FY2019 Budget bill goes through final reading today
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — During each of their sessions last Friday, both the Senate and House approved in second reading their respective versions of the American Samoa Government’s fiscal year 2019 budget totaling $439.58 million, with no changes made.
The budget goes through third and final reading today in both Chambers followed by the usual process of the Senate and House approving each other’s versions, with one final version submitted to the governor for review and approval.
Last Friday’s approval in both chambers came after the Fono Joint Budget Committee completed the final budget review process earlier in the day.
Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee chairman, Sen. Magalei Logovi’i, who is the joint budget committee co-chair, suggested one change for consideration, that wouldn’t alter the total budget amount.
Under the Governor’s Special Programs, $100,000 is earmarked for Hope House, a non-denominational hospice care facility, the only one of its kind in American Samoa, operated by the Diocese of Samoa Pago Pago.
When Attorney General, Talauega Eleasalo V. Ale appeared for his department’s FY 2019 budget review last month, Magalei asked about the appropriateness of the government allocating funds to Hope House, which is affiliated with a church faith. Magalei requested a legal opinion from the AG on this important issue, which deals with the separation of church and government.
Magalei told the joint committee last Friday, there is still no opinion from the AG and reiterated his concerns over the separation of church and government. He also reiterated his support of Hope House’s work but he wants to protect the government from any issues impacting it in the future due to this specific allocation as a stand-alone budget item.
He suggested moving the Hope House allocation to the Governor’s Contingency Fund, so this allocation is not specified in the final budget document. There was support echoed by other lawmakers.
However, Sen. Fai’ivae Iuli Godinet disagreed saying that it should be left in the budget document ‘as is’ and that Hope House is not a religious organization — the facility cares for the elderly and the disabled from all different religious faiths on island. He did acknowledge that it’s operated by the Diocese of Samoa Pago Pago, but the facility is funded with public support from all walks of life.
House Speaker Savali Talavou Ale said that perhaps this was the reason it was submitted as an budget item on its own as Hope House, because the funding is not for a specific religious faith. He suggested keeping the budget item as is.
Magalei reiterated his concern that the Hope House is affiliated with a religion and he wants to protect the government.
After briefs remarks from Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie, who also suggested leaving the budget item as is, the committee agreed as well.
The final budget reviews before the joint budget committee gave its full support of the ASG’s FY 2019 proposed financial plan were the American Samoa Visitors Bureau, Special Programs and the Legislature — they were all approved.
During the Senate session last Friday, the Senate Retirement Committee presented an official committee report in which it rejected the House version of the Administration bill seeking to raise the local investment rate from 17.5% to 35% for the ASG Employees' Retirement Fund.
A Senate communication will be submitted to the House this week regarding the Senate committee’s action, which was taken last Thursday. (See last Friday’s Samoa News edition for details.)
It was also during the session that the Senate approved an amendment the House made to a Senate bill to include “elected officials” in drug testing of all ASG employees. The House will be informed by communication that the Senate has approved the amendment, which the Senate had removed from the bill’s original language last month.
The bill — which has garnered a lot of public support — would allow ASG, including semi-autonomous agencies, to provide for appropriate and uniform alcohol and drug testing procedures for all government employees, applicants for ASG employment, political appointees, elected officials, contractors, and subcontractors.
The legislation, now being registered in the Fono journal, will be sent to the governor for his review and consideration. It remains unclear as to Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga’s final decision on the bill although the governor has been a strong advocate for curbing the spread of illegal drugs throughout the territory.