Speaker: prop tax amendment must face hearing

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Newly elected Speaker of the 35th Guam Legislature Tina Rose Muna Barnes, pictured during her keynote at the Guam Congress Building on inauguration day, Monday, January 7, 2019.

Guam – Once again the rush is on to insert missing language into the property tax hike on permanent buildings worth a million dollars “or more.” This, in order to plug an $8 to $9 million dollar shortfall in education budgeting. But more and more it’s looking like red tape is getting in the way of budgetary necessities–and like last-ditch efforts to save the FY19 spending plan are coming up a day late and a dollar short.

“I did introduce Bill 4,” the legislature’s new appropriations chairman told reporters outside the Dept. of Revenue and Taxation on Tuesday. “That’s the ‘and more’ to the property tax, and the governor is in support of that, because…we need to fix that,” Sen. Joe San Agustin (D) said.

San Agustin, the 35th Legislature’s new appropriations chairman, is committed to fixing the multimillion dollar hole blown in the Territorial Educational Facilities Fund following Gov. Calvo’s late-term veto of a high-end property tax hike.

But Speaker Tina Muna Barnes told Newstalk K57 morning host Patti Arroyo on Wednesday that lawmakers will take their cues from Gov. Leon Guerrero and the territorial laws governing the processing of new legislation.

“There’s at least one bill that needs immediate attention, as is dictated by everybody trying to figure out how to make up for an $8 million loss in the ‘or more’ bill that was vetoed last session,” Arroyo said to Speaker Muna Barnes during a live, on-air phone interview.

“Yes, Patti, and my mali called me at seven o’clock this morning to express concerns that have come up if that bill is not facilitated through, but more importantly, the domino effect that it may cause if the [amendments] are not made,” Muna Barnes said.

“Will this be considered any kind of emergency, Speaker? Will there be a declaration this session that this legislation will be emergency legislation?” Arroyo asked.

“Well, Patti, I’ll have to speak with the oversight chair on that bill. If the administration sees the emergency of that and that comes out from the administration, then of course we will address it immediately,” Muna Barnes said.

But the Speaker cautioned listeners that new legislation must face the scrutiny of public hearings that are announced in accordance with the Open Government Law. And yet, still, she acknowledged the urgency of the pending property tax bill.

Important or not, FY19 budget bill author BJ Cruz told PNC last week that it was already too late to increase property taxes on million- and multimillion-dollar properties, because the Dept. of Revenue and Taxation was by that time in the process of invoicing property owners the first assessments of the year. Cruz, the Guam Legislature’s previous appropriations chairman and current elected public auditor, said Gov. Calvo’s last-minute December 28 veto rendered this year’s scheduled property tax hike dead on arrival.

Now funding for public education is running at least an $8 million deficit at a time when Guam’s overall annual deficit is trending close to a billion dollars.

“Were you surprised to learn that we were running a deficit–as of 2017–of $889.5 million, according to the Dept. of the Interior?” PNC asked San Agustin after his tour of the island’s Dept. of Revenue and Taxation on Tuesday with newly elected Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio.

“Yes, I’m kind of surprised at that, because we should’ve been working to reduce that deficit,” San Agustin said.

“And that’s why I look forward to working with this administration on finding ways to ensure that we continue to service the  people of Guam but continue to reduce our deficit. Let’s not let it go any further.

“And I’ll be working very close with the governor’s office and their staff, their chief financial officer, to make sure…the numbers match up.”

“So it’s fair to say that we’ll see some budget repair work going on?” PNC asked San Agustin.

“That’s correct. We’re gonna be doing some serious budget repair work,” he said.

“How soon do you think we’ll see a balanced budget?” PNC asked.

“Well, hopefully, hopefully we’ll get–I’m gonna say lucky–but maybe we can work at that for 2020. I gotta be optimistic, OK?” San Nicolas said.