DETACHED CNMI OFFICIALS PUT OFF AUSTERITY PAIN

Editorial

Marianas Variety

SAIPAN, CNMI (July 9, 2010) – Spared from another payless Friday, members of the community celebrated Liberation Day without a hitch and with great fanfare — only to learn when they reported back to work on Tuesday that their government’s accumulated deficit was now almost $300 million.

They also found out about the public auditor’s report detailing serious deficiencies in the government’s financial system, including an inability to track nearly $1.7 million in scholarship money. This ineptitude is an invitation to graft. It is also an alarming indication that a government running out of money cannot account for the pennies it still has.

On Wednesday, we reported that the Senate and the House had, more or less, agreed to pass an austerity Friday measure that would take effect until Sept. 30th. It isn’t the comprehensive budget package that will address any of the commonwealth’s serious financial knots like saving the Retirement Fund or averting more reprogramming for CUC’s fuel or medical services for the hospital, but lawmakers and the administration say it will ensure that government employees are paid, for now.

These deferrals, however, are merely putting off today all the tough decisions that must be made now. To avert unpleasantness today, the CNMI’s elected officials are putting everyone and everything at risk. Their "austerity measure," moreover, has the added effect of lulling government officials into a state of complacency where the larger issues are concerned. Indeed, it seems that the Legislature is now more than willing to do nothing but to rubber-stamp the governor’s "emergency" declarations, the latest of which deals with a nursing contract. The government, which failed to pay the employment agency that provides nurses to Rota and Tinian, sanctioned the same company — for not paying the nurses. This is not a sufficient basis for the governor to invoke his emergency powers. It may mean many, many hours of hard negotiations and prioritizing government expenses, but these do not constitute an "emergency." Come to think of it, was the company financially capable of providing this service or was it just well-connected to the powers that be?

Meanwhile, on Tinian, the municipal government will take $1 million originally allotted for a dialysis center because the sum is not sufficient to fund the project in its entirety. That’s the official explanation. The real reason is that government officials reprogram funds away from fully funded projects incessantly.

There are, to be sure, legitimate questions about whether it was a good idea to dedicate so much money to tertiary instead of preventive treatment of diabetes. But why reprogram funds to renovate an abandoned building when there isn’t enough money to properly staff, equip or supply the Tinian Health Center?

All this goes to illustrate, again, how sadly detached the CNMI’s elected leaders are from reality. They refuse to do their job, which is to develop solutions that would put the commonwealth back on sure footing. They prefer to do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.

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