Monday, April 23, 2007

PSS funding

The events of late regarding PSS funding are very disturbing. There is lots I can add to that point, but these two PSS colleagues/bloggers said it all:

Suffice to say I completely agree with them. I didn't think it was possible for my opinion of the vast majority of our elected leaders to sink to a lower level, but their comments at the PSS session last week paved the way to a new low.

Now here is what is news to me, I quote from the Saipan Tribune:

"With students, parents and teachers eyeing their every move, lawmakers
yesterday approved a bill taking $6.658 million from the Commonwealth Utilities
Corp. and other autonomous agencies to give to the Public School System.All 18
members of the House of Representatives voted in favor of House Bill 15-242,
authored by Rep. Joseph Deleon Guerrero. The measure now goes to the Senate for

Reps. Arnold I. Palacios and Francisco Dela Cruz said they
were particularly concerned about cutting the cash-strapped utility's budget by
almost $6 million. They said CUC might try to recover the reduced amount by
increasing rates. Rep. Cinta Kaipat raised a concern about fairness. "

Here is my question for my fellow blogger Cinta: Why does CUC, now that they've doubled the power rates, still get a nickel of public money? How can they not be self sufficient based on user fees at this point? They have the highest power rates in America, the customer service stinks, they still can't keep the power on -- and they're subsidized with our tax dollars while Bree has rat dung in her class and Bonnie has no toilet paper in her school. Please educate us because this blows my mind. The government is still giving these people tax money. If they were cut $6 million, how much were they getting before. I thought the massive increases got them off the government subsidy list.


CNMI Blogger said...

Hi, Jeff:

Thanks for your questions and you generously assume I have all the answers, which I don't. However, I will answer your questions as best I can.

On the subject of CUC --
My reasons for raising the "fairness" concern during the session in which I reluctantly voted "yes" to Rep. Guerrero's bill is because I felt that the bill unfairly took almost the entire $6 million that PSS needed from the one critical agency people complained about the most. The bill did this WITHOUT any documentation as to the *ACTUAL* availability of these funds.

This bill was recalled from the Ways and Means Committee without the benefit of it being entertained by the Committee. I don't like bills being recalled from the Committees. Recalling the bill denied the Committee the opportunity to gather critical information from all the affected agencies to ensure that we weren't just passing a bill that made us look good while PSS was eyeballig us and really passing the buck to the Senate or Governor to be the "bad guy." As I understand it from checking with OMB yesterday, CUC, which is a $100 million company, only had $1.2 million in cash as of December 2006.

Hence, most of the money generated from the increase in rates went to buying expensive fuel. My colleagues and perhaps others in the community may have the mistaken impression that CUC is making a profit but, as I understand it, they are not. The machines are also really old and could potentially die at any time. Parts are expensive. Etc. Etc. Go check it out yourselves.

Back to the bills -- I would have been more comfortable IF we had done our due diligence; i.e., done our homework first before voting on the bills. As it was, we were given a copy of two bills proposed by Rep. Justo Quitugua and perhaps the Chair of Ways and Means (Rep. Cris Ogo of Rota)in Monday's session and we were asked to read over them and come back the next day to vote on one. There were no Committee delibrations and no Committee Reports justifying one or the other. As if this wasn't bad enough, when we came back the next day, we were given a third bill (Rep. Guerrero's) to entertain on the spot!

Either way you look at it, none of these bills have been entertained by the House and Ways Committee. The Ways and Means Committee met Monday morning with Finance Secretary Eloy Inos and OMB Officer Tony Muna. Unfortunately, I missed part if not most of this meeting as I was at the Carolinian Language Symposium. In fact, I skipped the entire two-day Symposium right after the opening ceremonies even though this had been scheduled weeks in advance and I was to be a presenter and panelist. I had to leave the Symposium to attend the Ways and Means meeting and session that afternoon and following day.

They also called a Leadership meeting at 12:30 p.m., even though we didn't finish our meeting with the Secretary of Finance and OMB Manager until nearly 12:30 p.m. The session was scheduled for 1 p.m.).

The author's argument in pushing H.B. 15-242 is that everyone else was being asked to shoulder their share of the load, why not the autonomous agencies? I'm all for fairness in dealing with the situation. I said so in the session that was reported by the article you cited.

As to Rep. Guerrero's bill (H.B. 15-242), the first flaw that we saw and took care of was the inclusion of DPL in the bill. We excluded DPL to avoid constitutional challenges. Later on, and I didn't consider this at the time, it was pointed out that CPA's inclusion also posed a conflict.

Again, these are the types of challenges the Committee should have caught had it been given the opportunity to act expeditiously on the bills. As it were, I understand that H.B. 15-242 sat in Committee for a while before Rep. Justo Quitugua suggested that it be recalled by the author.

The arguments you made about CUC, although understandable, may be based on limited information on the actual financial situation at CUC. I am a member of the PUTC Committee also and Chairman Frank Dela Cruz can attest to the fact that we have our doubts that CUC is really living high and large off of the fuel surcharge expenses being charged to customers. Anyway, I understand the frustrations and you're free to express your opinions.

Here is mine. For many, many years, this government subsidized the consumers' power bills (and many other things it shouldn't have!). The customers were not charged the actual rate they were supposed to be charged and this became "standard practice." Call it lack of political will or what have you. The bottom line is, the CNMI Government is now broke and, as painful as it is, people are being weaned off of the dependency and expectations they've come to depend on the Government to continue to provide.

Our addiction is such that even though we know that many businesses have closed down and we're not generating as much revenue as we used to, we continue to be in denial and continue to expect the government to provide the same goods and services we've become used to. The government has been the biggest "enabler" of this unfortunate disease.

People are free to say whatever they want to say, but the CNMI finally has a governor who not only has the political will to say "no", but is willing to take the heat as we weane ourselves off of our addiction to deficit spending. I am not trying to defend Governor Fitial; he doesn't need me to do that. Just look into how much the previous adminstration spent, especially on their way out.) I'd rather look forward and spend my energies looking for positive solutions.

Back to the sessions -- those who were there would tell you that although the Speaker had already called for a recess until the following week, I IMPLORED my colleagues to stay and entertain H.B. 15-255, which I thought was the better alternative as it gave the Governor more flexibility to evaluate where to take the money from that would have the least negative impact on any one agency and meet PSS' funding shortfall. As a matter of fact, I even challenged my colleagues to come in for a session the next day, which was an "Austerity Friday." And, as you probably heard, H.B. 15-255 passed, although NOT without several amendments exempting certain agencies. Now it's up to the Senate.

But, wait. The problem with either bill is that we're just shifting around money from agency or agencies to agency or agencies. However, the pot remains the same.

Let me say again that this is not an issue of whether I think education is important or not because I know it is and I don't feel I need to convince you of my sincerity in this belief. However, I will be the first to tell you that I do not have all the answers, but I am always, ALWAYS willing to listen and learn from you and other members of the community in finding the right solution or solutions.

As to the conditions of Bree and Boni's classrooms, of course, they deserve better. But just because I say so doesn't mean that the situation magically takes care of itself. The problem with PSS and our entire government in general is going to take the entire community effort to help us survive.

Incidentally, read Bree's blog about her rejuvenated spirits after attending the Beautify CNMI! Banquet. Wished you and Boni could've been there. Sorry about the babysitting problem, Bon.

Jeff, I am a teacher's daughter. I would not have sacrificed almost 20 years away from my home and family, struggling on my own, not giving up even though it was a thousand times easier to do so, IF I didn't think that education was and is important. On this, I think we can agree on.

As to the rest, I just try to do the best I can. What I know, I share and apply; what I don't know, I don't let pride or ego get in the way of my saying I don't know the answer and then obtaining the answer.

But, beyond this, I would be more interested in forging an alliance with the community of experts out there on any given subject who would be willing to work together with me and whomever to help our people.

It is now past 4:30 a.m. and I've got to get some more rest. Speaking of schools, I am going to go read to the Daycare kids first thing in the morning.

So, take care, Jeff. I hope I've answered some of your questions.


Jeffrey C. Turbitt said...

First thank you for your detailed response. This shows why I hold you in high regard. You are one of the few people I feel will do the right thing among our elected officials.

My outrage about seeing the CUC money is that my memory was, I could be wrong, but I doubt it, that with the rate hike the government didn't have to subsidize CUC anymore. I am almost positive I read or heard that from the PIO as a selling point on the rate hike.

All your comments about the rush on this and the associated problems also made sense. My main source of disgust with what happened here relate to what Bree and Bonnie and others have said about this being characterized as a "PSS bailout," when PSS doesn't generate revenues, unlike the hospital, CUC, etc.

They never gave PSS a realistic budget for this year, and they took 2 million from them last August.

Now the talk is in the air about firing teachers when classes are already overcrowded. Other than the degrading facilities, this is the biggest problem in PSS. We don't have the dead weight other agencies have. There is a little, but not much.

Anyway, thanks again for your response, and I'll probably add more when I read it again.


Brad said...

Jeff, I'm probably asking this in the wrong section of your blog but since the aging condition of the utilities company was brought up I have to ask a very basic question.
Has the CNMI looked at or seriously considered modernizing with renewable energy solutions (such as Solar or Wind)?

I don't like there yet, but I plan to in the near future and I'm wondering why a location which has no lack of sunshine doesn't harness it for a portion of the needed electricity.


Brad said...

oops! I meant "I don't LIVE there yet..."

Jeffrey C. Turbitt said...

There is a debate on wind and nuclear in the current papers right now.

The solar, wind, nuclear idea didn't happen due to poor planning, and probably because gas was cheap until Bush needless dragged us into this endless Iraq problem.