The CNMI is facing a change in eligibility and a reduction in benefits due to inaction by Congress to provide the necessary funding to maintain current income eligibility and benefit levels. Funding for the Nutrition Assistance Program is determined only by the U.S. Congress. The need for additional funding to support current eligibility and benefits has been on Congressman Sablan’s table for several years now. The CNMI NAP, my administration, and the USDA Food and Nutritional Service have been providing data to our congressman’s office related to the funding needs. The administration has requested updates on actions related to securing the funding necessary, without response. The congressional office also received responses to letters of inquiry that it has sent, which included detailed information about NAP food assistance needs.
Congressman Sablan makes claims he has “won $204,336,563” in funding for the Nutrition Assistance Program since 2009. This is a false claim. Sablan has created a chart that shows funding he has supposedly “won” for the CNMI NAP since 2009. The CNMI gets a block grant from the USDA FNS. This is a basic amount of funding granted to the CNMI annually by the FNS that is, in effect, automatic and requires no effort by our congressman. Congressman Sablan does have the ability to work on seeing an increase to this block grant funding, which he claims he was responsible for back in 2009, bringing the block grant funding up from $10.7 million to $12.1 million, a far cry from the resources the CNMI actually needed and now needs to address benefits. The block grant is provided annually to the CNMI with or without Sablan. His claim of credit for this annual block grant is absolutely misleading. For 11 straight years, the CNMI has seen no increase in its block grant funding for food assistance.
Congressman Sablan might take some credit for the minimal increase in the block grant 11 years ago, as well as funding in the Agricultural Bill of 2016 that provided $30 million to increase temporarily income eligibility and benefits, and possibly a portion of the disaster funding that has come over the last year amounting to about $27 million, but that $60 million in additional funding for food assistance over the course of 11 years that might be attributable to Sablan is not the $204 million he inaccurately makes claim to, and does not allow the NAP to maintain current benefit levels.
There have been many opportunities for Congressman Sablan to avert the mandated reduction to income eligibility and benefits that begins Oct. 1, 2020. It was expected that in the Agricultural Bill that was signed into law in 2018, Sablan would have seen language to transition the CNMI NAP to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This would have ensured that the CNMI received ample funding to cover its food assistance needs and maintain current benefits. This was not done. Congressman Sablan has had several years to see congressional action to increase the CNMI’s block grant, so that it could sustain the current benefit levels. This was not done. The administration, NAP, and the FNS have worked with Sablan’s office to provide all of the information necessary to informing the congressional action that is necessary to meet CNMI needs. We have been provided with no updates, no information on what efforts he was making, and his only seeming response has been to produce press releases that have not specified his efforts.
One needs only contrast the food assistance benefits received by the island of Guam to understand how ineffective our congressional office has been. Guam receives around $110 million in food assistance benefits. The regular annual food assistance benefits granted the CNMI is $12 million. Even though our population is one-third the size of Guam’s, they are getting nearly 10 times as much food assistance funding.
The congressman can message, misinform, and create charts as he wants. These do not see the congressional action necessary to appropriately fund the CNMI’s food assistance program. That will require that he work with Congress to see annual funding needs necessary to support the current eligibility and benefit levels is provided to the CNMI. Anything short of that is a failure of duty.
Just get it done, get the resources the people of the CNMI need, and stop sending me letters until you do.
Ralph DLG Torres (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Ralph DLG Torres is governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.