Governor outlines a ‘promising’ first few months in office

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Despite the success of the U.S. territories' response to COVID-19, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said they have been included in a High-Level Risk list rather than used as examples for states to follow. (PNC file photo)

Guam – “The state of our island is what I am able to affirm today and it is this – we are here now and the state of our island is promising,”  Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said, earning her the second applause of the night.

The word “promising” would be the prevailing theme of the Governor’s first State of the Island report card, which highlighted  priority areas such as health, education, the economy, and public safety.

Leon Guerrero started the report recognizing the fiscal discipline team the administration assembled  “to reignite fiscal responsibility and fairness” in the tax collection process. The team, according to the governor, has already began a full assessment of public assets liabilities revenues and operational expenses and focused on collecting current taxes owed to GovGuam.

Leon Guerrero said she has made good on her campaign promise to monitor the government’s cash flow on a regular basis. She said that recent reports signal a promising financial outlook for the government.

The governor also reported on the following in her first state of the island  address:

Tax refunds

Leon Guerrero said the government continues to closely monitor fluctuation in the area of income tax which has been impacted by the changes brought on by the federal tax cuts under the Jobs Act of 2017. She said the government has already paid out nearly $5 million in tax refunds.

Rainy day fund

The administration revived the dormant rainy day fund. For the FY2020 budget, 2 percent of general fund revenues will be set aside for this fund. Deposits into the fund would build up a cash reserve for unplanned and unforeseen events. The reserve will also improve the government’s credit and bond ratings for future financing of capital and infrastructure improvements, according to the governor.

Unfunded federal mandates

These mandates include the Compacts of Free Association Act,  Earned Income Tax Credit, and Medicaid benefits. According to the governor, COFA impact costs incurred from 2004-2018 reached $1.4 billion. Guam’s reimbursement claims have been partially rejected because the federal government said calculations do not meet the standards set by the U.S.General Accountability Office. Leon Guerrero said the government is working with the governor of Hawaii for a accurate and universal formula to calculate the costs.

On Medicaid, she said “We stand to lose $61 million of these Medicaid funds that expire in September of this year .I am working closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to not only extend this deadline but also to have Guam be treated equitably with regard to its calculation.”

Public safety

The administration plans to put more police officers in the streets and neighborhoods. The Guam Police Department is recruiting 30 additional officer trainees for the next cycle. GPD anticipate the new hires at the end of the month. The FY2020 budget proposal provides an additional $3 million to hire more police officers. The executive budget also appropriates funds for a prisoners commissary to cut down instances of smuggling contraband into the Department of Corrections.

The administration said the Guam Customs and Quarantine Agency is also training around 29 trainees. In FY2020, they have also committed around $1.2 million to recruit 50 new customs officers. Leon Guerrero also reported two  projects that would enhance the delivery of public safety services – the opening of the new Central Police Precinct in Sinajana and the construction of the DNA crime lab at the Guam Community College.

Cannabis

The Department of Public Health and Social Services has established the medical cannabis regulation commission and appointed 8 of its 11 members. Once full, the commission is tasked with ensuring the best and safest way to enable patients to use medical cannabis to provide relief from very debilitating medical conditions, according to the governor.

Governor clarified that her decision to sign Bill 32-35, the bill that legalized adult-use cannabis, was based on the best interests of the island. “My administration is dedicated to fulfilling all the requirements needed to regulate the cannabis industry and to ensuring that laws surrounding the safe adult consumption of cannabis remains current and relevant for our island, she said.

Health

In the early days of the administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services granted the hospital’s request for a rebase adjustment, according to Leon Guerrero. This means Medicare reimbursements to GMH will almost double, infusing over $6 million more annually into the hospital.

The Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center has reopened the  intensive inpatient detoxification unit as well as straightened the evidence-based drug and alcohol treatment programs that service hundreds of clients each year.

Airport and the port

Leon Guerrero also reported on the improvement projects at the Antonio B. Won Pat Guam International Airport such as the  construction of the international arrivals corridor as well as the separate air terminal for inter-island air service.

The Port Authority of Guam, according to the governor, is pursuing incentives to develop a fuel facility, identify a recycling enterprise zone location, build a cruise ship facility, and reprogram $7 million to address much-needed repairs.

Economic development

The Guam Economic Development Authority is renewing its mission to develop a sound and sustainable local economy through innovative programs that preserve and promote local culture economic opportunities and quality of life. GEDA will soon launch an agriculture accelerator program to get local produce in Guam’s public schools by 2020.

GEDA has finalized a QC community contribution grant program expected to start next fiscal year to award funds to local nonprofit organizations and government agencies in need of assistance.

Labor and workforce development

The Department of Labor reports that the island’s low 3.8 unemployment rate may drop even further with the increase in wage rates, according to the governor. She said the Guam registered apprenticeship program is also a win-win for both employers and employees. The program provides significant tax incentives and savings for employers while training their employees.

While the administration prioritizes building a vibrant and local workforce, supplemental foreign skilled labor continues to be instrumental to Guam’s economic growth. She said several contractors have been recently approved to bring in over 300 H-2B visa workers from the Philippines.

Transportation

The Guam Regional Transit Authority has already completed the specs for procurement of 10 new buses funded by the federal transportation administration, the governor reported. GRTA is also working on a new one-call one-click transportation management system that will greatly improve customer service and enable riders to make reservations, purchase bus passes online or by mobile application and view the bus schedule.

Agriculture and the environment

Leon Guerrero said the government needs to strengthen its legal capacity so that they can uphold statutes, such as the Endangered Species Act, in order to protect the environment and the island’s natural resources. The government is also looking at working with the Guam Energy Office in exploring more renewable energy sources.

The Department of Agriculture is also working with local farmers and fishermen to create sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and commercial fishery projects along with effective monitoring and conservation strategies. Later this month, the governor will also sign another executive order creating an aquaculture task force. She said she is optimistic that this industry will make Guam a regional hub for fresh farm seafood.

Education

The government has set aside $500,000 in the FY2020 budget for a school safety partnership program. Leon Guerrero also expressed commitment to finally moving forward with the renovation/construction of Simon Sanchez high school.

The Guam Community College will be offering a two-year associate of science degree in nursing beginning this fall. The University of Guam will start construction on its new School of Engineering this year. The facility will include laboratories for hydraulic soil and structure and environmental engineering.

Home ownership

Guam now has 1500 low to moderate income housing units built with federal tax credits, according to the governor. Last week, GHURA also approved the award of a contract to design a residential treatment center for women in Tiyan.

Guam Housing Corporation also provided around 30 families additional help towards purchasing their first home.  She said GHC is also helping veterans with their VA loans and providing mortgage loans to CLTC owners.

Decolonization

“There is so much promise for the state of our island but the complete realization of what the future holds for us cannot be achieved without first determining our own destiny,” Leon Guerrero said, adding,  “Although pending litigation prevents us from setting a date to hold a plebiscite, it will not deter us from moving forward on an education and outreach program.”

Veterans

The Guam Veterans Affairs Office is working in coordination with GHURA to identify land and federal requirements for building a brand-new Veterans Center for Guam. The GVAO  is also completing plans to expand the veterans cemetery and reviewing applications for Guamanian veterans to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, according to the governor.