By Guam standards, $634 million is a lot of money to spend, especially if it's "free."
With the third massive COVID-19 pandemic relief passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Joseph Biden, the government of Guam will have $634 million to spend.
There have been initial discussions that nearly half of this money, or about $300 million, will go toward the initial funding for a new government-run Guam Memorial Hospital which has been estimated to cost upward of $700 million. Former Gov. Carl Gutierrez, wearing his hat as economic adviser to the governor and chief executive of the Guam Visitors Bureau, wants at least $18 million for upgrades to Matapang Beach Park in Tumon Bay.
GVB also would like to see $20 million of the same funding pie to help plug GVB's financial gaps while the tourism industry is waiting for tourists to come back in substantial numbers. Guam remains far from seeing the return of even a fraction of the more than 1.6 million tourists the island saw in 2019, the year before the pandemic, and the visitor industry's full recovery isn't expected to happen in the near future.
Just these three items alone on certain officials' wish lists illustrate that while $634 million is a big number, it can quickly dissipate.
This debit card from Uncle Sam can quickly get maxed out.
GovGuam has increased its payroll spending during this pandemic and its labor cost will come back to bite when federal money to help prop up decreased local revenues slows to a trickle. The pay and retirement benefits in GovGuam alone could pose a financial challenge after the pandemic is over.
The prioritization of expenses using the $634 million in federal funds should be a very transparent public process.
Even when the governor has the flexibility to decide where that money goes, it will still be reassuring from the public's perspective to hear that there will be open discussions with the Legislature about priorities.
GovGuam has two years to spend that money so it shouldn't be a rushed decision. It should be done with a lot of careful thought, with the crucial needs of the public in mind.
Part of the $634 million could be used to start a more lasting unemployment assistance program that will be able to help Guam workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.
In September, when the federally funded unemployment program on Guam ends, the island's displaced workers will have a rough time getting by, especially if their skills are tied to the visitor and service industries.
Steve Guerrero, director of the Office of Finance and Budget in the 36th Guam Legislature, advocates for salting away some of the $634 million for the next budget year, which begins in October this year. He mentioned the need for a cushion to help still-displaced Guam workers when the federally funded pandemic unemployment aid ends.
“Here we are thinking, ‘Oh, all this money is going to keep us afloat.’ No, it’s not; it’s going to end. And once it ends, what the hell do we have left? Who is going to come and bail us out?" Guerrero said. "If we’re not smart and (we will not use) this money to do long-term investments, to do long-term returns to the point where we can at least recover what we lost to a certain level, we’re going to be dead in the water,” Guerrero said.
The stakes are high to make sure this money is spent the right way and for the most crucial needs of our community.
The more public input and legislative scrutiny this $634 million will get – before it is spent – the better it will be for the taxpayers and the public in general.