FSM PRESIDENT NENA ELIMINATES CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS FROM MARCH 2 GENERAL ELECTIONS

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By Janet David

PALIKIR, Pohnpei (February 11-24, 1999 - The Island Tribune)---Three of the four States of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) are outraged at President Jacob Nena's decision not to include certain proposed Constitutional amendments on the March 2, 1999, general elections ballot. Leaders of Kosrae, Pohnpei and Yap met with Nena to persuade the President to change his mind. However, after a two-day meeting held last week, the President is still standing by his decision.

The three FSM States want the 70-30 tax revenue sharing to be included on the ballot, so FSM citizens can determine if it should be written into the Constitution. In the past, the tax revenue had been shared equally, 50 percent for the FSM National Government and 50 percent shared among the four state governments. The FSM Congress passed a law last year decreeing that the States should get 70 percent, while 30 percent should go to the National Government. The three States want this law to be incorporated into the Constitution, because, said Robert Ruecho, Speaker of Yap State Legislature, a law is subject to change by Congress at any time. The States are also calling for a 50-50 division of fishing license fees. Up to now, fees collected from fishing licenses all go into the National Government's general fund. The States also want to obtain ownership of FSM's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Ruecho said the Constitution is very ambiguous, as to whom actually owns the EEZ.

In a letter dated February 4, 1999, to leaders of the three FSM states, Nena declared that he "has decided to place the three proposed Constitutional amendments on the July 1999 special election ballot." His reasons for delaying a vote on these amendments were "to provide ample time for a thorough public education program regarding the proposed amendments and to provide sufficient time to obtain the necessary additional funds for the printing and distribution of the Constitutional amendment ballots."

The State leaders have argued that the law has provided ample time for the National Government to make all the necessary preparations to include these amendments in the March 2, 1999, general election ballot. In a letter dated February 3, 1999, leaders of Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap stated, "the 45 days set forth in Title I of the FSM Code has been deemed by Congress sufficient time for an orderly election process and public education."

The law, which was enacted to implement Constitutional amendments, decrees that all petitions for Constitutional amendments must be submitted to the National Election Director 45 days prior to the election date. In addition, the petitions must contain 10 percent of the eligible voters' signatures from each of at least three of the four FSM States.

Max Mallarme, National Election Director, said the States have met all the legal requirements to have the Constitutional amendments included on the ballot. However, he said the President had never made any declaration to indicate that these amendments would be included on the March 2 ballot.

Ruecho countered by saying no guarantee exists that the President will include these amendments on the July election ballot. The State leaders fear that the initiatives could be put off indefinitely. They find the President's reasons for delaying the amendments "to be unpersuasive and inconsistent" with the President's constitutional obligations to the people of the FSM. "Article XIV of the FSM Constitution provides to the people of this Nation the unconditional right to amend the Constitution through the initiative process," maintained the State leaders. According to the State leaders' letter to Nena, the cost of running these initiatives in the special election ballot would amount to approximately $400,000 as opposed to the Election Director's estimate of less than $30,000 if these initiatives were on the March 2 ballot. According to Ruecho, having these amendments on the March election ballot will be in line with the National Government's attempts to cut down expenditures. "The idea to postpone these amendments is an excuse, because there is no valid reason," said Ruecho. "Public education is already on-going in the states since the signing of these petitions." Ruecho said the 10 percent of eligible voters' signatures indicates that 10 percent of the voters in each of the three States already know what these amendments are about. In addition, he stated that extensive public education is not needed, as the concept of these amendments is not something new. "The 70-30 revenue sharing is a law that is already in place, while the 50-50 sharing of fishing fees is a similar concept," stated Ruecho. He said that long before the Constitution came into being, the concept of owning the water around our islands was known. "People naturally feel that the water surrounding their islands is theirs," said Ruecho. "These are simple, straight forward amendments."

According to James Woodruff, Pohnpei State Attorney General, the most important issue here is the taking away of people's right to introduce laws and Constitutional amendments. "The way the Constitution is set up provides the right of the people to introduce ideas," said Woodruff. Woodruff added that the law, drafted for election, grants the President decision-making authority on when to place Constitutional amendments on the ballot. This law, said Woodruff, does not require any set date for the President to make that decision. He said the law is vague. "The President can put the amendments off indefinitely, and this is a concern to the states."

Ruecho said if, by next week, the President does not change his mind, the States are prepared to take the issue to court, a process that could further delay the elections.

For additional reports from The Island Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Island Tribune or http://www.islandtribune.com

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