Growing calls for GHURA to reconsider pay raises

LEGISLATURE: The Guam Congress Building in Hagåtña is pictured on June 23. Post file photo

Twelve senators voted Tuesday to override the governor's rejection of the fiscal year 2021 budget bill. Only 10 votes were need to override the veto and with the decision in tow, the $950 million budget bill now becomes law.

Vice Speaker Telena Nelson, who has been called for active duty in the Guam National Guard, was excused from voting.

Adelup responded to the override, stating that it presented a "clear and present danger" to basic services at the Department of Public Health and Social Services.

"It will force us to cut services for our elderly, our foster kids, vulnerable adults, and our COVID surveillance and contact tracing unit. And it will likely mean the reduction of hours at the Judiciary of Guam," the governor's office stated, in part.

The only two senators to vote against the override were Speaker Tina Muña Barnes and Sen. Régine Biscoe Lee.

Lee originally voted against the budget bill when it was first proceeding through the Legislature, stating that it shortchanged critical agencies.

'We need to do better'

In a statement following Tuesday's override vote, Barnes said she voted against the override because she recently learned that "80 individuals from the Department of Public Health and Social Services will be furloughed – in the middle of a public health emergency."

"I voted against an override because during a time of economic downturn, in the middle of a public health emergency, we decided to not adequately fund Medicaid," she stated. "While many are out of jobs, having lost their income and their health insurance, we cannot take away an individual's fundamental right to live – we need to do better and at least give them a fighting chance."

Lawmakers, just the night before, rejected the governor's version of the fiscal 2021 budget bill, which she submitted along with her veto message. Lee and Barnes voted in favor of that bill, as did Sens. Clynton Ridgell, Amanda Shelton, Jose Terlaje and Mary Torres. Nelson was also excused at that time while all other senators voted against the measure.

The governor's budget would have adopted $7 million more in General Fund revenues compared to the Legislature's version, increasing funds to about $637 million from about $630 million.

There would have been a corresponding increase in federal matching grants, rising up to $143 million from about $109 million. Special fund revenues stayed the same at about $210 million.

The revenue increases in the governor's budget would have added about $751,000 to the Department of Administration and another $465,000 to the Department of Revenue and Taxation.

Public Health would have received the lion's share of the additional revenues, in the form of about $5.8 million slotted for the local match to federal Medicaid grant funding, with no direct additional funds to operations under the governor's budget.

Federal overmatch requirements

Except to acknowledge receipt, Public Health has not yet responded to inquiries from The Guam Daily Post seeking to verify the speaker's statements regarding furloughs.

However, during Monday's discussion on the governor's budget – in which the speaker asked about positions not funded in the Legislature's version – Lester Carlson, the director of the Bureau of Budget and Management Research, said there will be a need to take a look at federal overmatch requirements normally funded out of Public Health's operational funds.

"We're talking about the senior citizens programs and our ability to ensure that all federal grants are maximized," Carlson said. "That funding normally comes out of the operational fund. That's where we were looking to get an increase. If we're going to be utilizing the overmatch for the maximization of grants, it's going to come at the cost of warm bodies. If you do some grants and some warm bodies, you're not going to maximize federal matching, you're going to still have some people who are currently working at (Public Health) adversely affected."

There was no Rev and Tax representative to talk about its funding on Monday, but DOA Director Edward Birn said restricting the tax agency's ability to raise revenue places the department in a difficult position.

"Some of the comments we've had earlier about improved collections is because of their efforts," Birn said.

As far as DOA is concerned, Birn said there are four senior people in the department he would have to not fund in order to meet the budget forwarded by the Legislature.

"Whereas we obviously want to direct money to first responders and to people involved in law enforcement and public health, they do rely upon DOA to pay them every week ... to keep the wheels of government going, and again to restrict that, I think is also paradoxical," Birn said.

He later added that DOA is trying to set up an internal audit department because of the CARES Act money and its applicability, and also needs people in accounting and payroll to pay additional people being recruited, by Public Health in particular.

"It's not a wish, it's turned into a need now," Birn said in response to inquiries Monday.

The Guam Daily Post submitted questions to DOA and Rev and Tax regarding the additional funding, additional positions sought using the funding and potential pitfalls should the funding not come, but no response was submitted as of press time.

Meanwhile, Sen. Therese Terlaje, who has legislative oversight of health, has submitted a bill hoping to pass an amendment that failed during budget talks in August.

The bill would appropriate all fiscal 2021 withholding and corporate income tax revenues collected in excess of adopted levels budgeted per quarter to Public Health, not exceeding $5.8 million.

"This bill is a compromise and instead of raising revenue projections beyond what the body is comfortable with, we would dedicate any actual revenues collected every quarter that is above what is in the budget to Public Health to shore up any shortfalls," Terlaje stated in her release.

Public Health's budget in fiscal 2021 covers existing payroll, and expected lapses from 2020 are to be carried over into 2021, according to the release.

The budget bill also provides "tools to shift money around to address any immediate needs for health and social programs, however, the shortage for their operations could exceed $13 million, pending a final accounting on carry forwards," the release added.

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