Bill seeks to close loophole on housing benefits

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Posted on Sep 30 2008

A lawmaker has authored a measure to close a legal loophole that allows key officials to receive housing benefits even while they continue living in their private houses.

Under the bill, pre-filed by Vice Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero, key officials who opt to reside in their own homes, instead of in government housing, will be ineligible to receive housing benefits, including free utilities.

The bill would apply to the governor, lieutenant governor, Senate president, and the House speaker. Theoretically, all four officials are eligible for government housing. But in practice, only the governor and lieutenant governor receive this benefit.

The measure follows a recent report about Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Villagomez’s skyrocketing power consumption. According to a KSPN2 report, Villagomez’s family used to consume 1,700 kWh of power before he became lieutenant governor. His power usage soared after his election, reaching 5,000 kWh about two months ago.

House Speaker Arnold I. Palacios, who is not receiving government housing benefits, said he would support the bill. “I think it’s a good policy to impose upon ourselves,” he said.

Press secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. said the administration would have to review the intent and merits of the bill. “If the intent is to save money, such a bill might skew incentives. For example, it might compel an official to spend money for the repair and renovation of official government housing in order to avail of certain benefits, including utilities, which would cost more,” he said.

Reyes also suggested that the proposed restriction might discourage qualified individuals from running for office. “Is this bill just directed at the governor’s? If so, would it limit the pool of interested gubernatorial candidates and deprive the CNMI of the best executives?” he asked.

For her part, Rep. Tina Sablan called Deleon Guerrero’s bill “a good first step in the right direction.”

“The current law does not explicitly authorize the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker, and Senate president to enjoy these benefits if they opt not to live in government housing. This administration and past administrations have interpreted the law to mean that they could, but frankly I think that’s a stretch, and I think there is widespread public sentiment that they shouldn’t, especially in these times of austerity,” Sablan said.

But she also said that, “We should not stop at only this one perk. The vice speaker’s bill is a good first step in the right direction. It should not be the last.”

She pointed to the official perks currently enjoyed by many lawmakers on taxpayers’ dime. The vehicle leases, gas cards, and cell phone bills of all the members combined “actually add up to more per month than the governor and lieutenant governor’s utility bills,” she said.

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