Kilili: US House locks in million-dollar insular water/sewer funding

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (Office of the CNMI Congressional Delegate) —  The U.S. House of Representatives passed a sweeping infrastructure bill today, including an amendment by Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan that locks in a major increase in funding for water projects in the insular areas and about $90 million for Marianas school facilities over the next 5 years.

The Moving Forward Act will also provide $10 million annually for federal roads in the Marianas and a $400,000 annual increase for the islands’ new public bus system. Sablan’s legislation, expanding the Amber Alert system to include the Marianas and other insular areas, was also added to the bill.

Sablan’s amendment to the Moving Forward Act makes permanent a 1.5 percent set-aside of Safe Drinking Water Act funds for the insular areas. Current law authorizes only 0.33 percent. The Moving Forward Act also codifies a 1.5 percent annual set-aside for insular areas of Clean Water Act funds from the current 0.25 percent.

The Marianas Congressman has been able to get both increases into annual appropriations bills since 2010 and into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Those yearly changes have been worth $85 million to the Marianas in total and made 24-hour water possible for residents of Saipan.

“Making this increase in water infrastructure funding permanent will give planners at the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation more certainty,” Congressman Sablan said, “and means we will continue to improve our water systems.

“Ultimately, we want everyone to have access to drinkable water in their homes and end the discharge of sewage into the waters around our islands.”

Members of Congress submitted 388 amendments to the Moving Forward Act, but the Rules Committee permitted less than half to be brought to the House floor for debate and a vote. Sablan was a cosponsor of the bill.

Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act included

Congressman Sablan got another legislative project through the House: a $100 billion investment in schools nationwide.

As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, Sablan is responsible for federal school policy across the U.S. A major infrastructure investment was at the top of his Subcommittee’s agenda; and Sablan had made sure to include a special $500 million set-aside for schools in the Marianas, American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. Funds are allocated based on the number of children from low-income families in each jurisdiction. Another $300 million is provided for childcare facilities in the insular areas.

This Rebuild America’s Schools Act was favorably reported out of committee last year, but the House had not moved on the legislation.

The coronavirus, which forced schools to close and shift to online instruction, added new urgency. The legislation was renamed the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act and added to the Moving Forward Act.

During floor debate Tuesday, Chairman Sablan noted that many state and local governments are facing revenue shortfalls, as a result of the virus, and laying off teaching staff–“not a time they can afford to invest in facilities,” he said.

The Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act is aimed at problems created by the coronavirus. “Funds are front-loaded to address emergency needs to reconfigure schools to meet CDC guidelines,” Sablan explained. “[And the] bill helps the 16 million students without online access, gain reliable, high-speed Internet for digital instruction.”

The Act also includes a $50 monthly subsidy for low-income families to pay for internet and $625 million for states and territories to implement “digital equity” plans.

Increased investments in transportation

Although expanded to cover investments in schools and broadband, as well as $20 billion in grant funds for hospitals and community health centers and $70 billion for renewable energy systems — all of which the Marianas is eligible for, the foundation of the $1.5 trillion Moving Forward Act is a 5-year reauthorization of surface transportation programs.

There, too, the Marianas saw increases. The Territorial Highway Fund, which distributes money to the Marianas, American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, was increased from $42 million to $100 million annually. And the annual transit grant that pays for the Marianas new public bus system will go up $400,000.

The Marianas receives ten percent of the Territorial Highway Fund money each year. Sablan has worked to improve the CNMI’s rate of spending and reduce its backlog of federal money, in order to make an argument for increasing the Marianas annual percentage. The allocation decision is made by the Federal Highway Administration.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is unclear what action the Republican majority will take. President Trump issued a statement saying he would veto the Moving Forward Act, if it reached his desk.

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