Eni testifies before U.S. Senate on Omnibus Territories Act
Congressman Faleomavaega Eni believes the federal benefit-to-cost ratio formula used to determine funding for federal projects in American Samoa is “discriminatory” and therefore requires a full study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Faleomavaega shared this belief during his testimony Thursday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in the Senate version of the Omnibus Territories Act of 2013, a bipartisan legislation introduced by committee chairman U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and committee ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
At his opening remarks, Wyden made it clear that he and Murkowski introduced this measure “by request”, which is a courtesy senators usually provide to the Executive Branch. However it can be extended to others, in this case the territories, since they have no representation in the U.S. Senate, says Wyden, who noted that neither he nor Murkowski endorses or supports the bill, which has 20 sections, or provisions.
“We are merely offering it for consideration at the request of others – in this case the elected representatives of the various territories,” he said, adding that his committee has jurisdiction over the U.S. insular areas.
It was noted by Murkowski that the Senate version has changes compared to the House version.
In his verbal testimony, Faleomavaega said that this bipartisan legislation is critical in addressing the many issues that residents of the U.S. territories have faced for many years. “For American Samoa this bill will provide the necessary tools for our new [Lolo] administration to help the territory move forward,” he said.
Section 15 of the bill requests the Comptroller of the United States to study and provide a report on the benefit-to-cost ratio formula used to determine funding for federal projects in American Samoa.
In his written testimony, Faleomavega says this comprehensive study is necessary to address the discrepancies that American Samoa faces compared to other Territories. “Due to our remote location, small population and single-industry economy, it is very difficult for American Samoa to meet any threshold for federal projects, especially federal agencies and departments that rely solely on the benefit-to-ratio formula,” he said.
“Because American Samoa does not meet the criteria, which I believe is discriminatory, American Samoa is the only U.S. territory without an airport tower even though American Samoa is an international destination and has one of the longest runways in the U.S,” he said.
In his verbal testimony, the Congressman said there is no airport tower “because the FAA says— ‘well you don’t qualify for cost-ratio-what ever formula that they have’. And I said, ‘So how am I going to run an airport that doesn’t have a tower and yet we built a 10,000 foot runway that 747 [aircraft] can land on?' ”
“And I think the recent accident of the Asiana Airlines...at San Francisco [airport] is an example, when you talk about safety and hazards as far as air transportation,” he said.
“While making tourism a priority, it would be difficult for the local government to attract foreign carriers provided the airlines would not be comfortable with their planes landing at an international airport that does not have a physical control tower,” said Faleomavaega in his prepared remarks.
He also said the benefit-to-cost ratio also affects “our harbors”, adding that for now, “we are unable to qualify for federal support for additional harbors but, with the increase in traffic in the Pago Pago harbor, building and creating harbors on other parts of Tutuila Island will improve and expand inter-island commerce and build-up needed infrastructure.”
“Having a study to determine alternative methods to the benefit-to-cost ratio will help Congress better understand and provide for one of our most vulnerable communities,” he said.
CITIZENSHIP PLEBISCITE ACT
This provision of the bill will provide for a federally authorized plebiscite in American Samoa on the question of citizenship.
In his verbal testimony, Faleomavaega shared with senators what he calls a “problem” with some residents who filed a lawsuit with the federal court in Washington D.C. “demanding that our people should become automatically U.S. citizens under the 14th amendment citizenship clause.”
“Well they lost the case,” he said adding that he offers a federally authorized plebiscite putting the issue for residents to decide once and for all, whether “we should become U.S. citizens” and not the court.
MINIMUM WAGE DIFFERENTIAL
This provision calls for GAO to conduct a study on the effects of minimum wage differentials in American Samoa, where there are different minimum wages for 18 industry classifications.
“For a little territory, we have 18 minimum wages. And I say, ‘how in the world did we create an idiotic system like this? Well, thanks to our partners in the federal government and the [U.S.] Department of Labor - we ended up with 18 minimum wages,” he told the Senate committee. “We’d like to have a GAO study, to see if we can have just maybe one minimum wage, so that everybody will be on the same even playing field.”
Faleomavega says he feel it is “discriminatory to pay some minimum wage workers less just because they work in the hotel industry, for example, versus the tuna industry.”
Current minimum wage law shows that hotel industry minimum is $4.50 per hour while tuna industry has a $4.76 per hour minimum wage. Local government minimum wage is $4.41 an hour.
WAIVER LOCAL MATCHING REQUIREMENTS
This provision of the bill provides that each federal department and agency shall waive any requirement for local matching funds (including in-kind contributions) that the insular area would otherwise be required to provide for any non-competitive grant as follows:
• For a grant requiring matching funds (including in-kind contributions) of $500,000 or less, the entire matching requirement shall be waived;
• For a grant requiring matching funds (including in-kind contributions) of more than $500,000, $500,000 of the matching requirement shall be waived.
Faleomavaega says the current amount waived— $200,000— has not changed since 1983 when the Congress decided to increase it from $100,000 to $200,000.
“It is very unfortunate that the amount waived has not been increased even with inflation and the higher cost-of-living in the U.S.,” he said. ”Thirty years later, our U.S. territories continue to struggle to provide for their residents given the global recession that affected all of us within the past ten years.”
While the language for this section may need to be revised, the intent of the language is to restore fishery endorsements to U.S. tuna boats that are 100% U.S. built, 100% U.S. owned, and that offload the majority of their fish in American Samoa,” he said.
“We have some tuna boats that meet the above criteria but which have lost their fishery endorsement because they were repaired in a foreign shipyard meaning these boats are no longer permitted to fish in the U.S. EEZs in the South Pacific Tuna Treaty Area,” said Faleomavaega in his prepared remarks.
“This language corrects this problem and allows these vessels to fish where all other 100% U.S. built tuna boats are allowed to fish,” he said, adding that this fix is critical to the economy because these boats supply the majority of their fish to American Samoa’s canneries.
“I might also add that the original law which required that U.S. boats to be repaired in U.S. shipyards if they want to retain their fishery endorsement has been in force since 1956 to protect the U.S. steel industry. I believe the law is somewhat antiquated,” he said.
More in Monday’s edition from the congressional hearing dealing with testimony by an official with the U.S. Department of Interior.