Priorities and accountability


Bills introduced, passed, and enacted into law show that public funds were appropriated for things that are not only non-priority but also lack accountability, when they could have gone to funding even the most basic crime-solving tools such as fingerprinting, building a tamper-free crime evidence room or re-training police officers. 

When does appropriating $3,000 to $100,000 in public funds for fishing derbies and funding private corporation’s shell operations, for example, become more important than properly equipping and training law enforcement? 

The public’s call for a more responsible appropriation of taxpayers’ money isn’t new. Here’s hoping the 19th Legislature would be much better in this area than their predecessors.

Misplaced priorities have gone on for years and lawmakers started believing it’s expected of them to fund private activities with little to no accountability at all.

Certain special interest private groups have relied on lawmakers’ appropriations instead of holding their own private fundraisers or applying for available federal grants to fund their private causes.

Yet, one sees public school students patiently sell hot lunches, clean other peoples’ cars or hold other fundraisers just so they can participate in educational and extra-curricular programs and activities.

Sometimes one wonders why lawmakers would even put up “No solicitation” signs on Capital Hill when they basically entertain solicitations from favored families, friends, and special interest groups or businesses in the form of introducing and passing special interest bills.

And because the recipients of lawmaker-appropriated public funds are private interest groups and activities, the former are not necessarily required to account for how they spent the money that could have gone to pressing public safety issues.

This piece makes reference to prioritizing funding public safety programs because ensuring a safe and secure environment takes precedence over almost everything else for any society to properly function. And that includes the ability to prevent and solve murders, human disappearances, burglaries, assaults and all other crimes. 

Within days, private citizens were able to raise $20,000 as reward for anyone with information leading to the whereabouts of missing businessman Zhi Yuan Li, to cite as an example. Yet, at least 18 earlier batches of lawmakers failed to fully fund and equip a state-of-the-art crime laboratory for the Department of Public Safety nor fund the hiring of the CNMI’s own medical examiner. Or a professional economist to help the CNMI navigate its present and future.

The law also allows legislators to appropriate and re-appropriate public funds to go toward precinct projects such as road repairs, road paving, basketball court construction and repairs, school bus repainting, and so on. But many of these bills fail to address accountability. 

Gov. Eloy S. Inos, for example, had to repeatedly ask lawmakers to refrain from using the phrase “various projects” when referring to precinct projects that they propose to fund in their bills. 

Such advice makes for sensible appropriation bills for projects that are “specifically and properly identified to ensure funds are used to those specific projects and that funds are adequately allocated.” 

Saipan Local Law 18-1, for example, re-appropriates fund balances amounting to $185,344 “for various projects in Precinct V.” The same local law made references to $85,000 “for various projects in Precinct II” and $375,000 “for various projects in Precinct V,” along with the rest of the other precincts in separate bills.

What these “various projects” are mostly remains a mystery and funds either remain unaccounted for or are sitting idle under a government business unit. Bills also do get passed to pay for “overran accounts” such as in the case of Saipan Local Law 18-2.

One expects that a lawmaker introduces an appropriation bill that identifies a funding source to fund a specific program. But Governor Inos and his predecessors also had to repeatedly remind lawmakers to make sure that appropriated amounts are equal to or less than anticipated revenues and are available. An example is Saipan Local Law 18-3.

Governors also had to remind lawmakers to carefully review future programs and projects “to ensure the activities needing the most funding and that are most beneficial to the community as a whole are given priority.” Most Saipan local laws dealing with fund appropriations and re-appropriations in the 18th Legislature fell short of such careful considerations. Again, it was also the case in previous legislatures.

The public shouldn’t get tired of making their lawmakers and all other elected officials accountable for their actions, including introducing bills that safeguard public funds and public trust. 

If not, lawmakers could easily turn the CNMI into a Commonwealth of the Northern Marijuana Islands or the gambling capital of the Western Pacific, for example, if they’re left to pass their bills without careful considerations, without adequate public hearings, and without public scrutiny.

Haidee V. Eugenio | Reporter
Haidee V. Eugenio has covered politics, immigration, business and a host of other news beats as a longtime journalist in the CNMI, and is a recipient of professional awards and commendations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental achievement award for her environmental reporting. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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