The bittersweet swan song of a retiring ways & means chair

Speaker and Appropriations Chairman BJ Cruz moves to have budget-repair legislation placed in the voting file at the Guam Congress Building, Tuesday, August 28, 2018.

“I take full responsibility for not reviewing Bill 323-34 as carefully as I should’ve.”

Guam – At long last, a pair of budget-repair bills is en route to Adelup after a brutal process of taxation and expenditure planning that finally led to supermajority passage in the Legislature on Tuesday.

Winding up what could be his final session with a touch of grace and humility, together with Sen. Tom Ada (D) Speaker and Appropriations Chairman BJ Cruz (D) offered legislation critical to fixing the $956 million FY-19 budget, in a sweeping gesture that could be his final flourish before assuming office as the island’s next elected public auditor.

“Madame Speaker, I’d like to add onto today’s legislative agenda Bills 339 and 340. These are amendments to the budget bill,” Cruz told Vice Speaker Therese Terlaje (D).

Such was the beguiling opening stanza of a wound-salted coda—to what has so far proven a travailing magnum opus. Cruz’s General Appropriations Act of 2019 is a public budget cratered by the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act at a time when the local government disbursement still teeters near a billion dollars per annum, even after arguments, confusion and indecision harassed lawmakers as they ventured a viable spending plan in the face of those unprecedented cuts. And in summoning the herculean effort required to timely pass the approaching fiscal year’s budget before he assumes headship of Public Accountability, Chairman Cruz has at times failed to conceal frustrations that hint defiance under subtle veils of politeness and contrition.

Nevertheless, on his presumed final day of session, the Speaker and Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations and Adjudication was all business.

After moving to place Bill 340 in the third reading file for a vote, Cruz proposed to fix errors in Public Law 34-116, the FY-19 Budget Act. Hearing no objections, the retiring chairman continued.

“I very humbly move this bill for consideration by the Legislature,” Cruz said. “I take full responsibility for not reviewing Bill 323-34 as carefully as I should’ve. And there was an error, and I, as Speaker, take responsibility for that. Though I won’t say it was a scrivener’s error, it is my error for not having noticed it.”

The error at hand? A two letter word spelled ‘n-o’. It was left inadvertently missing from the version of the Budget Act that lapsed into law without Gov. Calvo’s signature days ago.

As Cruz and co-sponsor Ada point out in their corrective legislation:

In his reading of Section 12, the Governor inaccurately interpreted the law as a limit on the hiring of employees necessary to provide critical services when in fact Section 12 was amended on the Floor to clarify the opposite: that government funds may be spent to hire certain unclassified employees, such as teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and others enumerated in that section.

I Liheslaturan Guahan, recognizing its mistake, acknowledged the same on August 12, 2018, in a letter that accompanied its re-transmittal of the Budget Act and supporting Session documents reflecting the amendment and specific language at issue to the Governor for his acceptance.

—Bill No. 340-34 (LS), Speaker BJ Cruz (D) & Sen. Tom Ada (D)

“There was a ‘no’ missing,” Cruz said. “We tried to address it by transmitting a second bill to the Governor. He didn’t accept it. He allowed the original 323 to lapse into law, but did point out the fact that there was a very glaring mistake in the ‘no’ being missing.”

So, the amendment passed by the Legislature on the final day of session now reads:

Section 12. Restrictions on Hiring of Unclassified Employees. Unless otherwise authorized by this Chapter, no government funds of any kind or description may be expended for the employment or hiring of unclassified employees in the Executive Branch of government of Guam, except for the following:

“The following” exceptions include certain unclassified employees, such as teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, etc. Bill No. 340-34 (LS) passed the Legislature by a vote of 12-2, with one excused absence.

The Legislature also passed Cruz and Ada’s Bill No. 339-34 (LS), limiting the prohibition on first quarter hiring. This act allows certain critical hires at Guam Waterworks Authority, Guam Power Authority, and Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority, as well as for government health, education and safety operations, plus for the Dept. of Revenue and Taxation, and the Offices of Public Defender and Auditor. It also allows necessary hiring at the Election Commission for the November General Election. No. 339 passed by a vote of 11-3, with one excused absence.

According to his office, Cruz’s last full day at the Legislature will coincide with the certification of last Saturday’s special election results. An unofficial vote count determined a landslide victory for BJ Cruz in the Public Auditor’s race.

The 34th is also retiring Sen. Ada’s final legislature.