IN SUPPORTING PASSAGE OF HOUSE ARPA BILL
Saying that transparency and accountability are non-negotiable, Sen. Edith E. DeLeon Guerrero (D-Saipan) urged his fellow senators to exercise their power as a separate but equal branch of government to ensure that the American Rescue Plan Act funds are not misused and abused.
At a Senate session Tuesday, DeLeon Guerrero expressed her support for the passage of House Bill 22-33 that seeks to give the Legislature appropriation powers over the estimated $507 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that are allocated to the CNMI.
She said Super Typhoon Yutu’s over $8 million in overtime payments to exempted employees and the subsequent disallowed reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency ballooned the CNMI’s deficit by $8 million or 12%.
This, the senator said, should be evident enough why the Senate should pass House Bill 22-33 for transparency and accountability of the American taxpayer’s ARPA funds and to start to achieve/maintain structural balance in future budgets.
Later, acting at the recommendation of Senate legal counsel Joe Bermudes, the senators unanimously agreed not to act on H.B. 22-33 at this time. All nine senators voted to keep the bill in the Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee, which Sen. Victor B. Hocog (R-Rota) chairs, pending Bermudes’ review of the contrasting legal opinions in the House of Representatives’ “tie-breaker rule.”
DeLeon Guerrero pointed out that tax revenues lost not as a result of COVID-19 but through crafty legislation such as changing the character of the Saipan annual casino license fee of $15 million to a casino gross receipts tax is another example of masking transparency and accountability.
Such loss, she said, are most likely ineligible under ARPA’s restrictions on the uses of these funds, which state that “funds allocated to states cannot be used to directly or indirectly offset tax reductions or delay a tax or tax increase.”
“Let’s not forget that the CNMI has tax liens in the millions and we dare not try and attempt to make the American taxpayers pay for this with the ARPA funds,” the senator said.
DeLeon Guerrero said care should be taken to avoid creating new programs or add-ons to existing programs that require an ongoing financial commitment.
She said ARPA funds are non-recurring so their use should be applied primarily to non-recurring expenditures. “What was just done is the creation of [an] Infrastructure and Recovery Office with the ‘Yes I can and I will’ attitude, which goes against ARPA’s spending guiding principles,” the senator said, referring to Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ recent creation of a new office, the Infrastructure and Recovery Program, headed by former Department of Public Lands secretary Marianne Concepcion-Teregeyo to streamline the close to $1 billion worth of recovery and infrastructure projects in the CNMI.
DeLeon Guerrero said ARPA is beyond politics as this is about the American taxpayers’ monies, or money that is not generated here in the CNMI. She said it is about the right of the American people to know how their monies are being spent by local governments such as the CNMI.
“It is about our integrity and honesty as a government that is being handed more than half a billion dollars as a rescue made possible by the American taxpayers across the United States of America,” the senator said.
She said H.B. 22-33 paves the way for the Senate to create its own Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. “Any prudent man will do and it is the right thing to do for the American people,” she said.