Senators override veto; Governor warns of ‘clear and present danger’, will seek amendments

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The Legislature on Tuesday overrode Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s veto of Substitute Bill No. 282-35 (LS) — the fiscal year 2021 budget.

The vote was almost unanimous with only two — Speaker Tina Muna-Barnes and Sen. Regine Biscoe-Lee — voting against the override. Vice Speaker Telena Nelson was excused.

Before the vote, there was reportedly a lot of lobbying being done by Adelup to gain the required 10 votes for the veto.

Substitute Bill No. 282-35 (LS) — which did not carry the governor’s additional $7 million budget request — was passed last Aug. 31 by a wide vote of 13 to 2. The two senators who voted “no” were Democrat senator Regine Biscoe-Lee and Republican Sen. James Moylan.

Yesterday, however, the governor’s alternative budget bill, Bill No. 1-3 (S) — which did contain the governor’s additional $7 million budget request — was voted down by a narrower margin of 8 to 6.

This led to speculations that today’s override vote may not muster the required number of votes. Override votes don’t just require a majority, but two-thirds of the total vote or 10 votes all in all.

During the voting, however, it was clear that the override would win. In the first round of voting alone, there were already 10 votes favoring the override.

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‘Clear and present danger’

The governor, responding to the override of her veto, said the budget law now represents “a clear and present danger” to some of the most basic services at Public Health.

“It will force us to cut services for our elderly, our foster kids, vulnerable adults, and our COVID surveillance and contact tracing unit. And it will likely mean the reduction of hours at the Judiciary of Guam,” Leon Guerrero said in a statement.

She added: “Our job is to manage these consequences as best we can. We fought for a better budget, now we will seek amendments that make this budget worthy of our people and the healthcare heroes that serve them.”

Furloughs?

Speaker Tina Muna-Barnes, who voted against overriding the governor’s veto, said she did so because it was brought to her attention that 80 individuals from the Department of Public Health and Social Services will be furloughed in the middle of a public health emergency.

“I voted against an override because during a time of economic downturn, in the middle of a public health emergency, we decided to not adequately fund Medicaid. While many are out of jobs, having lost their income and their health insurance, we cannot take away an individual’s fundamental right to live. We need to do better and at least give them a fighting chance,” the Speaker said in a statement.

She added: “Times are tough, and while I respect the wish of this body, I still look forward to working with each and every one of my colleagues, as well as this administration to ensure that we met the mandates of the Organic Act of Guam to provide for the health, safety, and education for our People of Guam. We will overcome this – but we really need to do this TOGETHER.”

Bipartisan support for override

There was bipartisan support for the override although there were speculations that the voting would come in along strict party lines, with the Democratic senators in the 35th Guam Legislature supporting the Democratic governor’s veto.

But among the most vocal opponents of the governor’s veto was Democratic senator Therese Terlaje, the chair of the legislature’s health committee, who had previously said that Public Health assured her that there would be no furloughs if the legislature’s original budget bill was passed.

“The sooner we can decide the FY21 budget, the better for those trying to plan for their agencies. While I agree with the Governor that we can and must do more for public health, increasing revenue projections and allowing increased overall government expenditures by $7 million at this time are not our only options,” said Terlaje.

She added that Substitute Bill 282-35 already allows for review and adjustment of revenues at the end of December based on actual collections. Terlaje said it also allows for the transfer of $27 million from non-critical agencies to critical agencies like the Department of Public Health and Social Services without delay if that is needed
before December.

On the other side of the aisle, Republican senator and minority leader Telo Taitague said Substitute Bill 282-35 is far from perfect, but it recognizes the reality facing Guamanians.

“While Bill 282 is not as conservative as I wanted, we all have to make sacrifices and compromises based on the best information available to us. Unfortunately, the governor wanted this legislature to write an even bigger check despite the realities facing our people, as more than 30,000 Guamanians are out of a job or have less hours to earn money to support their families. Our tourism industry is closed for the foreseeable future, small businesses are struggling to survive, and other sections of our limited economy are on lockdown indefinitely,” Senator Taitague said in a statement.

Although Adelup and the legislature agree on the need to go after more Medicaid funding especially in the midst of a public health emergency, Taitague said supporting revenue projections that the legislature’s Office of Finance and Budget is unable to justify was out of the question. And accessing additional Medicaid resources can still be done as Bill 282 grants the governor transfer authority to reprioritize funds as she deems appropriate.

“Our work on the budget does not end with the override. Agencies must reimagine their operations, remain frugal and accountable with taxpayer dollars, and contribute in any way they can to help unemployed Guamanians prepare for new occupations beyond tourism, including healthcare, construction, agriculture, aquaculture, and IT. The legislature must also do its part to address revenue adjustments going forward to ensure that spending priorities are revisited when collections don’t match adopted revenue levels, and it must quickly identify other policies and programs to assist families and businesses get through these difficult and unprecedented times,” the minority leader said.

“Lesser of two evils”

Senator James Moylan, who initially voted against the legislature’s original budget bill, this time supported the bill and voted yes to override the governor’s veto.

“As I contemplated my vote on the override of Bill 282-35, the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, I simply placed the options on the table and decided to vote on the ‘lesser of the evils.’ Therefore, I voted ‘Yes.’ While I continue to contend that because of our economic conditions, projections outlined in the legislation are well above what is anticipated in Fiscal Year 2021, I also addressed the realities of what may have occurred if the override was to have failed,” Moylan said in a statement.

The senator warned there were possibilities of another measure passing that would have increased next year’s spending to unrealistic levels, or worse yet, the potential of a government shutdown in the event a compromise measure was not passed by the end of this month.

“If given the opportunity to serve in the next legislature, and considering a possible shift in its composition of the body, additional measures may be enacted to assure that if collections don’t meet projections by a certain threshold, that a realignment plan can be established. In the meantime, all lawmakers need to take a routine analysis of our fiscal state throughout FY21,” the Republican senator said.

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