Fono agrees to a full year budget minus the $6.8 MIL
The Fono Joint Budget Committee has made new changes to American Samoa Government’s fiscal year 2013 budget, reversing last week’s decision to approve only four months to cover the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2012.
Following a debate and review for about one hour yesterday, the majority of the joint committee members approved a 12-month budget, but reduced local revenues by $6.8 million, which is the so called un-pledged interest of the American Samoa Government’s share of the tobacco settlement money.
The joint committee as well as the Fono leaders have given the task to House and Budget Appropriations Committee chairman Vailiuama Steve Leasiolagi and Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee chairman Lemanu Peleti Mauga to cut from locally funded departments, offices and special programs the $6.8 million needed to reduce the budget.
The chairmen will work on the final changes and submit them at the appropriate time, which is when the joint committee will convene for a final vote.
House Speaker Savali Talavou Ale suggested all departments, offices, agencies and special programs affected by the cut be restored in a separate supplemental appropriation.
When the joint committee met last week and approved only a four month budget, the Fono leaders were not present and the news media, along with any member of the public, were told to leave the Senate gallery. Yesterday’s debate was open to everyone.
The Fono leaders commended the joint committee for their diligent work but pointed out that the current legislative sessions should endorse the entire 12-month budget with any required changes instead of the new legislature next year taking up this task again.
This was also supported by Sen. Galeai Tu’ufuli who pointed out the current session should not leave it for someone else to finish work that was tasked to the current session. Another supporter of approving a 12-month budget was Sen. Lualemaga Faoa who stressed to lawmakers the need to make a final decision by the current legislative session, adding that if the Fono wants to make necessary changes to do so, before final approval of the budget language.
There was a motion presented to the floor to dissolve the original approval of four months, and for the joint committee to discuss the whole issue again, since the Fono leaders were not present last Thursday. The majority agreed and the four-month budget plan was dissolved while the discussion turned to focus on a 12-month budget.
Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie said it was clear from the eight days of budget hearings that there are concerns among lawmakers regarding ASG revenue projections for the new fiscal year — if forecasts would be met at all.
One of those concerns deals with the $6.8 million in tobacco settlement funds, and up to now there is still no financial report submitted to the Fono about this entire matter, Gaoteote said, who added that as far as some lawmakers are concerned, this money does not exist at this point.
He suggested taking this amount off the local funds, and once there is proof that this money is actually available then a supplemental budget can be done.
Sen. Velega Savali Jr. said the committee was confused at times on ASG revenues, due to ASG themselves and their testimonies. For example, ASG Budget and Planning Office director Malemo Tausaga had testified that this money, held by Interior Department, is available to American Samoa.
However, Velega said Attorney General Fepuleai A. Ripley Jr. testified that this money is to pay ASG’s loan from the federal government. He said Speaker Savali said he would be surprised if the governor put this funding in the budget if the governor knows that there is no money.
Savali said he believes that this is solid ASG funding and reiterated that if the final decision is to take this amount out of local revenues, to have a supplemental submitted at the same time to restore funds for other departments and agencies that will be faced with the cuts in their budgets from the final language of the FY 2013 budget.
Sen. Paogofie Fiaigoa insisted the Fono approve the entire budget as submitted by the governor without making any changes. He then introduced a verbal motion to approve the entire budget as is, but the majority agreed to taking the $6.8 million out of local revenues, projected in 2013 at $77.30 million.