Senate prez calls for raising lawmakers annual salaries

Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie says the Fono, which is a separate branch of government, needs a higher budget than in past years for its operations and he believes there should be an increase in the annual salaries of lawmakers.

 

Gaoteote’s comments were made at yesterday’s joint budget committee hearing on the Fono’s $6.7 million budget. At the outset of the very brief hearing, Sen. Magalei Logovi’i said he had thoroughly reviewed the budget proposal and found it to be the same as the current fiscal year with the same amount of $6.7 million.

 

He moved to forgo any testimonies from Fono leaders and also moved for the joint committee hearing to come to an end for the day. Sen. Nua Saoluaga agreed but suggested if there is any other add on to increase allowances for lawmakers that should also be included in the budget, since the cost of living has gone up. He seconded the motion to end the hearing.

 

Gaoteote says the Fono is one of the three branches of government and should not be treated as a department or entity. He says there is a lot of work involved with the Legislature, which is the law making branch of government but every year there there is a budget ceiling given to the Fono to comply with.

 

He says every year, the Fono requests more than $6.7 million — for example, it had requested in the past $7.1 million or more to fully cover all expenses involved in the many aspects of the Fono, such as personnel, pay for lawmakers and their allowances, utilities and other important matters.

 

The Senate president also pointed out that lawmakers are missing out on a lot of important off-island meetings and conferences due to the lack of a sufficient travel budget. (The Fono’s travel budget for FY 2014 totals $178,000 compared to $270,000 for the current fiscal year while actual travel cost for FY 2012 was  $369,201)

 

Gaoteote says that every year when it's times to debate the Fono’s budget it becomes a “very sensitive” issue for lawmakers who won’t suggest adding more funds to operate the Fono. He also says that maybe the Fono needs to handle its own finances — instead of the current procedure of Fono money being handled by the Treasury Department.

 

If the Fono budget was allocated sufficient funds annually, there would be no need for any supplemental, and the Fono cannot continue this trend of having to depend on a supplemental appropriation to continue its operations, he says.

 

During the tenure of then Senate President Lolo Matalasi Moliga, he too argued the Fono deserves to get a higher budget for its operations than what was dictated at the time by the executive branch. Lolo told Samoa News at the time that unless there are sufficient funds, the Fono will always encounter a budget deficit, or be in the red, at the end of every fiscal year.

 

Lolo at one time proposed a budget of $7.5 million but that was reduced by the executive branch when the final budget was sent to the Fono for review and approval.

 

During yesterday’s budget hearing, Gaoteote said that he believes lawmakers should get a pay hike, adding that this pay increase is for future generations. He said if a right thing needs to be done, then it should be done and if not, then don’t.

 

Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee chairman Laolagi F.S. Vaeao informed lawmakers that he, along with the House Budget and Appropriations Committee chair Timusa Tini Lam Yuen, will work together with the Legislative Finance Office on budget figures and other issues with the Fono’s budget to be take up again today for more discussions by the joint committee.

 

Laolagi and Timusa will also consult the Fono leaders on their thoughts on the final budget for the Fono.

 

BACKGROUND

 

Salaries and allowances for lawmakers are set by law with the current salary at $25,000 for each member of the House and Senate while it’s $30,000 annually for the Senate President and House Speaker.  Salary for the Swains Island delegate is $20,000.

 

The law states that no Legislature may raise its own compensation, but a Legislature may raise the compensation of succeeding Legislatures. For example, the current 33rd Legislature cannot raise their own salaries, but it can do for the next Legislature.

 

However, the current Legislature can increase lawmakers allowances, which defrays expenses relating to or resulting from the discharge of their official duties. An accounting of the expenditures incurred by the member is not required. Unless the member so elects, the allowance  is not income and the member is not required to report the amount of the allowance as income for tax purposes.

 

Lawmakers current allowances gives each lawmaker $30,000 annually while the Senate President and House Speaker each receives $40,000.

 

The last time salaries were raised was based on a 1996 law, while the allowance were last increased thru a 2005 law.

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