CNMI House Panel Feels Agency Merger Still Problematic

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Lawmakers skeptical of move to reduce costs and redundancy

By Emmanuel T. Erediano

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Jan. 8, 2014) – Despite assurances from the administration, the House Judicial and Governmental Operations Committee still believes that merging the CNMI’s Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Coastal Resource Management Office (CRMO) may jeopardize federal funding for the two agencies.

The House leadership met yesterday afternoon to finalize the committee report that recommends the rejection of Gov. Eloy S. Inos’ Executive Order 2013-24.

Signed on Nov. 12 last year, the executive order merges DEQ and CRMO to create the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality. The merger will take effect on Jan. 12.

In separate interviews, the committee chairman, Rep. Christopher D. Leon Guerrero, Covenant-Saipan; Rep. Tony P. Sablan, IR-Saipan; and Rep. Ramon A. Tebuteb, Ind.-Saipan, also expressed doubt that the merger will actually cut government cost.

The Inos administration said it wants to get rid of the duplication of functions by merging agencies with similar responsibilities and missions.

The Department of Labor and the Workforce Investment Agency were the two other agencies that the administration has merged.

But in the case of DEQ and CRMO, the House committee said it will jeopardize federal funding "most specifically to CRMO which is 100 percent federally funded."

Tebuteb said the CNMI government should hear from the federal grantor first before putting the merger into effect.

Although he was assured by officials of DEQ and CRMO that federal funds will continue, the lawmaker said he doubts this assurance unless the federal agencies are the ones making the assurance.

He said the CNMI government does not have money to run the programs of the two agencies if the merger results in the loss of federal funding.

The committee report stated that CRMO’s main grantor, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been informed of the merger "but has yet to acknowledge" it or give its support.

NOAA, the committee said, has 90 days to review a final version of the plan, "but this plan has yet to be finalized which means that the 90-day process cannot even commence."

For his part, Leon Guerrero said the merger of DEQ and CRMO will result in a creation of additional management position.

He noted that right now, the two agencies have their respective chiefs.

If they are put together, both chiefs will be under one special assistant that will have powers similar to a department secretary. But the appointment of the special assistant will be without the advice and consent of the Senate.

"So where do we really save money there?" Leon Guerrero asked.

His committee is not convinced that the merger will result in cost savings.

Although they believe that the merger of two different entities usually results in downsizing, "in this case it is actually the opposite because the new bureau will add top-level employees," Leon Guerrero said.

Sablan, for his part. is concerned about the efficiency of the permitting process under the new bureau.

He doubts if the merger can guarantee the speedy processing of permits sought by potential investors.

He said the merger will turn two small agencies into a bigger one so it actually increases bureaucracy which will slow down the permitting process.

The CNMI government, he added, is in dire need of fresh revenue so it cannot afford to disappoint or frustrate potential investors.

The committee report said CRMO should instead be given the opportunity to continue improving its services.

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