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State gets no support despite hosting 5,000 Marshall Islanders

By Giff Johnson MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Dec. 14, 2010) - The Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the U.S. Congress is launching an audit of the adequacy of US$30 million in federal funding for American states and territories where large numbers of islanders from Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands reside, a GAO official said Friday.

The Accountability Office is in the design phase of preparing the audit, said Washington, D.C. based GAO official David Gootnick.

In February, eight U.S. Congress people asked for the audit to "evaluate federal funds granted annually to certain state and territorial governments to aid in their defraying costs resulting from the demands placed on them due to the residence in their jurisdictions" of people from these three western Pacific nations.

U.S. lawmakers from Arkansas, home to about 5,000 Marshall Islanders or about 10 percent of the entire population, contend that their state is spending millions of dollars to provide medical care and public education to islanders, but not getting reimbursed for these costs by the federal government. They also raised concerns about the need to address ways to reduce the communicable diseases islanders bring to the United States.

Islanders from these three Pacific nations have visa-free access to the United States as part of Compacts of Free Association that provide the U.S. government with military authority over an area the size of the continental U.S. Today, about 40,000 Micronesians and Marshall Islanders are estimated to be living in the U.S. about 20 percent of the total population.

U.S. lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office to include a review of "screening protocols addressing communicable diseases and other public health and national security interests to the United States," and a request for recommendations for "improving the pre-entry and pre-admission screening for Freely Associated State citizens migrating to the United States."

U.S. Interior Department official, Tom Bussanich said GAO officials had an "entrance conference" with him late last month to start the audit process.

He said that there has yet to be an evaluation of the tens of millions of dollars the states claim is their annual cost to provide services to islanders who are legally living in the U.S. He said he also expects the Accountability Office audit to value the tax contributions made by the many working islanders who reside in the U.S.

"We recently began this audit and are in the design phase of this work, Gootnick said from Washington Friday. As we complete design we will discuss the scope, methodology and timetable for completion with congressional staff. No completion date is set at this time."

Gootnick said the scope of the audit will be narrower than the letter from U.S. lawmakers. "This will be established and discussed with congressional staff during design phase of our audit," he said. He added that GAO needs agreement with congressional staff to move forward. He said he expects the audit plan to be agreed to in January.

The Compact of Free Association provides US$30 million annually in "impact" aid that is now divided among Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Marianas. But leaders in Hawaii and the two U.S. territories are escalating complaints that the US$30 million reimburses them for only a fraction of the costs to provide services.

Now, mainland states such as Arkansas are expressing concern that while they support large populations of islanders, they receive no impact funding.

"We are interested in receiving recommendations for improving both the adequacy and effectiveness of such federal aid," said Representatives. Madeleine Z. Bordallo of Guam, Eni F.H. Faleomavaega of American Samoa, Neil Abercrombie and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan of the Northern Marianas and Vic Snyder, John Boozman and Mike Ross of Arkansas in their letter to the Government Accountability Office.

Abercrombie won election as governor of Hawaii, and Boozman won a seat in the U.S. Senate last month.

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