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Another special session of Fono to revisit, yet again, budget bill

Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga
Gov. says Fono more interested in preserving their authority than the people

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — At last week’s emergency cabinet meeting, Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga announced he has called another special session of the Fono for 15-days to revisit the fiscal year 2021 budget and if no action is taken, the administration will prepare a budget for six months and have the new governor submit a new budget to the Fono.

The governor reminded cabinet members the general government is operating on the FY 2020 budget levels until an FY 2021 budget is approved. He said personnel costs must be processed, “as we have already given people their salaries and therefore cannot be changed.”

For all other expenditures, he said directors should plan accordingly on what’s needed. For example, if your FY 2020 budget has $200,000 for travel, that means the director can only utilize the one-quarter funding or $50,000.

Lolo said he has sent back to the Fono the FY 2021 budget for lawmakers to revisit carefully along with several recommendations. He also extended for another 15-days the special session days to 30-days all together.

He said this is the same for the executive order in which the government is currently operating under it’s extended budget for another 15-days for a total now of 30-days. The current order lapses tomorrow, Oct. 15th.

And after 30-days, if there is still no action by the Fono, Lolo said the administration will prepare a budget for the next six months and leave it to the new incoming governor to prepare and submit a new budget for the Fono, noting that perhaps that would be the easiest way.

He called on directors to be prepared to explain their respective budgets when they are called by the Fono.

A handful of lawmakers Samoa News spoke with say they have not received instructions from the Fono leaders for another 15-day special session, but Fono leaders are responding accordingly to the governor’s latest letter.

The second-special session was cited by the governor in his Oct. 6th four-page letter, responding to the Fono leaders’ Oct. 5th correspondence returning the same FY 2021 budget that the Fono passed, where $6.50 million in budget cuts were made to the Executive Branch. (See Samoa News edition Oct. 7th for details.)

In his latest letter, the governor said the Fono leaders engaged in citing legal precedence and process anomalies which fail to recognized the disastrous impact of the commitment to stand fast on the decision rendered to project the defiance and to relay the message than preserving the authority is more important than the lives of the people impacted by this authoritarian posture.

According to the governor, the actions he took “are rooted in my overall compassion for our people and specifically for government employees who for the first time in their lives have received a financial break by raising their minimum salaries to $12,000 particularly those who have worked in government for over 10 years and still making less than $10,000.”

Additionally, entry-level salaries were raised to $12,000 for high school graduates and $16,000 for Associate degree holders, while entry salaries for college educated employees were raised to $23,000 and $27,000 bachelors and masters degree holders respectively.

Lolo also said that the FY 2021 financial plan presented by the Fono for executive action by the governor “failed to recognize the traditional mutual respect and courtesy shared between the two branches” of ASG.

“It did not accord the governor the appropriate environment in which to exercise this review,” he wrote. “Significant changes were executed by the Legislature but it did not extend respect to the governor or any due regard in offering any explanation of the reasons which warranted these changes.”

The governor points out that first drastic change by the Fono was the reduction of revenues by $6.5 million, saying that the Legislature did not provide empirical data and analysis to justify this major revenue recession action.

“The anecdotal claim that the American Samoa Government had not realized its revenue forecasts in the previous years is irrelevant because economy dynamics change annually,” he said. “It should have therefore provided actual data to support its position and its executed action.”

Lolo also noted that all executive branch agencies of ASG had their FY 2021 budget slashed to FY 2020 levels. “These were lump sum cuts which yielded no intelligence to me where these cuts were made in the following budget object classes (personnel, travel, contractual services, materials/supplies, equipment or all others) came from,” he wrote.

He pointed out that all directors appeared before budget hearings which lasted for 5 minutes or less and were not given the opportunity to justify and provide details of their FY 2021 budget plans.

“The obvious question then, how did the Legislature base its decision to cut agency budgets?” he asked and responded that the Fono didn’t accord importance to this budget review process and it seems obvious that the decision to slash the budget had already been made before hand and the budget hearings were just a formality to comply with the intent of the law.

While the Fono increased the local Education Department’s budget by $2.8 million from FY 2020 budget levels, Lolo said there was no explanation of this action by the Fono and the $2.8 million was arbitrarily placed in the “All Others” budget object class.

“What is the $2.8 million for?” he said and points out that ASDOE’s entire workforce has undergone a complete salary reclassification overhaul to demonstrate the importance of education to the territory.

However, the governor said the overall reclassification cost is over $2.8 million because the counselors reclassification is still pending until the budget is approved.

The governor thanked the Fono leaders for explaining the $500,000 added to the Legislature’s budget, which was placed under the Governor’s Special Program “to escape the fact that the Legislature cut all the agency budgets and added $500,000 to its own budget.”

He recalled that the Fono’s explanation for the $500,000 was to address the office needs of lawmakers. But the governor points out that each senator and faipule was given $10,000 for the specific purpose of setting up their offices at home. (Samoa News notes the money was part of the Fono’s allocation of $500,000 under COVID-19 funds.)

He also informed the Fono leaders of the issuance of an order for the additional 15-days to extend government operations.

“My motives in submitting the FY 2021 financial plan are plain, pure and reflective of my burning desire to turn over to the next set of leaders a financially solid and operationally sound government,” the governor said.

“A government that will continue to advance the improvement of the quality of life of our people and secure a prosperous future for our coming generations,” he added.