Legislature set to vote on fiscal year 2021 budget

Guam Legislature seal (PNC file photo)

After working through the weekend, lawmakers yesterday voted to adopt the amendments passed in committee on Bill 282-35 — the fiscal year 2021 budget bill.

The Committee on General Government Operations, Appropriations, and Housing, chaired by Sen. Joe S. San Agustin, has been racing against time to come up with a budget bill before the deadline of Aug. 31, 2020, which falls today.

This year’s budget session has been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the legislature to conduct its hearings online after legislative staffers tested positive for the virus.

The budget sessions had also been mired by different interpretations, estimates, and analysis of  GovGuam’s revenue coming from Adelup and the Legislature’s Office of Finance and Budget.

Moreover, the budget sessions were delayed by the need to discuss and vote on the cancelation of the primary election as well as what some senators said was the lack of attendance and cooperation from some administration officials.

But all that is done now as all 15 senators voted unanimously to report the fiscal year 2021 budget bill out of committee, as amended, and present it to the Committee of the Whole tonight for its recommendation.

The senators are really cutting it close as the time for voting has been set for 9:30 pm tonight, less than three hours before the midnight deadline.

Joseph Mesngon, San Agustin’s chief policy analyst, tells PNC that the late voting is necessary to allow for full engrossment of the bill and to ensure accuracy.

Among the amendments during the weekend session was one sponsored by Minority Leader Telo Taitague which prohibits Adelup from using unappropriated FY 2020 and FY 2021 excess revenues without an appropriation by the legislature. The amendment was passed with 13 other senators supporting Taitague’s amendment.

“At the end of the day, enough senators believed that the power of appropriation shouldn’t be shifted to another branch of government – doing so would be contrary to our separation of powers doctrine. Senators should never be willing to concede this important role to the executive branch thereby ignoring our system of checks and balances,” Taitague said.

Combat illegal dumping

Senator Régine Biscoe Lee also successfully led an effort to give more money to combat illegal dumping in the villages, with all senators approving a motion to increase the allocation to the Mayors Council of Guam (MCOG) from the Recycling Revolving Fund (RRF).

The MCOG is now guaranteed to receive $1.4 million for waste removal projects and services in the island’s 19 municipalities. It is a $400,000 (or 44 percent) increase, compared to the initial spending plan initiated by the Government of Guam.

The adopted amendment also includes accountability measures, by requiring approval from the Guam Environmental Protection Agency (GEPA) board of directors before the MCOG begins spending RRF funds in the next fiscal year.

“There has been a lot of contention when it comes to the Recycling Revolving Fund but all of my colleagues agreed to direct more money to our villages — the front lines of the fight against illegal dumping,” the senator said.

Lee was referring to an earlier disagreement among lawmakers over the transfer of $500,000 from the RRF to the University of Guam to fund the Guam Green Growth (G3) Initiative.

Senator Sabina Perez, on Friday, introduced an amendment that would have protected the RRF, but it was defeated by a vote of 7-8.

“I am deeply saddened that the RRF is now being raided in direct violation of the law. Without a public hearing, $500,000 is being removed from the RRF and given to UOG without a formal budget submission and without board oversight and accountability,” Perez said last Friday.

But with today’s amendment, Lee said this year’s RRF surplus and Fiscal Year 2021 allocation were enough to give more to the mayors, continue funding GEPA efforts, and fund the Guam Green Growth (G3) Initiative.

Guam Cancer Trust Fund

Outgoing Sen. Louise Borja Muña, on Saturday, also successfully provided funding to the Guam Cancer Trust Fund.

Muña introduced an amendment that would take any excess revenues in the amount of $1,600,000 to the Guam Cancer Trust Fund (GCTF).

“The Guam Cancer Trust Fund has never been given its full appropriation as mandated by law. All I’ve ever tried to do was ensure that there was at least enough funding for the cancer patients on our island,” Senator Muña said.

After an earlier attempt to fund the GCTF using lapsed funding failed, Muña said she introduced her amendment as a last-ditch effort.

“This is my last term as senator for now and I want to make sure that our cancer patients were taken care of. Without this funding, the Guam Cancer Trust Fund may need to close down,” the senator said.

Muña’s amendment passed unanimously.