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Op-Ed: An Open letter to the Fono

First I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the Senate for the leadership and wisdom shown in its decision to return the two administration bills to sender. In my opinion it was the right decision and I thank you.

If I may, let me dedicate the balance of this letter to the House of Representatives decision to throw a life jacket to the $10 million loan bill. 

The House invited the private sector to testify on the governor’s aforementioned bill, and the private sector has spoken and convincingly stated their case against the bill. The House also invited the treasurer to testify on the same bill, and his admission that ASG was having difficulties meeting the $20 million loan payments via excise taxes (as reported by the media) unequivocally confirms the private sector’s testimony (that ASG’s projections for the proposed bill will fall short).  

If passed, the burden on ASG to make payments on the two loans would be too much,  that the integrity of the ASG employees’ retirement fund to meet its obligations to its customers might be threatened. It appears the treasurer is concerned about this and he should be; he is a fiduciary officer of the ASG employees’ pension fund.

The midstream adjustment of the $10 million loan bill to eliminate the 4% wage tax, the lame justification of the $2000 corporation franchise fee by the governor’s legal advisor, and the treasurer’s aforementioned confirmation of the excise tax shortfall suggest that the bill was rushed to meet a deadline, therefore it wasn’t well-thought out.  

But not to worry, the administration has a loyal ally in the House of Representatives, which has been supportive of sitting administrations over the years. In this instance, the House is keeping the bill alive by making amendments to the bill. To their credit, the house-amended version appears more sensible than the original administration bill. But several important questions remain unanswered that the House needs to address.

First, if the House version is passed and becomes law, where does the next round of funding come from once the $2.4 million is spent? Is the House proposing their version of the bill to be a permanent fix (annual loans from the retirement plan)?  Or is the house-amended bill a short term fix designed with the forthcoming elections in mind — that is, to attract votes — then it’s back to business as usual until the next round of elections? Why is the proposed loan to be deposited in the ASG general fund? Is the off-island care program being transferred to the governor’s office? If so why? Isn’t it high time to discuss the all too important question of free health care and address if the public should start contributing into the off-island care program? 

We have gone on without the off-island care program for some time now, and some have grown to accept life without it. During this time, many have or had suffered and many have passed on.

I surmise that if their silent voices could be heard (including those of the spirits), it would be for government leaders to find a sustainable, permanent, and fair program where a blue collar worker has as good a chance of getting referred for off-island care, as the granddaughter of an ASG cabinet member; or have none at all.

A leader of the House was overheard sharing with his cohorts “…that it may be difficult for the head of the camel to get through, but once in, the rest of the body would slide into the tent in no time and with ease”. He was referring to the difficulty for businesses and people to pay the proposed taxes and fees in the beginning, but they will get used to it after awhile. The governor echoed the same sentiments when his bills were first introduced, and repeated them during his radio program last Saturday. 

With our leaders prescribing to the “camel and tent” policy, it’s no wonder the territory is still wandering in the desert in terms of development!  

By consigning to such policy without regard to the welfare of the people, members of the House are risking their return to the Fono next year. Assuming that their constituents would vote them in no matter how they vote on this bill, is assuming their constituents are idiots. Maybe they assume right, then maybe they are wrong.  

(I suspect the reason they eliminated the 4% wage tax is because of the upcoming elections, and the subsequent reduction in business fees and excise taxes to fund the bill allows ‘the head of the camel to get in’.)

Senator Dr. Fuata in his remarks during the Senate deliberations on the bill expounded that the off-island care program was a long term issue and one too important to be given a few days to address and resolve. The Senator and HTC Velega emphatically queried why the sudden strong interest in the off-island care program now when the program laid dormant over the years, while the people needing off-island attention were neglected. 

To compound the issue, the funding measures being proposed were suspect in terms of projections, the immense burden it would have on wage earners and their families, and the negative impact it would impose on the development of the private sector during this tough economic period.  

At the end, the Senate did the right thing and killed the two administration bills as proposed.  

Thus, I make a plea to the House of Representatives to follow the wisdom of the Senate and take the time necessary to address and resolve the off-island care issue properly, permanently, and fairly. 

Your constituents expect and deserve at least that much from you, nothing less.