Active and retired members of the islands’ pension program rejected Gov. Benigno R. Fitial’s executive order declaring a state of emergency for the NMI Retirement Fund and wants the Legislature to throw it out.
Hundreds of Fund members attended a meeting hosted by Commonwealth Retirees Association chair Larry Cabrera Wednesday night at the American Memorial Park visitor center and majority of them voted against the emergency declaration.
Retirees said their unified position on the issue will serve as a strong voice for legislators to “do the right thing.”
The Legislature has 60 days to approve or reject the governor’s executive order.
In almost three hours of meeting, attendees pleaded with both Senate President Paul A. Manglona (Ind-Rota) and acting House Speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan) to fight the executive order, saying this may cause further chaos and uncertainties in the already troubled pension program.
Prior to voting, Manglona told members: “If you tell us [senators] that we need to reject it, we trust in your judgment and we will ask the House to also reject the EO. If that’s the input from you retirees, I commit the Senate to support retirees.”
CRA had invited Fitial and legislative leaders to the forum but Fitial did not show up.
“It’s sad to say, but I think the governor simply don’t care about the Fund,” said Manglona, adding that it is the Fitial administration’s wish to transition the Fund to the Social Security Administration.
Acting House Speaker Ogumoro came to Fitial’s defense, citing the many occasions Fitial spent discussing the Fund’s situation and how it can be saved.
Ogumoro, prior to voting, asked members to first study the ramifications if the executive order is supported or rejected.
In her presentation, Ogumoro tackled past and existing legislations that impacted the Fund. Among the solutions she offered was the casino bill that she believes will bring new revenue to the government.
Members who abstained from voting against the EO said that rejecting it could mean a return to the status quo, which could worsen the situation because the board of trustees and management’s performance in past years has been poor.
One retiree, Agnes McPhetres, believes the Fund’s trustees failed the members. However, she is also concerned about putting the Fund under the governor’s watch. She mentioned the possibility of the Legislature appointing an interim commission to manage the Fund.
McPhetres, together with other retirees, also complained about the Fund’s expenditures in hiring attorneys and consultants, which they described as excessive and all being paid out of their pensions.
Dave Sablan, for his part, pointed out the government assets that the Fund could take in exchange for the millions of dollars that the central government owes the program. He also described as unconstitutional the law that suspended the government’s employer contribution to the Fund.
A 2009 court judgment had determined that the government owed the Fund $231 million. The amount has not grown to $320 million.
Another retiree, Calixto Reyes, blamed three issues that killed the pension program: the breakdown of communications on Capital Hill, lack of leadership, and the no sense of direction among all parties concerned.
TRO to stop EO
CRA chair Cabrera tossed the idea of challenging the governor’s EO and the possibility of finding a lawyer that will represent the retirees’ voice.
The issue of “receivership” was also tackled, but no concrete decision was made.
Manglona pleaded with members to first wait for actions to be taken by the Legislature on the latest EO.
Retirees, a bit calmer than in previous meetings, were one in saying that they were ignored and taken for granted by both the Fund and the government in deciding what to do with their “money,” alluding to the previous board’s filing for bankruptcy that was later dismissed and the governor’s emergency declaration, both of which came as a surprise to them.