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OPINION | Report to the people (1)

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WHEN I began my term in the 21st Legislature, I made a commitment to being open and transparent with you, the people of Precinct 2 and the Commonwealth, about the work I do in serving you.

I also made a commitment to listen to your concerns and seek feedback as much as possible about the needs of our community and ideas for solutions.

Getting anything done in the Legislature requires working with colleagues across political lines and collaborating with other government departments and agencies, community organizations, private sector partners, and other stakeholders. I rely heavily on my team: I have been fortunate to work with terrific staff, interns, and volunteers during this term. I also rely a great deal on the dedicated and professional staff of the Legislative Bureau. 

Over the course of the last two years, I have communicated and engaged with you regularly through community meetings, public hearings, news releases, statements to the press, opinion pieces, and social media. The purpose of this report is to provide an overview of the work we’ve done together these past two years and the work that lies ahead. I offer this as a two-part report, covering legislative activities in Part 1, and constituent services, office operations, and outreach programs in Part 2.    

Legislative activities

I serve on three standing committees in the House of Representatives: Ways and Means; Health; and Federal and Foreign Affairs. I have also been appointed to two special committees: Federal Assistance and Disaster-Related Funding; and Executive Expenditures.   

As a member of the minority, I am especially cognizant of how important it is to work on both sides of the aisle in developing, reviewing, and passing bills. Much of what I have been able to do in garnering the support of my colleagues has been at the committee level and through amendments offered on the floor to clarify and improve legislation. Sometimes I offer the amendments myself, and sometimes other members take the lead. Here’s a summary of key measures I have been involved in:

1) Signed into Law. I have strongly advocated these past two years for increased funding for public education. To address shortfalls from the general appropriations acts, I supported and co-sponsored local appropriations measures, including Saipan Local Law 21-5, which appropriated $500,000 to  Northern Marianas College and $250,000 to the Public School System. I also supported and drafted clarifying amendments that were adopted into Saipan Local Law 21-13, which appropriated $208,000 to Northern Marianas College, as well as $100,000 to Karidat for emergency food and rental assistance and $300,000 to the Northern Marianas Housing Corporation for rental assistance and home loans. 

Last September I worked closely with PSS to identify the FEMA matching and other funding needs for schools that were still badly damaged by Super Typhoon Yutu, and presented the data to my colleagues on the Saipan & Northern Islands Legislative Delegation. SNILD members on both sides of the aisle and from different precincts agreed to appropriate $745,000 specifically to support disaster repairs and operations at various public schools on Saipan. Two of our hardest-hit schools that serve Precinct 2 students especially benefited from Saipan Local Law 21-10: Hopwood Middle School ($250,000) and WSR Elementary School ($150,000).

On the health front, I worked with my colleagues in committee and with Medicaid staff and advisors on amendments to Senate legislation that formally established the CNMI Medicaid Agency and, significantly, authorized the development of an affordable buy-in program for residents who currently lack health insurance and are not qualified for regular Medicaid (P.L. 21-28). I also worked with colleagues and CHCC to develop language inserted into the appropriations acts that directs the agency to conduct a feasibility study and report to the Legislature on policy options for universal health coverage in the CNMI (P.L. 21-35). To ensure a safe 2020 midterm election, I worked with members in the House and Senate, and with the Election Commission, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Office of the Public Auditor to draft amendments that were incorporated into a Senate bill adjusting election procedures to mitigate the health risks associated with Covid-19 (P.L. 21-34).

Other public laws that I co-sponsored and helped draft: the Animal Protection Act, to prohibit animal cruelty (P.L. 21-31), and legislation restricting the deduction of unpaid gambling debt from gross revenue, which clarified our tax law and closed a potentially damaging loophole (P.L. 21-26).  

2) Passed the House. I co-sponsored and wrote legislation to authorize the governor to freeze evictions, foreclosures, and rent increases during declared disasters and emergencies (H.B. 21-112); drafted amendments that were adopted into the Landlord-Tenant Act (H.B. 21-79); co-sponsored and drafted amendments that were adopted into a bill to provide civil remedies for unauthorized disclosure of intimate images (H.B. 21-107); co-sponsored and drafted amendments that were adopted into legislation to redesignate the annual casino license fee to pay the 25% portion of retiree pensions (H.B. 21-76); and co-sponsored a bill to increase penalties for government-funded first-class travel (H.B. 21-110). Additionally, I worked with colleagues on the Gaming Committee, and with the Commonwealth Casino Commission, to develop amendments that were adopted into legislation enhancing the CCC’s enforcement authority and providing for greater disclosure and accountability requirements (H.B. 21-11). 

3) Referred to Committee. I introduced bills to strengthen the independence of the Office of the Public Auditor and enhance the agency’s capacity to deter, detect, and investigate waste, fraud, and abuse of public funds (H.B. 21-58); to require the Secretary of Finance to make timely transfers of funds to the Public School System (H.B. 21-100); and to impose a local gaming tax on the Saipan casino (H.L.B. 21-23). I also co-sponsored the Hate Crimes Act to provide enhanced sentencing penalties for crimes motivated by hate (H.B. 21-125); the Covid-19 Transparency and Accountability Act to require more rigorous reporting on the use of federal funds to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic (H.B. 21-114); and the Live Streaming Video Act to require government bodies to make their public meetings available online (H.B. 21-7).

I believe that nearly as important as the bills I have supported are the bills I have opposed. I have made a consistent effort in this term to explain for the record, on the floor and in statements after sessions, why I opposed certain legislative proposals. For example, I objected to unlimited reprogramming authority granted to the governor because I see it as a dangerous precedent and an abdication of our constitutional legislative responsibilities. I voted against a bill to legalize online gaming because of serious concerns about local enforcement capabilities, worsening problem gambling in our community, and potential violations of the federal Wire Act. I also opposed the transfer of administration of American Memorial Park to the CNMI government, because I value our partnership with the National Park Service and the significant federal resources made available every year to manage the park, including the visitors center, memorial grounds, facilities and infrastructure, and education and outreach programs.

Oversight is a critical function of the Legislature, and I take that responsibility seriously. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, I have asked department heads to explain spending decisions, furlough decisions, impacts of austerity, and the status of implementation of laws and programs in their purview. As a member of the Federal and Foreign Affairs Committee, I have raised concerns about program glitches and customer service challenges affecting the delivery of federal unemployment assistance to constituents in need. As a member of the Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster-Related Funding, I have inquired into emergency contracts, illegal overtime, and double pay, and sought reports on the governor’s reprogramming activities, the use of money borrowed from the Marianas Public Lands Trust, and the progress of pending FEMA-funded public projects that go as far back as Typhoon Soudelor. As a member of the Special Committee investigating the governor’s expenditures, I have reviewed and questioned thousands of pages of documents dealing with first-class travel, reimbursements, official representation, personal security, utility costs at private residences, the Community Benefit Fund, and the governor’s recent promotional trip to the Northern Islands.   

Looking ahead, for the remainder of this term and into the next, I believe that the priorities of the Legislature should include submission of the special committee reports to the House and to the people, and completion of the government’s fiscal response action plan along with the enactment of fiscal stabilization reforms. We should also begin the work of restructuring the medical referral program in coordination with the administration and the Commonwealth Health Care Corporation, and collaborate with Medicaid to develop the affordable buy-in program for CNMI residents. We will need to identify greater resources to support PSS, NMC, and the Northern Marianas Technical Institute, all of which are key partners in the strengthening of our local workforce and the rebuilding and revitalization of our economy. And, we must ensure maximum transparency and accountability for the hundreds of millions of federal dollars expected to assist the Commonwealth in recovering from the impacts of typhoon disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic.

To be continued


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