Food For Thought 4-4-08
Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.
I’ve been detecting a very marked change in the last several months, many people are completely losing hope that things will ever change or improve here. Up to this point, many of us believed that things would continue getting worse for a while, but then we would turn a corner and things would actually start to rebound and the worst would be behind us. Things have admittedly been very bad here for quite a while. Corruption is not only rampant, but seems to be encouraged as no one is ever held accountable for their misdeeds, and that is something that many people have just come to expect as a way of life when you live in the CNMI. It’s sad that this has become an accepted way of life, because it shouldn’t be this way, and certainly doesn’t have to be. But it is because people continue to put the same old politicians back into office that got us into all these messes in the first place. They continue to fall for the same old campaign promises and lies even though they have never seen them fulfilled even once. For many years I have been saying that the key to any meaningful and lasting change here is abolish and completely revamp the way our legislature works. But we all know that will never happen because the good old boys are not about to give up their stranglehold on power and actually do something that would serve the needs of the people. This is a lesson now being learned by some of the freshman lawmakers who were just elected last November. I certainly don’t think the legislature is the only place in government that we have real problems, but I do believe it is the heart of the problem that needs to be addressed first.
This past week the Lt. Governor and Tony Guerrero, the Executive Director of Commonwealth Utilities Corporation came in to explain on the air what is going on with the utility, why we have been experiencing so many power outages lately, and the general state of the utility. I know they meant for the talk to be encouraging, as they are in the final stages of rehabbing a couple of the main engines and generators, and once they are back online we shouldn’t have the rolling blackouts we’ve been experiencing recently.
But at the same they were sharing the good news about some of the generators finally being repaired and back online, they told about the utilities inability to pay for a fuel delivery from Mobil later that same day. They told me that CUC had only $1 million to pay for a $4 million dollar delivery. They were hoping that they could either come up with the money from somewhere else in government, or that Mobil would agree to some kind of terms. Then they broke the news to me that the utility is still forced to charge the low rate of .17 cents a kilowatt hour to residential customers as a result of the ridiculous law passed by both houses of the legislature before the previous election. You might recall that Tao Tao Tano went up to the legislature demanding that the legislators do something about the high cost of power or the supposed thousands of Tao Tao Tano supporters would vote them all out of office. Our leaders who are full of something, but integrity isn’t it, caved in and voted to lower the rates for residential customers to .17 cents a kilowatt hour, while raising the cost of power to business to .32 cents. They were told repeatedly that this was charging far below what it actually cost the utility to produce the power, but they didn’t care, they were too busy buying votes to secure their income for the next 2 years, or 4 years in the senate’s case. They knew that this would mean the utility wouldn’t have money to make its fuel purchases, but again, they just didn’t care, they were too afraid of being voted out of office if they didn’t cave in to Tao Tao Tano’s demands.
And now the chickens are coming home to roost, the utility had to lower the rates back down as of March 1st, and they are still continuing to bill at that rate. It might be worth noting at this point that the same legislator who authored the bill to lower the power rate in the first place has now also authored a bill to repeal that law. Did he all of the sudden wake up and realize this wouldn’t work, that CUC wasn’t going to be able to buy fuel, or did he only do it in the first place to buy votes before the election? The bill has passed the House and is now awaiting action from the Senate.
But up until March 1st, CUC was charging the higher rate for electricity, and yet they are still $3 million short for the fuel delivery, and that’s when they were supposedly charging enough to cover their costs. The billing cycle for these new lower rates won’t be felt until May and June, which means that CUC will again not have even close to enough money to pay for their fuel deliveries. Are we really supposed to expect Mobil to just keep bringing fuel knowing that we won’t be able to pay for it and that we’re not doing anything to fix the problem? Where will the Governor and the legislature reappropriate money from to pay for fuel the next time? Will it come from your department? Will they cut your job? One thing that I can guarantee you is they won’t take it out of their own pockets or operating expenses.
In the midst of the crisis, we have everybody blaming everybody else for the mess the utility currently finds itself in. The administration would blame the legislature for stalling and not approving their appointments to the Public Utilities Commission. The legislature would accuse the administration of using political favors in their appointments and not appointing those best qualified to serve in that capacity, or those with a conflict of interest. And CUC would blame the legislature for passing a law lowering the rates for residential customers to .17 cents a kilowatt hour, knowing that it costs far more than that to produce the electricity. And in the midst of all the arguing and finger pointing, the situation just gets more and more desperate and hopeless. It’s no wonder that so many people are choosing to move away and start over somewhere else; they just don’t have the confidence that things will ever change or improve here.
It’s very well documented just how cash strapped the government is and how we need to make some drastic cuts just to survive. But you might be interested to know that the legislature is willing to make cuts, but only to you, they don’t even want to consider inflicting any cuts that might impact them personally. In Friday’s edition of the Saipan Tribune there is a story on page 5 entitled “Austerity bill hurdles bitter House debate”. This bill reinstates the austerity Friday program and suspends holiday pay for the 3 remaining holidays this fiscal year. It also reduces the government’s retirement contribution rate to 11 percent, which is far less than the actuary recommended rate of 36.77 percent. The bill also reprograms $6 million from various revenue sources outside the General Fund. This bill is expected to raise $17 million for government operations.
As you may recall from the last round of austerity Friday’s, the only effect that has on the legislators themselves is that it gives them an extra day off every other week, while not touching their pay. So they’ve done it again, they’ve given themselves more time off at the same pay while cutting your pay. And they are also putting off their retirement obligations, and letting another administration down the line have to deal with the deficit to the Retirement Fund.
Voting against the bill were David Apatang, Heinz Hofschneider, Tina Sablan and Ralph Torres, Rosemond Santos was absent. Tina Sablan attempted to make an amendment to terminate government paid mobile phones and vehicle leases, which would also save the government a lot of money. She wanted to make other amendments as well, but was never allowed to introduce them. Representative Diego Benavente voted down Sablan’s proposed amendment, saying that her suggestion might cause controversy and delay passage of the bill in the Senate. Representative Joseph Deleon Guerrero said that this kind of amendment has no room in this legislation. In other words, Tina Sablan’s amendments would take away some of the lawmakers perks, and they weren’t willing to give up any of their own personal goodies for the good of the Commonwealth, they’d rather just have you pay for it. They have obviously learned no lessons at all and why should they? You put them back into office last November after watching them pull all these same shenanigans during their last term, and didn’t hold them accountable or make them answer for any of it. They believe they are truly above the rest of us and shouldn’t have to face the same hardships they inflict on the rest of us. They behave this way because they can. Instead of punishing them for it and booting them out of office, you re-elected them and rewarded them for their greedy and selfish behavior.
Yes, I have a lot of respect for Tina Sablan and her ideas, but the problem is she is vastly outvoted in the legislature, and it is still a numbers game there. Common sense, fiscal responsibility and ethics really don’t have any place in the legislature, and those that employ them and hold them dear will be outvoted and silenced every single time. So as business close because they can’t afford the outrageous power bills being levied against them, and as there are more blackouts because CUC can’t afford to pay for the fuel shipments, you can thank your lawmakers for lowering the residential rate before the last election in a sleazy attempt to hold onto their jobs and power.
If the legislature isn’t the root of all evil, it certainly isn’t far from it!
Food For Thought is now available online at www.fftsaipan.blogspot.com and if you want it by e-mail distribution please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.