Striving to regain the initiative after a year of mostly bad news from the pandemic, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero on Monday delivered her third state of the island address, focusing on the need to rebuild Guam and move forward toward a better future.
Stating that COVID-19 stole a year from her administration, the governor unveiled a series of new initiatives including local unemployment insurance for Guam, universal health care and internet service, and a new system of online business permitting that would help boost the economy and assist the island’s entrepreneurs.
While acknowledging that the federal unemployment assistance program benefited a lot during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor said it is about time that Guam has unemployment insurance of its own.
“With the right local law in place, I believe Guam can fund its own unemployment trust. We can do this by securing no interest federal loans—loans that can be offset entirely by the amount owed to us in Compact Impact debt. Congress recognized this in a 2003 federal law, and my Administration, together with the Department of Interior and our Delegate’s Office, will fight for its implementation. By achieving this goal, generations of workers will know that their basic livelihoods will be insured against acts of God, economic terror, or as we have experienced, a global pandemic,” Leon Guerrero said.
Before the year is over, the governor said her administration will pilot a system of online business permitting that will slash wait times, harmonize different agency requirements, end long lines, and decrease the uncertainty and permit lag time that slows and frustrates business growth.
Toward this end, the governor appointed former Governor Carl Gutierrez as the “permit czar”—a collateral duty to his role as GVB President and CEO.
“It is time we transform slow and outdated government bureaucracy through innovation and results. To the aspiring entrepreneurs and the investors seeking opportunity on Guam—maila halom! We are open for business!” the governor said.
To prop up tourism, the island’s main economic driver, the governor is proposing to use the proceeds from recreational marijuana to improve infrastructure in Tumon and fund an islandwide beautification campaign.
“I am recommending that the legislature commit the first 50 million dollars in proceeds from the legal sale of cannabis to end flooding in Tumon, invest in island beautification and cultural preservation, and repair village roads. I know that our tourism industry worries about our image with regard to cannabis. I hear your concerns, but the legal sale of cannabis will not define us. We must use the resources we have to shore up when times are hard, in order to be ready to compete against the world when times improve,” Leon Guerrero said.
Although there was no mention of a rollback of the business privilege tax, something that the business sector has been clamoring for, the governor did say that her administration cut small business taxes twice in the last term.
“Now 85% of taxpayers who file GRT—businesses making 250,000 dollars or less in gross annual income—pay a 3% Business Privilege Tax—not 5%. Senators, send me a bill that eliminates the sunset provision on these small business tax cuts, and I will sign it,” Leon Guerrero said.
In the coming year, the governor announced that the Guam Air National Guard, will establish the federally-recognized 254th Space Control Squadron. This new squadron will increase the size and strength of Guam’s Air Guard and provide high-tech training in space and cyber security-related fields.
“These skills will strengthen our national security and plant the seeds of a 21st century economy we can grow. Furthering that effort, 2021 will see the Guam Air National Guard establish STARBASE Guam, a federally funded civil military program that educates students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STARBASE Guam will provide hands-on, high-tech, real-life experiences to thousands of Guam’s elementary school students—lessons that will inspire new generations and expand their awareness of STEM careers,” Leon Guerrero said.
Following up on an initiative she announced a year ago, the governor said she will again ask lawmakers to work with her in enacting a universal system of healthcare regardless of a person’s ability to pay.
“I asked that we see healthcare not as a privilege of the fortunate, but as a human right deserved by all … Despite the clear link between the health of our people and the health of our economy, some of you will ask: How can we afford healthcare for all? To you, I ask in return: How can the generation that survived the devastation of COVID-19 say we cannot?” Leon Guerrero asked.
The governor pointed out that under current Guam law, the Healthcare Para Todu Act requires the establishment of a pilot program premised on Medicaid for all.
“While this program hinges on an experimental waiver granted by the Secretary of Health and Human Services and may require a new funding source, it is the law of the land … and if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that our economy is only as strong as our healthcare system,” Leon Guerrero said.
A shot in the arm
The governor acknowledged that federal dollars will play a major role in keeping Guam’s economy afloat. She said Guam will receive $661 million dollars from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan that just passed in the Senate over the weekend and has been sent to the House for reconsideration.
“I am confident that the president will sign it. This will allow us to put money into the hands of our people; put employees back to work; help small businesses and non-profit organizations, and build a new hospital. This package will also give my administration the flexibility to recover lost revenues and strengthen our ability to provide improved government services to our people,” Leon Guerrero said.
She added: “And a provision I have repeatedly advocated to Congress and the White House has been accepted—this stimulus bill contains language allowing Guam to be reimbursed 100 percent of our EITC costs, an expense that has haunted our budget for years. These stimulus dollars are a federal shot in the arm for our economy—strengthening it much like vaccines are making us stronger right now.”
In closing her SOTI address, the governor hinted at next year’s gubernatorial election, saying she “won’t play it safe” for political purposes or “do just enough to get me through the next election.”
“We have finished a difficult year. Now, the promise of a new Guam spreads out before us. We once mastered the navigation of the seas… We survived a world at war… We are the inheritors of an ancient land… We will build an economy that leaves no hardworking family behind… We will leave this land better than we found it,” the governor concluded.