Speaker attempts to increase SHPO allocation, continues to prioritize tax refunds

Speaker Therese Terlaje during session Aug. 28 2021. (PNC)

Speaker Therese M. Terlaje tried to pass an amendment during session to improve operations for Guam’s State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) by increasing its budget by $110,000 but received little support from her colleagues on the session floor.

This year’s proposed allocation for SHPO was approximately $50,000 less than FY 2021, despite the division repeatedly requesting $400,000 more for six additional positions.

“All I am trying to do with this amendment to the budget is get SHPO back up to their FY 21 budget and allocate an additional $60,000 more to them,” said Speaker Terlaje. “I’ve attended past hearings where we called SHPO out for not enforcing the way they should be, why we aren’t getting their reports like we should be, why the public can’t be notified of the human remains they are discovering on military construction sites like they should be. They continue to tell us that it’s because they are understaffed. This extra allocation is not enough to fund another needed position for their division, but it will give them a fighting chance at preserving our island’s resources better.”

The amendment to increase funding by $110,000 to the SHPO failed with only 5 votes in favor from Senators Sabina Perez, Joanne Brown, Telo Taitague, and Christopher Duenas. The nine senators who voted against the increase were Senators Amanda Shelton, Telena Nelson, Joe San Agustin, James Moylan, Tony Ada, Frank Blas Jr., Mary Torres, Pedo Terlaje, and Clynt Ridgell.

The Speaker subsequently introduced another amendment to bring SHPO’s budget back to its FY 21 allocation. This amendment passed, bringing the division’s budget to at least status quo.

“This was the Legislature’s opportunity to prioritize the protection of our history and culture by increasing the SHPO’s capacity to protect our historic and cultural sites. More resources are needed especially when precious cultural artifacts and human remains continue to be discovered and removed as a result of the increasing number of federal and local projects undergoing construction at this time,” stated Speaker Terlaje.

Prioritize tax refunds

Aside from the SHPO amendment, the Speaker also tried three times to amend the current budget bill to set aside enough funds to cover and pay out overdue tax refunds faster.

Despite the Department of Revenue and Taxation’s quicker processing rate, tax refunds still await payment. Speaker Terlaje’s three attempts to get those paid faster include:

= Increasing current Business Privilege Tax (BPT) projections to mirror current increased tracking;

= Setting aside excess BPT revenues every 6 months; and

= Setting aside Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) reimbursements not needed for financing the new hospital.

All three efforts failed to receive enough support from other senators on the session floor.

Speaker Terlaje said, “I cannot fathom how this body finds it okay to make the people wait, especially this year when we’ve professed that they need RISE money now, that they are running out of PUA now. If agencies have needs, let’s get the Governor down here to show her what those are. She’s sitting on $600 million that can be used to take care of those needs. The ARP cannot be used to pay tax refunds, it is us, the legislative body who has that power to set aside cash for that purpose.”

The budget bill as it stands does not have enough cash set aside to take care of prior year and FY 2022 tax refunds. The bill sets aside $15 million of the $55 million needed for EITC payments, saving the other $40 million for projects that will be completed beyond 2023.

Instead of increasing the provision of tax refunds, an amendment proffered by another senator was passed on the session floor today to lower the amount set aside for tax refund payments by an additional $6 million. Speaker Terlaje is disappointed that the amendment passed: “If we go through with what is in the budget right now, we might exacerbate the delay in refunds waiting for cash. We have an opportunity in front of us to get rid of those delays. We don’t need Congress to tell us to pay refunds faster. We need to do our jobs in the budget and set aside the cash for what we owe the people, not spending it on pet projects.”

Speaker Terlaje plans to make another attempt to secure the cash needed for tax refunds in later chapters of the budget bill.