WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. House of Representatives closed out the week with passage of the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for 2019, containing major spending of importance to the Marianas. The House voted to continue the important change in the funding formula for water and sewer projects that has resulted in $73 million for the Marianas since 2010. Also increased in the FY19 Interior bill is the Assistance to Territories fund, expected to be $20.8 million. The Trump administration had recommended cutting this territory funding to $14.7 million. Brown Tree Snake funding, diesel emission reductions grants, and other key programs held steady.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Ind-MP) identified the water and sewer funds as critically important to the Marianas. “When I first came to Congress the Marianas only got about $1 million annually for water infrastructure,” he explained.
“So, changing the funding formulas was a priority for me, given the water situation on Saipan.
“And we succeeded. Last year, the Marianas got $7.2 million. Next year, the House bill will give us a bit more. Since 2010, we have gotten $73 million in total.
“That is $73 million Marianas households and businesses saved on their CUC bills,” the delegate added.
The big jump in funding is the result of a provision in spending bills since 2010 that increases the insular area set-asides from the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds. The statutory set-asides for these two programs are 0.28 percent and 0.33 percent, respectively. Since 2010, however, both have been increased to 1.5 percent.
“A small percentage but a huge difference, when you are looking at billion-dollar programs,” Sablan explained. “We have to work every year, however, to keep that provision in the appropriation bill, otherwise the set-asides go back to the lower numbers.”
The money has made a difference. This month, the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, which receives the funds, said that 96 percent of Saipan now has water 24 hours a day. In 2009, when Sablan started, only 25 percent of Saipan had round-the-clock water service.
“We all know what a difference it makes to quality of life to be able to turn on the tap and get water,” Sablan said. “Now we have to get to the next stage: drinkable water.”
Technical Assistance Funds increased
Also included in the FY19 Interior appropriation is an expected $20.8 million to the Interior Department Office of Insular Affairs for assistance to territories.
“This is the funding Congress provides for technical assistance grants and maintenance assistance grants to each insular government,” Sablan explained.
Earlier this month, Interior announced $2.3 million in these grants for the Marianas. The CNMI Department of Public Works was the biggest recipient with over $1 million in technical assistance funding. The Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., the Office of Substance Abuse and Drug Rehabilitation, and the Rota Mayor’s Office also received significant funds.
Congress also uses the Assistance to Territories line item to fund programs that benefit more than one insular area. Close Up and Junior State of America, which bring students from all the U.S. islands to study and learn on the mainland U.S., get much of their money this way. The Prior Service Trust Fund is another beneficiary. And training for island utility crews and programs conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School to train island financial managers are all underwritten in this way.
This week’s House bill provides the same level of funding for territories as the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee has recommended for the coming fiscal year. Though line-item amounts in the two bills do not align exactly, total spending for insular area assistance is the same. So, it is likely that funding for brown tree snake control, the Coral Reef Initiative, Compact Impact, and the Empowering Insular Communities programs will remain at fiscal year 2018 levels. The Trump administration recommended cutting all these programs by $14.43 million.
Diesel emissions reduction funds nationwide are set at $100 million. Congressman Sablan included the Northern Mariana Islands in this program by provision of Section 2 of U.S. Public Law 111-364. (PR)