CNMI Environmental Agencies Merger An Uphill Battle

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Lawmakers concerned governor’s decision could risk federal funds

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 2, 2014) – CNMI Gov. Eloy S. Inos’ Nov. 12 decision merging the Division of Environmental Quality and the Coastal Resources Management Office faces an uphill battle, barely days before the Legislature’s 60-day deadline to either modify or reject the executive order. This, as a House committee reviewing it may recommend rejection over concerns that the merger may result in federal funding loss.

"The merger may affect federal funding for the agencies. That’s our main concern," House Committee on Judiciary and Government Operations chair Christopher Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan) told Saipan Tribune. The JGO panel is reviewing the governor’s Executive Order 2013-24. It will then recommend to the full House to either reject or accept the EO.

The reorganization plan becomes effective 60 days after submission to the Legislature, unless a majority of the members of the House and Senate specifically modify or disapprove it.

Rep. John Paul Sablan (Cov-Saipan) and Rep. Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) separately said yesterday they want to "hear from both sides" their concerns about the governor’s executive order before deciding as a member of the JGO Committee whether to approve or disapprove it.

"Like what the chairman said, it might affect federal funding and we don’t want that. I didn’t hear any concerns that led to putting these two agencies together, but we still have to hear from the two agencies," Deleon Guerrero, a JGO panel member, said.

Sablan, vice chair of the JGO Committee, said that merging two agencies almost always results in savings but there are also other factors that need to be considered, including whether such action would result in loss of funds.

DEQ and CRM receive separate funds from federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The JGO committee chairman called for a Friday morning committee meeting with DEQ director Frank Rabauliman and CRM acting administrator Ana Agulto, so that these agency officials could respond to questions about the proposed merger "and in particular, any impact the merger may have on federal grants, local funding, and the integration of the functions of the two offices."

Leon Guerrero also asked the DEQ and CRM officials to provide listings of personnel organizational chart and all federal programs within their respective agencies.

The governor’s executive order establishes the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality. It will be headed by an administrator and will have two divisions: DEQ and CRM.

In signing the EO on Nov. 12, the governor announced that DEQ’s Rabauliman becomes the new bureau’s administrator. Rabauliman will appoint the directors of DEQ and CRM.

House floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), for his part, said combining agencies provides efficiency and simplifies processes and if this is the case with DEQ and CRM, then he will support the merger.

The governor, in his four-page executive order, said integrating CRM Office and DEQ will help to achieve "a more ideal CNMI representation to the public and to U.S. federal agencies," such as NOAA and EPA.

This, he said, is by "fully integrating and collaborating in the architecture of their agencies’ grants, strategic goals, and objectives."

Inos said the integration will also establish an efficient and economical agency that will benefit the public by having a more efficient permitting process, eliminating overlapping and redundant responsibilities, and attaining positive collaboration in common areas of environmental management by sharing resources while engaged in similar purposes, mission, and duties.

The governor had pointed out that no DEQ and CRM employee will be displaced as a result of the reorganization, that employees will retain their civil service status, and that funding remains the same—at least for fiscal year 2014.

Besides merging DEQ and CRM, the governor also merged the Department of Labor and the Workforce Investment Agency, as well as the Emergency Management Office and the CNMI Office of Homeland Security as part of its government streamlining efforts. The Legislature did not modify nor reject these two others mergers.

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