Fono review of FY2018 budget begins today

fili@samoanews.com

The Fono’s review of the government’s proposed $395.26 million budget for the new fiscal year 2018 begins today and it will be a joint hearing of both the Senate and House committees on Budget and Appropriations, held at the Senate’s current chambers — the fale Samoa next to the site of the old Fono building that was torn down two weeks ago.

Based on the Fono’s schedule, budget hearings begin at 9:30a.m, starting today with the usual overall testimonies from ASG Treasurer Uelinitone Tonumaipe’a and Budget and Planning Office director, Catherine Aigamaua Saelua on the proposed budget. Among the issues covered are revenue projections and collections — and the Senate has already requested several financial reports.

Thereafter, Tonumaipea and Saelua will be questioned by the joint committee about the budgets for the Treasury Department and Budget Office.

All afternoon budget hearings start at 1p.m., and for today, it’s the Governor’s Office, or Executive Office, with the final day of budget hearings, on Sept. 15th for the Legislature. Any changes made to hearings for any ASG entities will be amended during the 8 days of the FY 2018 budget review.

While the schedule for budget hearings shows that each chamber’s regular session will begin at 8:30a.m., Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie informed senators yesterday that the Senate session will begin at 9a.m. while budget hearings are ongoing.

He said this would allow any committee hearings on other pending bills to be carried out at 8a.m. He also encouraged committees with any bills to use this time for hearings.

With budget hearings set, the Fono has again informed the Governor’s Office per norm that only the director of an agency or office, and the CEO or president of an authority can testify during budget hearings.

At last week’s emergency cabinet meeting, Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga again emphasized the policy of personal appearance by the director, not the deputy or anyone else, at the budget hearings.

He also warned the directors that they should know their budgets inside out so they can respond intelligently to any question that is asked. The governor encouraged cabinet directors to be forthright in their responses to questions and to tell the truth.

“Don’t try to evade the questions,” he said.

OTHER ISSUES

In the Senate, two bills have been approved in third and final reading, including one of the Administration’s revenue measures, which gradually updates the local individual income tax table to mirror the US Internal Revenue Service tax code.

This bill, which was unanimously approved yesterday, would update the income tax table for standard deductions and dependent exemptions. American Samoa has used the year 2000 tax table for these deductions since 2001.

The Administration updates the local tax table starting in tax year 2018, by adopting the IRS tax table for standard deductions and dependent exemptions for the year 2004. By tax year 2022, the local income tax table will mirror the 2022 IRS tax table.

Last Thursday, senators also unanimously approved a bill, sponsored by Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie, which mandates a minimum five-year imprisonment for those convicted of delivering, dispensing, distributing, possession with intent to deliver, dispense or distribute, produce or manufacture a controlled substance.

Both bills now go to the House for their consideration. The House has its own identical version of the Administration bill amending the individual tax table, pending in committee.

In the House last Wednesday, the House Election Committee opted to table a Senate bill, which seeks to clarify the distance a candidate’s campaign tent should be located from the official polling station on Election Day, because it’s not clearly set by law. The bill, sponsored by three senators, sets the area as  “200 yards or 600 feet” from the polling station.

One major issue that became the focus of many questions from lawmakers during the House committee hearing is how the proposed law would be enforced when there are several villages on island, where homes are so close to each other.

Rep. Vailiuama Steve Leasiolagi said that if the bill is enacted into law, there would be serious issues within his village of Fagatogo, where it’s very narrow and homes and businesses are so close to each other, leaving no room for the required 200 yards.

House Vice Speaker Fetu Fetui Jr., also pointed out that the usual polling station on Tutuila for Ta’u residents is a church hall in Tafuna, which sits on a small compound, surrounded by bushes. And if this measure is approved that means a candidate’s tent would end up either being set up in the bushes or inside the church facility.

In the end, committee members agreed to table the bill at this time, while it sought more information including input from senators who sponsored the bill as to the reason behind the proposed change.

During a Senate committee hearing on July 21st, one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Magalei Logovi’i said the reason for the proposed change is to prevent problems like those that were reported during the 2016 general election from villages including Fagatogo, Leone, and his own village of Faleniu — where there were concerns regarding campaign tents being so close to the polling station.

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