Guam Legislature Passed 20+ Bills Without Public Input

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Speaker: Organic Act allows bypassing public hearing

By Shawn Raymundo

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Dec. 15, 2014) – More than 20 legislative bills that became law this term didn't go through a public hearing, according to Legislature reports compiled by the Pacific Daily News.

So far in the 32nd Legislature, 208 bills have been enacted into public laws. Of those bills, 24 of them were passed by lawmakers who withheld or waived an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the proposed pieces of legislation.

The most recent law to have been enacted without a public hearing was Public Law 32-208, which Lt. Gov. Ray Tenorio, as acting governor, signed on Nov. 24, three days after sending lawmakers into a special session to discuss the bill.

Public Law 208 raised the annual salaries of senators from $60,840 to $85,000 while the governor's salary increased by nearly 45 percent to $130,000. The law also gave considerable salary increases to other elected positions and Cabinet members. The elected and appointed officials in the law also will receive a retroactive payment dating back to January.

Because the bill was sent into a special session, the public wasn't given a chance to voice their opinions and concerns.

As a result, a local group, "Guamanians for Fair Government," started an online petition on Change.org in the hopes of getting lawmakers to repeal the pay raise law. As of Saturday, the group had received more than 1,200 signatures.

Speaker Judith Won Pat, D-Inarajan, said the Organic Act allows the governor of Guam to send bills down to the Legislature and call a special session, bypassing a public hearing. She added public hearings also could be waived if similar legislation to the proposed bill has already gone through a public hearing or a bill addresses a public safety or health issue that requires an urgent response from lawmakers.

"Sometimes you have to act," she said. "Especially if it's a public safety issue or a health issue."

She said that ideally, every bill should go through a public hearing, regardless of emergencies, special sessions and previous public hearings on similar bills. However, public hearings need to be announced five days in advance of the scheduled meeting, which she said could be too long a wait for some issues.

Hearings on raises

In the case of Public Law 208, Won Pat pointed out, that public hearings were held in January this year over the GovGuam pay raises after the Department of Administration submitted the Wage Act of 2014 to the Legislature. The Wage Act provided recommended salaries to government employees based on a compensation study done in 2010 by the Hay Group.

"Every one of those bills had been heard and talked about in many public hearings and the committee as a whole," Won Pat said. "They came to the floor in the first quarter of the year and we continued to discuss it."

Sen. Michael San Nicolas, D-Dededo, wrote Bill 268-32 that would have implemented parts of the Wage Act raises while excluding appointed and elected officials. A public hearing was held over the bill on Jan. 31 when several government officials and citizens provided testimony.

The bill was passed on Feb. 1, but about two weeks later Gov. Eddie Calvo vetoed it, citing issues with unequal pay scales, hidden pay raises for senators and a hold on implementation until July.

On Feb. 20, Sen. Ben Pangelinan, D-Barrigada, introduced Bill 278 to allow the implementation of the Wage Act raises while excluding appointed Cabinet members and most elected officials, except for mayors. Lawmakers passed the bill the same day in an 11-4 vote with Republican Sens. Tony Ada, Brant McCreadie, Tommy Morrison and Aline Yamashita opposing it.

The following month, the bill lapsed into law without the governor's signature because he opposed the exclusion of appointed leaders from receiving a raise.

During this term, lawmakers officially waived public hearings on 18 bills that eventually became laws, according to the compiled reports. Five of the bills were introduced in a special session. Public Law 32-115 had no public hearings held and a committee report wasn't filed for the bill at the Legislature.

In October, senators waived the public hearings for Bills 411-32 and 417-32, which reappropriated money from government funds to the Guam Memorial Hospital Authority and law enforcement agencies, respectively.

According to reports, more than half of the 24 laws that didn't go through a public hearing were written to move around sizeable amounts of money from various GovGuam funds and agencies to other departments.

"It can happen when certain agencies are finding themselves in situations when they need the money," Won Pat said, as another example to waiving a public hearing.

Although the public hearings are waived, government officials who are experts on the issues pertaining to a bill being deliberated are often times still called to the Legislature to provide their input, Won Pat said.

Bill 417, which eventually became Public Law 32-207, was first introduced and unanimously passed by lawmakers on Oct. 30 as a replacement to Bill 415-32. Calvo called a special session for lawmakers to discuss Bill 415, which he wrote as an effort to pay the island's law enforcement officers any unpaid overtime compensation from fiscal year 2014.

The heads of the island's public safety and law enforcement agencies were called to the Legislature to discuss their respective department's financial situations and why officers had accrued unpaid overtime compensation.

Senators deliberated over Calvo's bill and amended it a few times before unanimously passing it. The final version of the bill appropriated more than $3 million to the Guam Police Department to pay for overtime costs accrued in fiscal year 2014 and future overtime costs in fiscal year 2015.

However, the final version of Bill 415 had a provision that would have excluded officers assigned to the governor's personal security from receiving the overtime compensation. To prevent a possible veto by the governor, Vice Speaker Benjamin Cruz, D-Piti, rewrote Bill 415 to remove the provision and introduced it as Bill 417 on Oct. 30.

The alternate bill was passed the same day of its introduction and enacted by Gov. Calvo the following day.

In Public Law 32-206, $75,000 originally appropriated to the Guam Legislature, was given to GMHA to pay for medical equipment. Senators approved waiving the public hearing for the bill that was passed on Oct. 21 and signed by the governor on Oct. 31.

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