Battle over LBJ budget cut short by Senate leaders

ASG Treasury Department will be drawing down LBJ Medical Center’s annual grant from Interior Department, making the funds eligible as local revenue to be used as matching funds for Medicaid programs and thereby increasing to more than $13 million the territorial government’s subsidy to the hospital for the new fiscal year.

 

This new information was revealed at yesterday’s Fono joint budget committee hearing for the hospital’s FY 2014 budget of $52.57 million — which was the amount of the original submission by the governor. The hospital had provided early this week a revised proposal of $57.9 million, but that was not considered as “official” by the Fono since it was not part of the entire ASG budget document signed by Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga.

 

Appearing before the joint budget hearing were hospital CEO Joseph Davis-Fleming, board interim chairman Mase Akapo and board member Velega Savali Jr., who informed the committee that LBJ was presenting its $52.57 million budget.

 

Sen. Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono, who was the first to address the joint hearing, said the hospital has presented its budget, using the $52.57 million total and asked lawmakers to give this budget to the new LBJ board and administration to work with — although it's not enough — and moved to dismiss the witnesses. His parting words for the hospital were — don’t fight among each other, but serve the people of the territory.

 

Other lawmakers seconded the motion but Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee chairman Sen. Laolagi F.S. Vaeao said a budget item requires an explanation as to why LBJ’s proposal shows the ASG subsidy of $13.9 million while the government — under the Special Program budget category — shows only $6 million.

 

Samoa News should point out that the budget documents show the DOI allocation for LBJ is $7.9 million and this money over the years has gone directly to the hospital. However, more than two months ago, Lolo announced in a cabinet meeting that a request was being sent to DOI to allow all DOI grants — including money for LBJ — to come to the ASG Treasurer who will then distribute the allocation for the hospital.

 

“... co-mingling all local [revenue] with DOI funds will help us solve that problem with the Medicaid matching funds,” Lolo told directors.

 

At yesterday’s budget hearing, Mase said the board had requested and was granted approval to have all DOI grants be drawn down by the ASG Treasurer, who then transferred the money to LBJ. He said this would allow more local revenues to be used as matching funds for Medicaid. Mase says the ASG subsidy listed in the budget includes annual DOI allocations.

 

(What was not made clear by the board — and no one was able to ask — was the question: Is there a tacit agreement between LBJ, ASG, DOI, and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare about the DOI subsidy being used as a match for Medicaid money, as it would now be co-mingled with local funds? The Centers have stated the matching funds for Medicaid must be from local funds, not federal or grant funds.)

 

Laolagi then moved to honor the motion to dismiss the witnesses and accept the budget presented to the Fono. However, he allowed an issue that was raised by Sen. Magalei Logovi’i, who pointed out that under the law, fuel excise tax revenues cannot be used to pay personnel costs.

 

LBJ projects to receive $439,000 from the fuel tax, but Magalei says $236,000 is going to payroll costs. He said the law is clear in that this money is only to pay for supplies and equipment. Magalei said he has a copy of the law and told the board to revisit the law to ensure compliance.

 

Rep. Talia Fa’afetai Iaulualo called on the board and management to revisit the law dealing with the 2% wage tax, which is to go to hospital operations after the $3 million loan from the Workmen’s Compensation Account is paid off.

 

He said the law calls for 1% of revenues collected to be allocated for the off-island medical referral program — but the FY 2014 budget proposal fails to provide any money for the referral program. He said this issue should be addressed by the hospital.

 

According to the budget document, LBJ is projecting $3.5 million to be collected from the wage tax.

 

After Talia’s statement, Laolagi quickly moved to honor the pending motion to end the hearing and dismiss the witnesses. He put the motion to a vote and announced that the majority agreed but there were still lawmakers who raised their hands wanting to ask questions.

 

Laolagi said that the parliamentarian way of conducting business is that the majority rules, and the witnesses bid their farewells.

 

Once the witnesses left the Senate chamber, the committee remained, as there were still some lawmakers disappointed that they were not given the chance to ask questions.

 

Rep. Fetu Fetui Jr. said that the budgeting hearings are winding down but the co-chairs of the joint budget hearings (Laolagi and House Budget and Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Timusa Tini Lam Yuen) have now decided to use parliamentary protocol — which was not used during hearings for other departments and agencies.

 

Fetui said that he and other lawmakers have questions, but no answers.

 

His remarks were echoed by Rep. Florence Vaili Saulo, who pointed out that she has five pages of questions and issues that she felt needed further clarification and reply from the hospital. She says she worked all night, the evening before, in putting together these issues but now she has no chance to ask about them.

 

Laolagi responded that over the last three weeks of committee hearings he and Timusa have respected everyone’s request to ask questions and everyone was given the chance to ask, despite the fact that several motions to dismiss the witnesses were introduced.

 

He said that if the hearings are conducted in the appropriate manner — the parliamentary way — once a motion is introduced and seconded by another lawmaker, the next move is to put that motion to a vote, and the majority wins.

 

If the majority says to continue the hearing, then the hearing will continue, but in this case with LBJ, the majority ruled to end the hearing, said Laolagi. However, Saulo wanted to know exactly how many lawmakers were considered 'a majority' to end the LBJ budget hearing and Laolagi said the majority of hands raised.

 

Sen. Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono, whose tone of voice was not pleasant, interjected and told House members to show some respect in the Senate chamber. He said that throughout the three weeks of hearings, there were more House members wanting to ask more questions despite the majority agreeing to end the hearing after receiving clear and solid responses from witnesses.

 

If this is an example of future budget hearings, Soliai said, then he would request the Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie — who was present — not to hold any more joint budget hearings. Soliai repeated this statement twice.

 

By this time, many Fono staffers made their way into the Senate gallery after hearing Soliai’s voice boom through the Fono corridors. Some staffers were sitting on the stairway into the Senate gallery when Soliai again told House members to show some respect.

 

“This is the Senate, whose members are traditional ranking leaders,” said Soliai and noted that Laolagi is also a ranking traditional leader from Manu’a.

 

Laolagi reiterated that he and Timusa continue to maintain respect for all lawmakers and they were given the chance to speak during the three weeks of budget hearings.

 

Speaking on behalf of his co-chair, Laolagi apologized to all members of the Fono and asked forgiveness for any wrong that was committed during the three weeks of budget hearings.

 

Gaotetoe told lawmakers that the statement by Soliai was advice and words of wisdom from a father figure to everyone in the chamber. He went on to point out that when the time is over for a hearing, then it ends there. He asked the joint committee to continue their work to finalize the ASG budget.

 

(Samoa News should point out, while it reports on issues discussed during the Fono sessions and hearings in English, that is not the original language used. It is English translated from Samoan, and sometimes nuances are lost.)

 

This morning the Department of Public Safety appears before the joint committee.

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