A vote on citizenship by American Samoans part of pending federal legislation
A U.S. Department of Interior official has no objections to putting the U.S. citizenship issue to the voters to decide as recommended in federal legislation, that say a plebiscite will bring new discussions to land and title issues in American Samoa. A plebiscite is a vote by which the people of an entire country or district express an opinion for or against a proposal.
DOI Acting Assistant Secretary of Insular Areas, Eileen Sobeck along with Congressional members of the U.S. territories testified last Thursday before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Senate version of the Omnibus Territories Act of 2013, which has 20 sections covering a wide range of issues affecting the U.S. territories in the Pacific and Caribbean. (See Saturday’s edition for Congressman Faleomavaega Eni’s testimony.)
CITIZENSHIP PLEBISCITE ACT
Section 19 of the bill would require the Interior Department Secretary to direct the American Samoa Election Office to conduct a plebiscite on whether or not persons born in American Samoa desire United States citizenship. Faleomavaega provided this provision.
In her verbal testimony, Sobeck said DOI supports this provision of the bill. “It seems like an auspicious time to support finding out what the will of the people of American Samoa is with respect to citizenship,” she told the Senate committee.
In her written testimony, Sobeck provided for the committee brief background information on the territory’s relationship with the federal government and that the DOI has jurisdiction over American Samoa. Additionally, the territory adopted a constitution in 1960 and the “issue of citizenship versus status as a U.S. national was a key issue.”
“The Samoan leaders and people were concerned that U.S. citizenship could cause the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution to interfere with their communal land tenure system, chiefly or matai titles, and the viability of the Fono or Senate due to the selection of Senators from among persons with matai titles,” she explained.
“To protect and ensure continuation of fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way of life) Samoans chose to be U.S. nationals rather than citizens of the United States,” she said and noted that the U.S. National status of persons born in American Samoa was upheld last month by the federal court in Washington D.C. following a lawsuit filed by American Samoans.
Sobeck quoted a portion of the court’s decision: “To date, the Congress has not seen fit to bestow birthright citizenship on American Samoa, and in accordance with the law, this Court must and will respect that choice.”
She also told the committee that in the 50 years since the adoption of the original constitution of American Samoa, attitudes of many in the local population of American Samoa “may have shifted.”
“The plebiscite called for in section 19 will bring new discussion to these land, matai title and Senate issues,” she said. “These are issues for the American Samoa polity (an organized society) to discuss and decide.”
“Should the proposed vote in American Samoa favor citizenship, leaders in American Samoa would then approach the Secretary of the Interior and the Congress, to seek action on the issue,” she said.
ENERGY ASSISTANCE AND STUDY
Section 9 of the bill would provide that under the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Act of 1981 (LIHEAP) energy assistance would be 300% of the normal rate when applied to households located in the U.S. Virgin Islands in years 2014 through 2017.
Currently, the residential rate in the Virgin Islands is 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, with the commercial rate at 54 cents per kilowatt-hour, said Sobeck, in her prepared remarks.
Additionally these high Virgin Islands rates contrast significantly with rates elsewhere in the United States, which average 12.8 cents per KWH.
“Given the fact that electric rates in the Virgin Islands are five times that on the U.S. mainland, a LIHEAP payment of three times the mainland amount for a limited, four-year period of time would not be unreasonable,” she said.
In her verbal testimony, Sobeck told the committee “We are very sympathetic to the concerns that have been raised by Rep. [Donna] Christensen.” (Christensen, who sponsored this provision of the bill, is the Virgin Island delegate to the U.S. House.)
“We would note that in addition, the territories of Guam, CNMI and American Samoa are also paying significantly higher residential rate, than the rest of the United States,” she told the Senate panel. “And we would have no objections, to the enactment of similar provisions on a fair... basis, some sort of formula, that the committee devise for the other territories that they be included in this section as well.”
Christensen said she has no objections to the inclusion of the three Pacific territories in the measure.
In her written testimony, Sobeck said the residential rates are 24.5 cents per KWH on Guam, 32 cents per KWH in the CNMI, and 39 cents per KWH in American Samoa.
Sobeck is, however, opposed to another provision of the bill — Section 6 — entitled “Study of Electric Rates in the Insular Areas” and the language calls for an “energy action plan” for each territory and freely associated state (FAS) and implementation of those plans.
The legislative language is largely duplicative of section 604 of Public Law 96-597 (48 USC 1492), except that, the Secretary of the Interior would be responsible for the described energy effort, rather than the Secretary of Energy, she explained.
Currently, DOI’s Office of Insular Affairs is supporting broad renewable energy planning efforts through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) financed by DOI Technical Assistance Program, she said.
Additionally, the President’s 2014 budget for OIA includes funding for specific energy projects under Empowering Insular Communities to implement a number of the NREL recommendations.
LOCAL MATCHING FUNDS
Section 16 of the bill would amend provisions of federal law, which allow waivers of local matching requirements for federal grants for U.S. territories, to require the waiver to be for all matches of $500,000 or less. The original waiver provision gives all federal agencies authority to waive local matching requirements of $200,000 or less.
Generally the law has been interpreted not to apply to discretionary grants, because a granting agency could decide, at its discretion, to forgo making the grant if a territory were to insist on the waiver of the match, said Sobeck, and noted that such an eventuality would harm the territories.
“Considering that more than 30 years have passed since the $200,000 waiver was established, the increase to $500,000 would seem appropriate and consistent with inflation over time,” according to the official, who also says that DOI has no objection to the enactment of section 16 with regard to grants from DOI, but expressed no view with regard to waiver changes for other federal agencies.
Sobeck’s testimony, including audio and testimony from Faleomavaega and other witnesses can be found on the committee’s website at www.senate.gov.