GUAM PLEBISCITE FACES DELAY

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By Steve Limtiaco

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (January 20, 2002 – Pacific Daily News)---The indigenous people of Guam during this year's elections are supposed to state their preference for the island's future relationship with the United States, but it appears the plebiscite is headed for another delay.

As has happened in the past, there has not been an effective campaign to register Chamorro voters and to educate them about the proposed status options of statehood, free association and independence.

As of last week, only 15 people are listed on the Guam Decolonization Registry, which will be used to determine eligible voters for the plebiscite.

Officials have said there are as many as 16,000 people who could be eligible to vote in the plebiscite.

Administration officials said funding shortages are holding them back, but one lawmaker said there has not been a serious effort launched to register voters.

Guam currently is an unincorporated territory of the United States, subject to U.S. law, but without voting representation in Congress.

A 1998 poll by Market Research & Development Inc. showed that 56 percent of island residents support Guam's status quo in its relationship with Washington, D.C. The poll also showed that 78 percent of residents prefer a closer relationship with the United States.

The plebiscite was supposed to happen in September 1998, but was postponed until December 1999 because of funding problems and the need to register voters.

It was postponed again, due to a lack of funding and because three government-funded task forces supporting the status options wanted more time to finish their reports.

It was rescheduled for July 2000, with more than $280,000 in appropriations, but by March that year it became clear that registration and education campaigns would not happen in time.

Lawmakers postponed the plebiscite, giving the Guam Election Commission the authority to set a new date.

Commission members voted to hold the plebiscite during this year's elections.

That decision was made more than a year ago, but little progress has been made with respect to registration and voter education.

"As far as the Guam Election Commission is concerned, our last mandate was to hold the plebiscite election in the primary (in September), and we are still prepared to do that," election commission Executive Director Gerald Taitano said.

He said the registration process is not progressing.

"We're registering people as they come into the office, as they desire. We were supposed to have some (voter) outreach program until the budget started getting cut," Taitano said. "This last budget cycle, it just got zeroed-out, I guess."

Commission on Decolonization Director Leland Bettis said there currently is enough money to keep the three political status task forces operating, but little beyond that. The money is part of an appropriation that has carried over from 2000.

"There's no money in the budget for the registration process, and there's no money for education, either. Things are minimalist at this point in time," Bettis said. "There are task forces. Each of them has a minimal amount (of funding). What they're doing is keeping their offices open the best they can, but that's pretty much it at the present time."

Lawmakers in 2000 appropriated $75,000 to each task force. "They each have a range of around $30,000 left," Bettis said.

Bettis said that if enough funding was available for education and voter registry, an effective education campaign could be conducted in about four to six months.

The election commission also would need about $60,000 to print separate ballots for the plebiscite, Taitano said.

Sen. Mark Forbes, R-Sinajana, who wrote the 2000 law that appropriated money for the plebiscite, said administration officials need to show a little more effort with the money that already was given to them.

"Those parties that have been responsible for implementing the provisions of the plebiscite -- from what I can see -- haven't been doing anything," Forbes said. "What about all the money that's been appropriated to this point? The constant crying for more appropriations, especially in light of the financial problems that are facing the government of Guam, rings a bit hollow."

He said the Legislature would have to examine what has been done so far with the existing appropriation before looking at an additional appropriation.

"We're not seeing a whole lot of activity. A registry doesn't seem to be that difficult to execute if you simply execute it," Forbes said. "We're talking about a voter population that's in the thousands, not the millions. I haven't seen very much beyond the meetings to put any program in place to actually start registering people."

Bettis said an outreach program is needed for voter registry.

"You can today go over to the election commission and register, but that's really not an effective means. The Chamorro Registry Advisory Board wanted to have people in villages, people in bingo, people in senior citizen centers -- where people congregate."

For additional reports from the Pacific Daily News, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Pacific Daily News (Guam).

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