been getting more in federal funds than it can generate locally from tax and fee collections.
“We may need to rethink how we're going to reduce the local expenditures in the face of having to cushion any reduction in availability of federal grants,” he said.
When asked whether there might be allotment cuts as what was previously done by the Fitial administration, Inos said, “There might be.”
“If that's done, it would be to spread available funds to cushion the reduction in federal programs,” he said.
The governor said there's review of and consideration of pulling out requests for proposals and other projects to “redirect” funds to more pressing ones such as those for the Commonwealth Health Center and the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.
He reiterated that his administration placed a temporary halt to hiring and salary changes as they review the recent changes to civil service law and assess human resource needs of the government as a whole.
House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan) and Rep. Cris Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan), along with Inos, confirmed the formation of two joint House-Senate committees-one focused on drawing up plans to reduce government spending and one that will come up with proposals to generate revenues.
While similar efforts failed in the past, lawmakers and the new administration are more hopeful this time around.
For one, the governor wants another meeting next week for an update on the specific proposals and then put them into motion.
“This is just the first meeting of the leadership. We plan to continue to meet, but there's no sense in meeting and meeting [but] no action. So we want to give everybody time to go back, and work on the issues that we talked about, come back and report, and hopefully try to get things moving,” Inos said.
Among the differences this time around is that sitting governor, Inos, is not pushing for “just one” idea, said Deleon Guerrero, referring to Fitial's strong push for legalization of casino operations on Saipan.
House minority leader George Camacho (Ind-Saipan) said there's “nothing too specific but some [pieces of] legislation shall be forthcoming.
“So we'll see exactly what are they. Everyone seems to be on board and wants to work together. I am hopeful we will start to see solutions. We continue to face the same issues, be it the economy or Retirement Fund. It's just a matter of how much sacrifice we can give and how creative everyone can be,” he said.
These same issues that yesterday's joint leadership meeting focused on are prolonging the lifespan of the NMI Retirement Fund, helping the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., lowering utility costs, as well as reducing government spending and finding ways to generate revenues.
Laying the groundwork
Inos said the meeting “laid the groundwork for what we all expect within the next 18 months, maybe 20 months, for this administration and most of the folks here.”
The former lieutenant governor ascended to his current post when former governor Benigno R. Fitial resigned on Feb. 20, days ahead of the start of the latter's impeachment trial at the Senate.
Fitial's term was supposed to expire January 2015; the next general election is in November 2014. Inos is expected to run in 2014 but the administration said it is not focused on that right now.
“So we kind of agreed that we will be working together closely on the issues, find a way to be more transparent, and work together to expedite legislation, policy issues that require action,” he said.
Except for Rep. Teresita Santos (R-Rota) who was absent, Sen. Juan Ayuyu (Ind-Rota) who remains in jail, and one vacancy, all other 26 Senate and House members showed up to meet with Inos and Hofschneider. Santos said last night she was under the impression that the meeting was only between the House and Senate leaderships and the administration.
The House speaker said that while the House and Senate, for example, have already been working on Fund issues, they also want open communication with the Inos administration so that there would be unified efforts.
Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian) said he fully supports plans to help the Fund and pursue alternative energy.
He also said he will help work on the economic aspects related to transitional Commonwealth-only workers, or CW workers. Conner is chairman of the House Committee on Foreign and Federal Relations.
Senate President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) said he welcomes “working together” and having “open communication” with the administration.