By Johnnie Rosario
Congresswoman Tina Sablan implored her colleagues in the CNMI House of Representatives to pass the bill that will take away Gov. Ralph Torres’s ability to spend $515 million in federal funds all by himself.
House Bill 22-33 narrowly passed, with most Republicans agreeing to let the corrupt governor keep the power to spend that money unchecked.
Ms. Sablan, during the debate on the measure, asked her colleagues wherever they trust the governor with half a billion dollars after he squandered the first round of less than $100 million in coronavirus relief direct aid funding to the Commonwealth on crony contracts.
More importantly, she reminded the House, members of the CNMI Legislature have proof of the governor’s corrupt spending of tax dollars on his lavish lifestyle, illegal travel, and personal desires. She provided the CNMI House members with the report provided to the last Legislature featuring hundreds of pages of questionable costs and illegal spending by the governor.
Ms. Sablan’s full speech to the House follows:
This incredible and historic windfall of half a BILLION dollars in Coronavirus State and Local Recovery Funds is coming to the Commonwealth through the American Rescue Plan Act. That’s five times our current annual budget. And we have two years to spend it.
Do we have the legal authority to pass legislation to appropriate these funds and exercise oversight on how they are spent? The answer is yes. Our legal counsel’s analysis is very clear and very straightforward. We are the legislature. Our authority is in the constitution. It’s in the Planning and Budgeting Act. It’s been done before. It’s being done now, in other states and territories. We are not the only ones considering taking action like this.
So this bill, 22-33, really in many ways turns on two issues: One is the willingness of this legislature to assert its power of the purse as a coequal branch of government. And the other is trust.
HB 22-33 proposes to assert legislative authority over one specific and massive pot of money - the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. These funds may be used to respond to the public health emergency or its negative economic impacts, to provide premium pay to eligible essential workers, to provide government services that have been impacted by revenue shortfalls as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, and to invest in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.
Should one person, the governor, be the sole decision-maker for how half a billion dollars should be distributed?
If your answer is yes, my question is why? We are the legislature. We are the representatives of the people. We answer to our constituents and they expect us to act like we represent them, like we are in fact a separate and coequal branch of government.
We have an urgent responsibility to proactively assert the power of this legislature, the power of the purse in determining the distribution of these fiscal recovery monies. We should all have a seat at that table. We should all have an interest in providing checks and balances.
And to go back to the issue of trust. Consider the track record of this administration for extravagant waste and abuse of public funds: lllegal first-class travel. Questionable sole-source contracts and reimbursements. Unlawful overtime and double compensation for top officials. Four straight years of deficits. We still haven’t seen the expenditure report for the CARES Act - and we asked for that months ago.
Colleagues, I have passed out the Minority Report from the 21st House, on the governor’s expenditures since January 2015. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already. We reviewed thousands of pages and found multiple violations of law and abuses of public money by this governor in travel, reimbursements, official representation, and other expenditures.
Given this history, given what we have learned and the work there is still to do to provide accountability for the people’s money, of course there are issues of trust in how this administration will spend half a billion dollars. Let’s not turn a blind eye. Let’s not give a blank check. We are the legislature. Let’s do our jobs.