Compact Impact Funding Inadequate, U.S. Insular Affairs Chief Admits

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Kia‘aina: Guam, CNMI, Hawai‘i should not shoulder burden alone

By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Oct. 21, 2014) – The amount of federal funding to help Guam, Hawaii and the Northern Marianas host regional immigrants from the Freely Associated States is inadequate, a visiting federal official acknowledged yesterday.

"On the issue of compact-impact, I am a realist; $30 million is not enough," said Assistant Secretary Esther Kia'aina, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in June to head the Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs. Guam has received $16.8 million of the annual $30 million "Compact-impact" funding. The remainder is shared by Hawaii and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Greatest impact

Guam is experiencing the greatest impact of the influx of regional immigrants, Kia'aina said.

More than 32 percent of the approximately 56,000 who have left the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands moved to Guam, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report in July last year shows. These island nations gave the United States access for defense purposes. In exchange, the island nations receive hundreds of millions in financial aid, and their citizens can freely move to any U.S. location under what's called Compact of Free Association agreements.

Kia'aina is visiting Guam for the first time since she was appointed in March to her new role. She was born on Guam and grew up here until after attending middle school when her family relocated to Hawaii. She was the guest speaker at the fully booked Guam Women's Chamber of Commerce meeting in the Micronesian ballroom of the Hilton Guam Resort & Spa yesterday.

The inadequate funding comes at a time when the federal government faces budget constraints, Kia'aina said. Guam also is losing key U.S. senators who are familiar with Guam-federal issues, including Sen. Daniel Akaka, who retired last year, she said.

Influx of immigrants

Guam, Hawaii and the CNMI also face further influx of regional immigrants when the U.S. ends its economic assistance to freely associated states in nine years, and as climate change forces the resettlement of FSM and Marshall Islands citizens decades from now, Kia'aina said.

"There's a potential for a serious resettlement of many of these outlying areas, and it is not an issue that the people of Guam, the people of Hawaii, the people of the Northern Marianas should shoulder alone," Kia'aina said. "It is a big issue."

While Kia'aina recognized the inadequate funding to help Guam cope with regional immigrants, she also acknowledged it will be a tough challenge to convince Uncle Sam to write a bigger check if that extra amount doesn't have something to offset with.

For example, she said the CNMI can ask to offset millions of dollars in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fines. She didn't give a specific Guam example, but added that for Guam, "debt relief" can be proposed.

As of January this year, GovGuam owed the U.S. Treasury close to $22 million under the Make Work Pay tax credits program. The federal government provided money to GovGuam to pay tax refunds under the tax credit, but GovGuam was overpaid, Pacific Daily News files show.

Kia'aina said the FAS governments haven't fully utilized almost $100 million in U.S. financial assistance for the island nations to improve their health care and education infrastructure.

"I'm probably going to be in trouble for my comments today, but everything is connected, and I do believe people need to be held accountable," Kia'aina said. "And since this is a collective impact on the whole region, we all have to be in it together."

"The federal government, ... we've been MIA ... the FAS governments as well," she said of the cost of regional migration to Guam, Hawaii and the CNMI.

She said while she understands the FAS migrants' "dreams and challenges," the regional immigrant communities on Guam, in Hawaii and in the CNMI also need to talk to the government leaders in their home islands about helping the hosts of their relocation.

"We have to have a good dialogue to be able to talk frankly to their governments," Kia'aina said.

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