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Editorials | Walk the talk/Singular

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Walk the talk

THE House speaker has indicated that lawmakers will “look into” the recommendations that were discussed in the recent Fiscal Response Summit. But it seems that not a lot of lawmakers are eager to talk about the actual and specific pieces of legislation that must be introduced and passed to stabilize the government’s increasingly precarious financial condition. 

Let’s start with medical referrals and emergency/disaster response OT. It is difficult to “plan” for these two items because, in the case of medical referrals, no one knows how many will require medical-referral assistance and its exact costs.  We can “estimate,” but that’s what the government’s annual budget is already doing, and the usual result is that the allotted funds are much less than the actual expenditures. It’s the same thing with emergency/disaster response. How can we possibly know the expenses that the government will incur during the annual typhoon season? Can we know how many typhoons will pass by (how near?) or hit the three main islands? (Which of them?)  What about the extent of damage?  Not all typhoon seasons are the same. Not all typhoons are the same.

And what about missing persons, fires and other unfortunate (and unforeseen) events that require, among other things, search-and-rescue missions? Can we “plan” for those expenses? How?

Some may say that the “real solution” to the CNMI’s rising public health costs is an all-out campaign against “unhealthy” food items:  taxes on sugary drinks, junk food, processed meat — or even their outright prohibition. We still believe that such measures are ill-advised, but others disagree. Fine. We expect them to introduce the necessary measures, conduct public hearings and solicit comments from businesses and other stakeholders.

As for PSS, it should be obvious by now that as long as the economy is in a coma, the CNMI cannot afford to allot at least $39 million to the school system — which originally requested over $66 million for FY 2020 — without shutting down several government offices, programs or services and laying off hundreds of  non-PSS government employees.

So what now?

Long before the summit — and even during the Trust Territory era — “everyone” was already “against” bloated government and government overspending. In Dec. 1966, the Micronesian Free Press said the U.S. administration should provide “more money for school maintenance and medicines” instead of spending on “all the high positions in the government such as director of this, director of that, assistant to this, assistant, etc.” In the NMI Democrats’ response to the Republican governor’s State of the Commonwealth Address in Jan. 1983, they mentioned “the problems inherited from the Trust Territory Government,” adding that “reducing the [size of] government is politically the most difficult job but we have to do it and the sooner, the better…. We must move away from the MORE GOVERNMENT to the LESS GOVERNMENT philosophy, from GOVERNMENT AS THE EMPLOYER OF FIRST RESORT to the GOVERNMENT AS EMPLOYER OF LAST RESORT thinking.”

And so for those who have been complaining and/or grandstanding through all these years about these and other problems, there is probably no better time to offer their “solutions” than now.

Singular

UNLIKE most politicians — and much to the dismay of his advisers and closest supporters — former Gov. Froilan “Lang” Cruz Tenorio spoke his mind.  All the time. The first law he signed as governor was the Open Government Act. He talked with the media — which then consisted of several newspapers, radio and cable TV stations — almost every day, weekends included. He appointed a public auditor who had no ties with anyone in the CNMI, and who then proceeded to issue one critical, if not damning, audit report after another. (The opposition back then praised the public auditor to high heaven. But when the opposition was already in power, they did not re-appoint him.)

A civil engineer who graduated from Marquette University, Governor Lang once said that he decided to get involved in politics even though “it’s very hard to be educated and be a politician.” (Think about that for a moment.) And yet he also believed that he was a “typical” islander, a son of a carpenter who was also a farmer.

Like most of the politicians from the Trust Territory era and the early Commonwealth days, he wanted more for the local people. He wanted higher living standards. More and better paying jobs. More and better roads. More homestead villages. More and better schools. More scholarships. More business opportunities. There were tradeoffs involved, but unlike most of his critics, he was aware that tradeoffs were — and still are — unavoidable. “Look,” he once said, “if you want me to provide you the services that you expect from the government, then you’d better favor economic development.”

In Jan. 1995, appearing before a U.S. House subcommittee chaired by a Republican who wanted to end CNMI control over minimum wage and immigration, the Commonwealth’s Democratic governor said: “We have grown up and with adulthood, the handouts end. You will actually be helping us by taking them away. In fact federal subsidies do us more harm than good because they perpetuate our dependence on the federal government and they come with too many strings attached.”

Many U.S. lawmakers were pleasantly surprised to hear such a statement from a territorial governor.  But in the CNMI, what Governor Lang said in D.C. horrified many local politicians, including his allies.

No. There was nothing typical about the Commonwealth’s fourth governor who was also one of its most dedicated, most kind-hearted, and most unforgettable public servants.

 

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