Opinion: The state of the Commonwealth requires justice

By Christina “Tina” Sablan

Much has been said about Governor Torres’ last-minute bungled attempt to deliver a State of the Commonwealth Address (SOCA) right before the 2022 general election. The timing was suspect, the costs questionable, and the other branches of government were not consulted. Traditionally, the SOCA is delivered before a joint session of the legislature annually and much earlier in the year, in a public venue and with coordination among the branches.

We haven’t had a joint session to receive Governor Torres’ SOCA since August 2018, right before the last general election.  In that SOCA, Torres proclaimed a strong and healthy economy – “the fastest economic growth in the country” – and a fiscal surplus in government. He praised the Imperial Pacific International (IPI) casino, his administration’s golden goose, as “the highest single taxpayer in the CNMI,” and assured us all that IPI was paying its taxes. He mentioned the word “progress” 24 times in that speech, and presented many colorful graphs showing impressive improvements in the commonwealth’s state of affairs.

But a few months later – after the 2018 election – we learned that actually the government had ended the fiscal year with a $26 million deficit. We also learned that IPI, like the government, was in deep financial straits. Contrary to what Governor Torres had claimed, IPI actually owed taxes and fees to the government. IPI owed money to virtually everyone else as well – workers, contractors, and vendors. The golden goose was dying.

To mean anything at all, a State of the Commonwealth Address must at a minimum be truthful. Governor Torres’ last SOCA failed to meet that basic standard.

Article III, section 9 of the CNMI Constitution requires the governor to report on the affairs of the commonwealth at least annually. That report must cover the financial condition of the government and be prepared in accordance with generally accepted governmental accounting principles. Given that the current administration is more than two years behind on the single audit for fiscal year 2020, and hasn’t even begun working on the single audit for fiscal year 2021 (which was due last June), it appears that Governor Torres’ next annual report to the legislature, whenever that will be, will not meet constitutional standards, either.

The people of the Marianas deserve a clear-eyed, truthful assessment of the state of the commonwealth. Without a doubt, we have been through unprecedented challenges these past six years: typhoon disasters, fiscal austerity, mass furloughs, a global pandemic. Our community pulls together remarkably in times of adversity, and there is much to be proud of in how we have weathered these storms – with unmatched generosity and kindness towards one another, true resourcefulness, indomitable resilience.

Unfortunately these past years we have also witnessed unprecedented failures of leadership in the current administration. We have seen the raiding of the governor’s office and home as well as the casino by federal agents, and it appears federal investigations are ongoing. We have seen the impeachment of the governor by the legislature, and criminal charges filed against him by the attorney general. We have seen numerous examples of cronyism in the awarding of contracts and jobs, and the unashamed leveraging of public funds for campaign purposes. We have seen millions in tax dollars squandered in illegal overtime and unfair bonuses to favored officials, and political firings and furloughs affecting hundreds of public servants.

A truthful State of the Commonwealth Address would acknowledge these shameful deficiencies and provide a plan for corrective action. It would provide an accurate, current assessment of the fiscal condition of the government. It would lay out the priorities for federal and local tax dollars, describe what has been spent and how much remains, and make proposals for future investments. It would present measures to stop the cronyism, follow the law, and collect public funds that have been unlawfully paid out.

A truthful SOCA would explain to the people how typhoon and pandemic recovery funds are being distributed, and what efforts are underway to get critical projects and programs moving on all of our islands. That there are still over a thousand people waiting for their Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is beyond unconscionable and absurd – especially when we consider that the application period for the PUA program closed over a year ago. What is being done to speed up the processing of these claims that were supposed to be weekly benefits issued many months ago to help people survive the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic? A truthful SOCA would explain that.

A truthful SOCA would also explain why it’s taken more than four years since Supertyphoon Yutu for the current administration and the Public School System to finally agree that Hopwood Middle School should be rebuilt exactly where it is right now. Why we still have kids learning in substandard buildings and FEMA tents that are reaching the end of their lifecycle, while we wait for the real construction projects to move. Why it’s taken more than four years for the Commonwealth Ports Authority to “submit things” (as the CPA Board Chair put it) to finally get an approved budget for a decent commuter terminal, while the old one remains in a state of utter disaster and interisland airlines and passengers utilize refurbished containers.

A truthful SOCA would explain why we’re going on nearly two years since the groundbreaking for the Beach Road improvement project, and have yet to see much sign of actual improvement – not even the single traffic light at Quartermaster is done. Why FEMA projects are barely moving on Tinian, and even simple repairs to fencing have taken years to complete. Why there has been such meager infrastructure development on Rota. Why, for six years, the current administration has dragged its feet in transferring millions in federal and local tax dollars to our one and only healthcare system and all of our public educational institutions – and what impact that has had on their operations and success, and how that negligence will be corrected, going forward.

A truthful SOCA would lay bare the decision-making process for who gets BOOST funding and how much they get, given that there currently appears to be no rubric and when guidelines are so ambiguous. A truthful SOCA would also describe what the actual return on investment has been for the millions of dollars allocated for airline subsidies. It would acknowledge the facts that multiple Korean airlines have suspended flights to Saipan, and most of the people flying in from Japan are U.S. citizens and returning residents, not Japanese tourists. A truthful SOCA would present the plans for how we will make our Marianas a safer and more beautiful place for visitors and residents, what we will do with the casino monstrosity in Garapan among numerous other blighted sites, and how we are going to engage more local participation in the tourism industry and diversify into other industries that are compatible with tourism and make sense for our islands.

Groundbreakings, photo ops, and press releases are easy. It’s easy to be generous and free-wheeling with tax dollars, but misleading to characterize them as “donations” and irresponsible to make grand promises with public funds without a plan. A truthful SOCA wouldn’t be about spin and propaganda. Yes, we should celebrate the wins we have made together, as a community. But we should also be honest in assessing our state of affairs, so that we can identify and reach consensus on solutions. The truth is harder, but it’s also freeing. Our problems are solvable, but we can only begin to address them by being honest about them. Fiscal responsibility takes more effort and care, but it’s absolutely necessary if our goal is to improve the commonwealth for the benefit of all, and build a future that is more hopeful, prosperous, and just.

Leila Fleming Staffler and I often say that our campaign is about more than just winning this election, and more than just the next four years. We mean it, too. We see the tremendous potential of our islands and people, and opportunities to lay the foundations now for a thriving future.  An apt allegory for the upcoming election was shared with us recently by a constituent: Imagine a jungle path that diverges three ways. One path is familiar, and leads through a putrid swamp and goes straight over the edge of a cliff. The other path looks like the first path, but circles upon itself, and goes nowhere. The third path is different, and beautiful, and leads through sunlit meadows and abundant forests.

This November, may we collectively choose the different, and beautiful path: the path of change, the path of good governance, the path to a bright and hopeful future. And may the next State of the Commonwealth Address be one that navigates the way – truthful about where we stand, inspiring confidence in what lies ahead.

Tina Sablan is the democratic candidate for governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

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