Retirees feel ‘betrayed’ by government, say Sen. Manglona, Propst

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RETIREES feel that they are being betrayed by the CNMI government, Sen. Paul A. Manglona and House Minority Leader Edwin Propst said.

In an interview on Thursday, Manglona said several retirees asked him to air their sentiments about the possible suspension of their 25 percent benefit payments in light of an anticipated revenue shortfall.

The retirees, who did not want their names to be published, told Manglona that they supported casino legalization on Saipan because it would save their pension.

They said they already felt “betrayed” when Gov. Ralph DLG Torres signed Public Law 20-10 in September 2017. Authored by then-Rep. Angel Demapan, the measure removed the retirees’ 25 percent from the list of the recipients of the $15 million annual casino license fee.

Now that the government is about to implement new austerity measures to address its anticipated $40 million revenue loss, the retirees said “it’s not right to hurt them.”

“I am 70 years old,” one of the retirees said. “I still want to work but I cannot anymore. I am limping. I had worked for the government since 1973 when [we] were still part of the Trust Territory. Like me, the retirees here on Rota are very angry. We feel betrayed and abandoned.”

He said it is wrong to suspend 25 percent of their pension benefits.

“It is a disgrace to the people who promised us that our pension would be paid in whole,” he added.

House Minority Leader Edwin Propst, for his part, said: “To the retirees, you know what is really sad? The fact that the 25 percent cut is being considered. Why? Because the $15 million annual license fee [Imperial Pacific International] paid was originally used to pay the 25 percent benefit payments that weren’t required by the Settlement Agreement, so that you would receive 100 percent of your pension.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “H.B. 20-99, which became CNMI P.L. 20-10, changed all that and took the $15 million away from you retirees and gave it to the three senatorial districts to spend as they please. I voted no to this bill for all the obvious reasons. Had this disastrous P.L. 20-10 never passed, retirees would be protected right now and would not be affected.”

In a statement, Manglona, the lone member of the minority in the Senate, said:

“In the Senate session held to pass the budget bill last year on Aug. 22, 2019 I voted against H.B. 21-64…as I had many questions and concerns then that were not addressed.

“One of those concerns involved the 25 percent of class members’ full retiree benefits. I offered at the session a floor amendment, which would have guaranteed this payment to the retirees by suspending Public Law 20-10 should the Special Casino Revenue Tax Account be insufficient to cover it. Had the amendment passed, it would have allowed the use of the moneys collected for the application of an exclusive casino license ($15 million each year) for this 25 percent benefit.

“This, after all, was the original purpose of the casino license fee. I believe this was not an unreasonable amendment request as we had heard just days before the session from Secretary of Finance David Atalig that the casino revenue tax collections were not too promising. The amendment was not entertained by the Senate, thus defeated.

“Another amendment that I offered was also rejected. The amendment would have provided urgently and desperately needed money for Inter-Island Medical Referral patients traveling from Rota to Saipan. This would have restored a similar appropriation language included in the prior year’s budget law. Today, our Rota patients are here on Saipan every week without any medical referral stipend.

“Also, I brought up the issue of the $15 million [Marianas Public Land Trust] loan. I offered to the members a potential revenue source that can be given to our Public School System to fix our damaged school buildings. All we needed was a language in the budget bill to state that in the event that [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] reimburses funds expended for Typhoon Yutu, the $15 million from the MPLT loan shall be re-appropriated to PSS, our…obligation to the NMI Settlement Fund, or the Department of Public Safety for overtime compensation for our law enforcement officers. The members rejected this proposal. The question today is where is [the] $15 million now that [the] CNMI has received or will be receiving [in] federal reimbursement?

“Since then, I have written several letters to the Governor and the Secretary of Finance regarding reliable factual information pertaining to several CNMI financial matters, including casino gross receipt taxes, exclusive casino license fee, [Development Plan Advisory Committee] reports, MPLT $15 million loan reimbursement, and the $20 million annual Casino Community Benefit Fund. In addition, I have made several follow ups on the fund status of all appropriated casino gross revenue for various projects and programs totaling more than $152 million in the last three years. The questions I have asked remain unanswered today.

“Now we read in the papers that the retiree pensions may be reduced [by] 25 percent and the government employees are facing a biweekly 64-hour government work schedule austerity implementation. Again, as I have asked many times before to the Governor and the Secretary of Finance, where are the reliable factual financial numbers?”

‘It’s a shame’

Asked for comment, Press Secretary Kevin Bautista issued the following statement:

“It’s a shame. Shame on the Senator and the Congressman for politicizing our Commonwealth’s unanticipated economic circumstances at a time when we need to come together to promote the Marianas to our other source markets Korea and Japan and produce revenue-generating measures. Our economy is driven by our tourism pipeline from Korea, China, and Japan. When the valve is shut, that sends a ripple effect through all of our businesses, including the casino, resulting in a loss of revenue, negatively [impacting] our government budgetary resources. That’s lost economic activity we cannot get back. The Senator should know that. He’s been a legislator for decades, yet he hasn’t produced any meaningful revenue generation in years, if ever. The Congressman should know that, but he also hasn’t produced any revenue-generating bills at all that can make up for economic losses. He hasn’t worked to bring in any additional investment or new industries into the CNMI. The Governor, Lt. Governor, and the leadership [have] remained open to any ideas on revenue generation for the last several years in order to diversify our economy and add to our tourism and gaming industry. Technology, agriculture, and other industries have been brought up. No such proposals came from the Senator or the Congressman.

“Over the last few years, this administration and the Legislature’s Leadership have brought in Skymark Airlines to diversify our tourism source markets and cannabis, which is now well on its way [to] finalizing its regulations to bring a true commercial industry to the CNMI.

“Let’s be clear about the Senator and the Congressman’s misconceptions. Since 2015, this administration has continued to prioritize our retirees and ensure 100 percent of their pensions. Almost $200 million has been dedicated to paying the Settlement Fund, as well as additional appropriations to ensure the full pensions of our retirees. All other options will be considered before it gets to that point.

“The Governor and Lt. Governor in collaboration with members of the Legislature are hard at work to reinforce ongoing cost-containment measures, revisiting our tax structure, and looking at work hours. This is on top of seeking new investments and revenue generation. Options are being considered. Financial cost impacts are being finalized in order to ensure the most accurate numbers. An announcement of our latest estimates will be made on Friday. There are real leaders doing the hard work to get things done during this unanticipated economic downturn. The Governor called for a united message to work together to promote our islands to our other markets. People and businesses are joining in that mission because we know it affects all of us. It takes a collective effort.

“But it’s unfortunate that the Congressman and the Senator choose divisive politics during this vulnerable time.

The governor’s chief of staff, Angel Demapan, for his part, said: “Rep. Propst and Sen. Manglona falsely insinuate that Public Law 20-10, which I authored and was passed by the overwhelming support from representatives and senators of the 20th Legislature, short-changed our retirees. The fact is P.L. 20-10 was enacted to provide the funds needed $22 million annually, to fully pay retirees 25 percent portion of their pensions. Before P.L. 20-10, the law only provided $14 million annually for the retirees’ 25 percent when the actual amount needed was a little over $20 million. But of course, Rep. Propst and Sen. Manglona conveniently left that fact out in their habitual quest to misinform the public.”

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