GAO audit shows Am Samoa received $1.3 billion in COVID relief as of May 2023
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Gov. Lemanu P. S. Mauga has called for the support of federal partners — to among other things — increase funding and provided much-required technical support for American Samoa, which has so far been awarded some $1.3 billion in COVID-19 funding, as of May this year.
The governor’s request is outlined in a letter offering his comments to a draft of the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report, ‘COVID-19: U.S Territory Experiences Could Inform Future Federal Relief’ — which has been made final and is addressed to U.S. Congressional committees and publicly released yesterday morning.
According to the GAO, federal agencies allocated about $32.1 billion in COVID-19 relief funding to the five U.S. territories. Data summarized in the report shows that as of May 2023, American Samoa has been allocated $1.3 billion; Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands with $1.9 billion; Guam $2.7 billion; Puerto Rico $24.8 billion; and U.S. Virgin Islands $1.5 billion.
(A footnote in the report points out that allocation data was collected between May 2022 and May 2023, prior to the rescission of unobligated funds in a number of COVID-19 relief programs under the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 in June 2023.)
GAO explained that the relief funding was provided through more than 100 new and existing federal programs across 16 federal agencies. Territory government officials told GAO that this funding helped them meet key priorities, including the public health response to COVID-19, improvements to health care infrastructure and access, replacement of lost revenue for continued government operations, and infrastructure development.
GAO also recalled territory government officials telling them that the territorial governments faced challenges administering selected COVID-19 relief programs. These included having sufficient administrative capacity, determining allowable uses for funding, spending funds within allotted time frames, and managing reporting requirements.
“Based on the experiences of the territorial governments administering COVID-19 relief funding and federal agency actions to mitigate certain challenges,” GAO identified “four themes that could inform future federal relief to U.S. territories.”
And GAO explained the themes:
• Leveraging pre-existing programs: In contrast to newly created programs, territory officials reported experiencing fewer challenges administering and reporting on pre-existing federal programs that received additional funding.
• Technical assistance: Territory officials faced fewer challenges implementing programs where there was strong coordination and communication between the federal agency and the territory regarding program requirements and reporting.
• Funding flexibilities: Territory governments used COVID-19 relief funding with flexible or broad allowable uses to meet needs that might not be allowable under other federal programs, and worked with federal agencies to modify allowable uses and funding time frames to meet territory needs.
• Immediately available funding: Territory officials said funding that was immediately available, rather than provided as reimbursement, enabled them to better plan, schedule, and expend funds for allowable uses.
GOV. LEMANU’S RESPONSE
The governor provided comments on the audit report in a five-page Aug. 30 letter, highlighting what Lemanu says is the territory’s COVID-19 relief efforts, including assistance from federal partners, “our environmental vulnerability which speaks to our need for continued federal partnership, our economic development efforts including support from federal agencies and finally our general need for federal partnership to maintain our country’s strong presences in the southern Pacific region.”
On the issue of “Needed Federal Support”, the governor noted that the highlights of the key areas in the GAO report are “accurate” and on point, not only with COVID-19 but future funding, leverage pre-exiting programs, support through technical assistance, funding flexibility and immediate available funding.
He also said that the four “themes” cited by GAO are crucial in the successful administration and implementation of the programs and support. Additionally, the recent passage of the debt ceiling through the federal Fiscal Reform Act 2023 is a great effort for the government to reduce spending and debt.
Furthermore, the reduction in COVID-19 funds across the broad and those to be returned still pose a concern. And he posed the question of how will this negatively affect the projects for American Samoa and other territories.
“The leveraging of federal programs is crucial to priority projects that help secure the improved quality of life for our people,” the governor points out. “Despite all the challenges that face our small island territory - the remoteness, the geological location, the added challenges - time and time again we are allocated the least amount of funding allocations.”
“We need the support of our federal partners to increase funding, provide the much-required technical support and the ability to leverage funding opportunities in a flexible and timely manner,” the governor declared.
“Not five to ten years after a disaster or an identified threat because of permitting, grant expiration and other requirements that impede the actions to deter threats, reduce vulnerabilities, and minimize the consequences,” he said.
“We significantly need the support of our program resources in all aspects of both current funding programs and future relief funding,” the governor said.
Samoa News will report in future editions on pertinent issues in the GAO report pertaining to American Samoa.
GAO noted that various Offices of Inspector General (OIG) have published reports regarding the territories’ uses of COVID-19 relief funding. For example, the U.S Department of the Treasury OIG sent a letter to American Samoa regarding specific uses of Coronavirus Relief Funds.
The most recent US Treasury OIG report, released this week, found that ASG’s use of $1.5 million on coronavirus funds were in violation of federal law and US Treasury guidelines. (See yesterday’s Samoa News edition for details.)
According to GAO, the federal CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to conduct monitoring and oversight of the use of funds made available to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the pandemic.
GAO reviewed: how much funding was allocated to the territories and how territories reported that those funds were used; territories’ experiences administering COVID-19 relief funding; and how selected federal agencies helped territories administer COVID-19 relief funding and what themes can inform future federal relief to the territories.