Friday, September 24, 2010

2010-Government Shutdown?

After several days of grey skies and rain, it's finally clearing. Hot and humid, as expected.

Although the weather is clearing from the dark skies, there is no light in the forecast for the political atmosphere.

The CNMI is facing a looming disaster--the shutdown of the government.

How did this happen?
Last November 2009, the voters passed an initiative HLI 16-11 to amend the Constitution. You can read some information about the original initiative at the MLSC Day In Court Blog. The pros and cons that were provided for voter education at the time are here.

But the best information is to read the actual HLI 16-11initiative that was approved by the voters. This shows the relevant language that was adopted into our Constitution, the language that is now the governing law of the CNMI.

This amendment requires a balanced budget by October 1 and, in its absence, prohibits funding government operations by continuing resolution. Rather, only "essential services" are to be funded until a balanced budget is passed. Those "essential services" are to be determined "by law." And the most telling provision is that the Legislators' salaries are to be suspended starting October 1 until they pass a balanced budget.

Who is responsible for this fiasco?
The initiative to amend the CNMI Constitution was introduced by Congressmen Diego T. Benavente, Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, Edward T. Salas, and Ray Yumul.

I don't know who in the House voted for it, but it was passed by the House.
I don't know who in the Senate voted for it, but it was passed by the Senate.

And then it went to the people for a vote in the general election.
I don't know who voted for it among the general population; I only know I didn't vote for it. But it passed.

Why didn't our Legislators pass a balanced budget?
This of course is the big question.
The Legislative highlights on the Senate page was last updated 4/16/2010 (as of this writing) and it shows that Senator Pete Reyes had, by then, introduced a resolution SR 17-12 asking the Governor to convene an economic summit to avoid a government shut-down come October. I have no idea what happened to that resolution.

Other action at the time included a resolution to honor Bishop Tomas Camacho and opposing a proposed casino in Saipan.

The House website hasn't been updated since March 26, 2010 (as of this writing). Nothing on it even mentions budget concerns. There was, however, a standing committee report on a bill to amend the CNMI law about immigration. The report was adopted by the House.

On August 18, the House finally passed a budget bill--one that increased their discretionary spending while dishing out a 16 hour/payday cut to most other government workers. HB 17-96.

There was an instant uproar and silent protests. House Speaker Froilan Tenorio told the Senate it would be okay to change the budget if they increased his leadership account. He also urged them to pass the casino legislation.

On September 6, the Senate voted a budget that amended the House version--cutting discretionary spending and restoring 8 hours of the regular workday to government employees.

On September 14, the House rejected the Senate's amendments of the budget bill.

The House and Senate picked their respective teams for a conference committee, with just 10 days left to resolve the budget crisis. But the Senate walked out of the conference committee efforts because the House negotiating team is insisting on using the need for a budget to get the Senate to approve the casino legislation. They Senate is willing to reconvene, with 5 days left before October 1, provided the House returns in good faith, takes casino legislation off the table, and agrees to open the sessions to the public.

From all of this, I conclude:
1. The House delayed passing a bill until it was very late. The fact that the budget bill is the 96th bill introduced, instead of the first, shows that the House does not have its priorities in order.

2. The House leadership is pushing for casinos in Saipan. They don't care about a balanced budget. They don't care if the people suffer. Someone wants to get some graft and kickback into their pocket. Even the provision to up their discretionary funds and the demand to increase the leadership account are plain abuse of fiscal responsibility. It's all about corruption and greed.

3. The Senate is trying to do the right thing. They have been paying attention, even though appropriation bills must originate in the House. But they can't do it alone.

We're not going to have a budget anytime soon.

So what happens now?

The government operations can only pay for "essential services" as those have been determined by law. Although the Governor wants to be "the law" it seems that the Constitution actually calls for law in the usual sense. So the bill passed by the Senate defining what is "essential services" is another step in the right direction. A House bill has also been introduced, but no action taken on it. Given how irresponsible the House has been in the budget process, it doesn't seem likely it will be be enacted. The Speaker Lang Tenorio is noncommital on the proposals about "essential services", meaning nothing is going to happen.

Another thing about the effect of the constitution, neither the House nor the Senate members should get any salary at all after October 1 until a budget is passed. The Constitution suspends payment to them. Even if they declare themselves "essential services" they can't override the Constitution. It is clear:

"...if the Legislature does not pass a balanced budget by October 1st, the Legislators' salaries shall be suspended until such time that a balanced budget is passed by the Legislature."

This is small comfort to all of the people who will be out of work and without pay. The House and Senate members deserve the lack of payment; no one else does.

What can we do?
It's not too late for the people to do something. We can't write and pass the budget ourselves, but we can demand that our representatives do their jobs.

It is far more responsible to have only 8 hour cuts for workers and reduced discretionary funds for the Legislators than to have 16 hour cuts for workers and an INCREASE in discretionary funds for these politicians.

So: Tell your House members to come to their senses and agree to the Senate amendments. Call them at work; call them at home; visit them personally. Put the pressure on.

Or else, come October 1, it will be a difficult start to FY 2012 for all of us.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stories from Wild Bill's

WANTED: Writers from the Northern Mariana Islands

Saipan, CNMI – A quartet of local writers from the Northern Mariana Islands is accepting submissions for an upcoming anthology of local writers they are tentatively calling Stories from Wild Bills Cafe: Life, Love and Spicy Tofu in the Northern Mariana Islands.

“A number of local writers have been throwing around an idea to create a compilation of local work for years now,” said Angelo O’Connor Villagomez. “A group of us have been meeting together over spicy tofu and chiliburgers at Wild Bills these last few months and we’ve finally decided to put it together.”

When asked how long the anthology would be and how many writers would be included, Villagomez said that the book would be “about 200 pages, which will probably fit about 15 -20 writers.”

The editors of Wild Bills Café are Jane Mack, Joe Race, Jaime Vergara, and Villagomez.

The inspiration for the name of the anthology comes from Wild Bills Café on Beach Road in Garapan.

“I talked to the owner Bill about the name, and he’s allowing us to use it,” explained Race, a local novelist and former police officer. “Our idea is to focus the attention on a physical place to ground all the stories.”

Race also said that the book would promote the Northern Mariana Islands and might even turn Wild Bills into a destination for tourists, readers, and writers.

“Saipan, Tinian and Rota are home to several dozen newspaper reporters, bloggers, novelists, poets and amateur writers,” said Mack, a novelist and lawyer. “There are also a number of writers from the Northern Mariana Islands living and working abroad, but who write about home. These are the people we want to include in this first edition of Wild Bills.”

Writers interested in submitting work for the anthology can contact the editors at Submission guidelines are available upon request. Writers whose work is chosen for submission will receive two (2) copies of Stories from Wild Bills Café.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Student Auditions

This is a reminder to all students in grades 6 through 12 about auditions for ZOMBIE PROM!!!

Directors (including assistants and stage manager): audition/sign up TODAY 9/9/2010 from 4 to 6 PM at MHS D 101.

Actors (actresses): audition on Tuesday, 9/14 or Thursday 9/16 from 4 to 6 PM at MHS D 101.

Techies (includes everything from set and costume to SFX and performance crew): sign up Tuesday, 9/14 or Thursday 9/16 from 4 to 6 PM at MHS D 101.

Marketing (promotion, sales, programs): sign up Tuesday, 9/14 or Thursday 9/16 from 4 to 6 PM at MHS D 101.

Musicians (we need a rock band!!!): pick up audition sheet music Tuesday, 9/14 from 4 to 6 PM at MHS D 101. Audition (indivually or as a band) on Thursday, 9/16 from 6 to 8 PM.

Join the fun!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Approaching the CNMI's Problems

Hot days. A rainbow this morning in the western sky. A few scattered sulphur butterflies. And a travesty of cut-down trees along Beach Road at MHS. (sigh)

The CNMI is in a deep, deep rut. We are facing payless paydays of government employees. The private sector is eating dirt and unable to even get to its knees. And the mood in the communities is bleak.

We have technological problems with water, sewer and utilities. We have a community college on academic probation and facing revocation of its accreditation again. We have a retirement system that has lost millions of dollars and given away perks and double dipping benefits and now can't pay its obligations to its members.

We have increasing crime but a criminal justice system that is riddled with flaws--police who forget about the use of warrants, prosecutors who fail to work with the police to get the evidence and then lose cases, worse yet--settle for puny crimes and miniscule sentences unrelated to the real crime, and worst--dismiss cases or face the court's dismissals instead of prosecuting them.

We have extreme and serious problems and no workable solutions on the table.

Our re-tread legislators peddle the same tired proposals--1) casinos (which have not brought prosperity to Tinian in a decade of operation; have already cost us money in Rota without profit); 2) hitting businesses for more (taking away qualifying certificates, increasing fees); or 3) begging for help from the Federal government, while we continue to strut and profess our indigenous rights and refuse to cooperate with them on immigration and federal enforcement of drug laws.

Most people in the community are impatient and only want money in their pockets (or as Zaldy Dandan reported earlier-the only kind of change people are interested in is the kind that jingles in their pocket).

So if and when elected officials "look" for solutions, they look for short-term, immediate "fixes" which do not address the underlying problems and only tend to delay and worsen the situation. Pension-obligation-bonds are an example. The idea is that we will borrow to "fix" the debt we owe...

Finding long-term solutions means examining what we've done wrong. Some people in the community view this analysis as "unpatriotic," meaning it's anti-CNMI. Others do not have the patience to sift through the details. Still others want to re-write the past and insist that known facts are actually something else. (For example denying the truth that the Department of Interior did consult with the Governor before issuing its report on alien labor.)

And unfortunately, long-term solutions provide no immediate remedy. The people vote out politicians (like Tina Sablan) looking for them, before such proposals can be put into effect or before their effect can be felt. And so we change course, losing ground in the process.

There is a solution. That solution: we need a shared vision of how to approach the problems.

We have spent so much time on thinking of where we want to go, and then we end up arguing about how to get there.

Instead, we need to focus on how we want to act; how we want to build our community; how we think we should engage with one another. We need an ETHIC, a shared ethic.

And that ethic must be based on moral values that support our cultures, all of them in their varied beauty.

We must find the Community Ethic that can nourish all of us, without placing any of us at the expense of others. We are in the same boat, and we will sink together unless we work together to save ourselves. Throwing some off the boat is not going to keep the boat from sinking. Obeying a captain who will share what little wealth is left with only his loyal followers is not going to keep the boat from sinking. Hoping for a miracle is not going to keep the boat from sinking.

God helps those who help themselves. And it is time we help ourselves.

My recommendations for our ethic:
We need an ethic that promotes industry, meaning work. There is value in labor. We need to promote this. We cannot promote the benefits of hard work if we cling to the notion of hand-outs, the gamble, the luck of the draw.

How this ethic might look applied to some of the issues we have before us: Casinos should be out because they promote the idea of easy winnings. Discretionary funds for politicians should be out because they are unrelated to work. Borrowing money (pension obligation bonds) should be off the table because we haven't yet tried to earn our way out of our problems. Immigration benefits should be handed out to those who worked a long time or are working now, but denied to those who got here, did little, and now are hoping for the lucky ticket. ALL government jobs should be civil service--based on competence and merit as demonstrated by competitive exams--and protected from political hiring and firing.

A work ethic includes getting paid on time. It includes a fair wage for work done, commensurate with the skill and level of the work. It includes reasonable profit for businesses and rational restrictions, taxes, and licensing.

A work ethic could re-balance the CNMI and keep the ship afloat.

Another possible ethic: Our ethic could be environmental harmony. We live in a beautiful place. The natural environment is our precious resource. Wasting or harming it is counter-productive to our own physical, psychological and emotional health. We ourselves must insist that everything we do is good for where we live.

We can do simple things like keeping our own yards and streets clean. (and yes--I have room for improvement here myself!) We can learn from Tinian and Rota and look to our elders who were especially neat and clean and handy with a broom. We can be grateful for the end to personal maids because it led us to be lazy about our own efforts at keeping our environment clean. We can return to our roots and make our environment cleaner.

At a local government level, there are many things we can insist on. Kill the rats. Amp up our Zoning Board to focus on environmental concerns and don't license what disturbs the beauty and calm of our islands. Insist that cars and buses have proper mufflers and stop spewing pollution into the air. And thank our current Saipan mayor for properly addressing the dead animal problem we had endured for years.

Our ocean is our legacy. We need to insist that everyone obey the fishing restrictions and respect protected areas. We need to reward the efforts of those in the community who are cleaning up our litter. We need to stop tour guides from encouraging our visitors to disobey regulations like feeding fish at Managaha.

We also should be promoting conservation and working with those outside the CNMI who do so, including federal agencies. We need to push for more action on the Marine Monument. We need to create a co-managed sanctuary with NOAA to get their education and other benefits here.

With an environmental ethic, we can build on programs in our community like CREES, and encourage our students to study science. We can promote eco-tourism and demote ideas like casinos. We can develop green business ventures. There is potential to save us from shipwreck and live in harmony with the world about us.

There are other worthy ethics we could embrace. Kilili has been touting the value of education and critical thinking--critical meaning careful evaluation and judgment, not carping and negativism. (To my knowledge, he's the only political leader in generations who has approached our problems with a stated goal for a community ethic.)

This is a good value and one that could be a worthy Community Ethic. A commitment to education as an ethic can include promoting vocational education (and work); it can strengthen our basic institutions with reliance on facts and information; it can replace politics with reason. There is a chance to repair our ship with learning and knowledge.

Whatever ethic we choose, our ethic should direct us, and come before politics and greed and personal agendas.

Family ties
In the past, we have confused politics with our love of our family. Strong family loyalty and the ties of kinship are also an ethic. But we have gotten confused by this ethic. We have embraced teen pregnancies in the name of family, when this is not good for our teen children who are having babies or for the babies born to them. We have allowed our little children to stand on street corners and beg for money in the name of family--for politicians, for school organizations, for personal needs. We have overspent our personal budgets, digging ourselves into debt in the name of family obligations from funerals to birthdays. We have turned a blind eye to nepotism in government jobs because of our acceptance of "family first." We have even called on family to give us jobs, expecting ties of kinship to overbalance other considerations like education, experience, competence. We have voted family members into political office despite their poor past performances and lack of leadership skills. When we have so twisted our value in family that our practice no longer actually serves the benefit of the family, we are doing something wrong.

And our community is now in peril because we have failed to think through our actions and decisions. We have brought ourselves to this mess.

We need to re-think our ethic when it comes to family and how we practice this ethic. Family is an important value in our society and one that underlies all cultures. We should work for our families, but not at the expense of other values. We should ensure our children's safety and education. We should share our religious beliefs with our children and families. We should protect and enjoy our family units. But we should not distort our loyalty to family into a corruption that destroys our other ethics to hard work, the environment, education, and other worthy ethics like honesty and mutual respect.

In this time of strife and difficulty, we need to think harder. We need to decide. We need--not a plan of action, but--a shared value of HOW we want to build our future. And then we need to begin by letting those values and ethics direct our choices.