Editor’s Note: The following is being published in several parts due to its length.
Second part of a series
On the health front, I worked with my colleagues in committee and with Medicaid staff and advisers on amendments to Senate legislation that formally established the CNMI Medicaid Agency and, significantly, authorized the development of an affordable buy-in program for residents who currently lack health insurance and are not qualified for regular Medicaid (Public Law 21-28). I also worked with colleagues and CHCC to develop language inserted into the appropriations acts that directs the agency to conduct a feasibility study and report to the Legislature on policy options for universal health coverage in the CNMI (Public Law 21-35). To ensure a safe 2020 midterm election, I worked with members in the House and Senate, and with the Election Commission, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Office of the Public Auditor to draft amendments that were incorporated into a Senate bill adjusting election procedures to mitigate the health risks associated with COVID-19 (Public Law 21-34).
Other public laws that I co-sponsored and helped draft: the Animal Protection Act, to prohibit animal cruelty (Public Law 21-31), and legislation restricting the deduction of unpaid gambling debt from gross revenue, which clarified our tax law and closed a potentially damaging loophole (Public Law 21-26).
Passed the House: I co-sponsored and wrote legislation to authorize the governor to freeze evictions, foreclosures, and rent increases during declared disasters and emergencies (House Bill 21-112); drafted amendments that were adopted into the Landlord-Tenant Act (H.B. 21-79); co-sponsored and drafted amendments that were adopted into a bill to provide civil remedies for unauthorized disclosure of intimate images (H.B. 21-107); co-sponsored and drafted amendments that were adopted into legislation to redesignate the annual casino license fee to pay the 25% portion of retiree pensions (H.B. 21-76); and co-sponsored a bill to increase penalties for government-funded first-class travel (H.B. 21-110). Additionally, I worked with colleagues on the Gaming Committee, and with the Commonwealth Casino Commission, to develop amendments that were adopted into legislation enhancing the CCC’s enforcement authority and providing for greater disclosure and accountability requirements (H.B. 21-11).
Referred to committee: I introduced bills to strengthen the independence of the Office of the Public Auditor and enhance the agency’s capacity to deter, detect, and investigate waste, fraud, and abuse of public funds (H.B. 21-58); to require the Secretary of Finance to make timely transfers of funds to the Public School System (H.B. 21-100); and to impose a local gaming tax on the Saipan casino (House Local Bill 21-23). I also co-sponsored the Hate Crimes Act to provide enhanced sentencing penalties for crimes motivated by hate (H.B. 21-125); the COVID-19 Transparency and Accountability Act to require more rigorous reporting on the use of federal funds to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic (H.B. 21-114); and the Live Streaming Video Act to require government bodies to make their public meetings available online (H.B. 21-7).
I believe that nearly as important as the bills I have supported are the bills I have opposed. I have made a consistent effort in this term to explain for the record, on the floor and in statements after sessions, why I opposed certain legislative proposals. For example, I objected to unlimited reprogramming authority granted to the governor because I see it as a dangerous precedent and an abdication of our constitutional legislative responsibilities. I voted against a bill to legalize online gaming because of serious concerns about local enforcement capabilities, worsening problem gambling in our community, and potential violations of the federal Wire Act. I also opposed the transfer of administration of American Memorial Park to the CNMI government, because I value our partnership with the National Park Service and the significant federal resources made available every year to manage the park, including the visitors center, memorial grounds, facilities and infrastructure, and education and outreach programs.
Oversight is a critical function of the Legislature, and I take that responsibility seriously. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, I have asked department heads to explain spending decisions, furlough decisions, impacts of austerity, and the status of implementation of laws and programs in their purview. As a member of the Federal and Foreign Affairs Committee, I have raised concerns about program glitches and customer service challenges affecting the delivery of federal unemployment assistance to constituents in need. As a member of the Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster-Related Funding, I have inquired into emergency contracts, illegal overtime, and double pay, and sought reports on the governor’s reprogramming activities, the use of money borrowed from the Marianas Public Lands Trust, and the progress of pending FEMA-funded public projects that go as far back as Typhoon Soudelor. As a member of the Special Committee investigating the governor’s expenditures, I have reviewed and questioned thousands of pages of documents dealing with first-class travel, reimbursements, official representation, personal security, utility costs at private residences, the Community Benefit Fund, and the governor’s recent promotional trip to the Northern Islands.
Looking ahead, for the remainder of this term and into the next, I believe that the priorities of the Legislature should include submission of the special committee reports to the House and to the people, and completion of the government’s fiscal response action plan along with the enactment of fiscal stabilization reforms. We should also begin the work of restructuring the medical referral program in coordination with the administration and the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., and collaborate with Medicaid to develop the affordable buy-in program for CNMI residents. We will need to identify greater resources to support PSS, NMC, and the Northern Marianas Technical Institute, all of which are key partners in strengthening our local workforce and in rebuilding and revitalizing our economy. And we must ensure maximum transparency and accountability for the hundreds of millions of federal dollars expected to assist the Commonwealth in recovering from the impacts of typhoon disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be continued
Tina Sablan (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Christina Marie Sablan is a member of the CNMI House of Representatives of the 21st Legislature.