Kilili grills Interior secretary on FY’17 budget

Close Up, Rota park study, AMP cleanup the focus

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Delegate Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Ind-MP) got Northern Mariana Islands-specific with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell yesterday, as the House Natural Resources Committee held its annual hearing on the U.S. Interior Department budget.

Sablan said he was particularly concerned that the budget submitted to Congress by Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs did not include any funding expressly for the Close Up program.

“The Close Up program brings island students to Washington each year to learn how their government works,” Sablan said. “It is a valuable use of federal funds. In fact, several of my colleagues in the Northern Marianas congressional office got interested in government through Close Up.”

In 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 the Office of Insular Affairs budget identified Close Up as a program that is “necessary on an ongoing basis for the insular areas” and that should be funded “because there was no other source of funds in the Federal budget.

Close Up had a specific line item of $1.1 million in Interior’s FY16 proposal. But for FY17 Interior dropped any reference to Close Up.

“I’m not sure what to make of that,” Sablan told Jewell. “But it is troubling.” Jewell said she believed there was $1 million in the budget for the Close Up program, but that she would have to check to get more specifics.

The secretary also promised to report back to Sablan, when asked for a status report on the Rota National Park study. Sablan was able to include authorization for the study in the FY16 omnibus appropriation and Park Service personnel have already met with Rota officials and begun work on the three-year project.

“This is something I worked to achieve since my very first year in Congress,” the Congressman explained to Jewell.

“So, I would just like to hear from you that you have the money you need in your FY17 proposal to keep the Rota Park study moving forward and on schedule.”

Another park issue the congressman raised was getting the American Memorial Park back in service. The congressman said he had visited twice himself and that he has been hearing from constituents that the Park Service has been slow to clean up debris, repair damage, and get the park fully open to the public.

“Is it a money issue? Is it because the park is supervised from Guam and that means an extra layer of decision-making? What can we do to speed things up?” Sablan asked.

“We will follow up with the Park Service directly,” Jewell replied. “We are constrained for resources, but I was not aware of that until you just brought it up.”

Packing a fourth question into the five minutes given to each committee member during almost three hours of hearing, Sablan then turned to the work of the Interagency Group on Insular Areas, which Jewell co-chairs.

“I think the concept of a White House-led response to the needs of the insular areas is great,” Sablan told the Secretary.

“But I am concerned about results. I have never seen a report on what the outcome of these IGIA meetings has been.

“Are the problems the island governors raise being addressed? Are the governors satisfied with the results? Is the IGIA process working? I don’t know.

“So, I would like to ask if your office could provide me with a report on the problems the Governors have raised at IGIA over the last seven years and what the outcomes have been. Have we gotten results?”

“I’ll be happy to ask Insular Affairs to do that,” Jewell said.

The last report by the Interagency Group, available on its website, is from 2008.

As vice ranking member of the committee, Sablan was also one of the four members allowed by committee rules to make an opening statement.

Sablan used the opportunity to call for action on approval of the 15-year extension of the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Republic of Palau. The original Compact was negotiated by the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

Sablan has introduced legislation to approve the Compact extension; and the Interior Department has included funding in its FY17 budget proposal.

“Today, with the expansion of China in the Pacific, Reagan’s foresight in assuring that Palau would be an ally of the United States is more clear than ever,” Sablan told the Committee.

“China certainly understands how important islands can be. Right now China is actually creating islands, where none existed before.”

Sablan asked Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) for a hearing on the Palau bill, H.R. 4531.

“China is not sitting back on its heels doing nothing,” Sablan said. “Neither should we.” (Office of the CNMI Delegate)

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