FSM president, lawmakers discuss Covid-19 response, other issues

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PALIKIR, Pohnpei (FSM Information Services) — The 21st Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia began its seventh special session on Aug. 17, 2020.

After the opening session, FSM President David W. Panuelo and Vice President Yosiwo P. George received the Committee to Wait, chaired by the Esmond B. Moses, with committee member Ferny S. Perman, to discuss their agenda for this session of Congress.

The Committee to Wait on the President discussed Covid-19 repatriation efforts, amending Tourism Sector Mitigation Funding to support additional categories of businesses, nominations for various offices (e.g. the FSM Office of Personnel and the FSM Trust Fund Board), a supplemental budget request in support of the Covid-19 Response Framework, and expanding Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programming to non-citizens of the FSM.

The meeting began regarding Covid-19 adaptation, mitigation, and repatriation efforts. After the president described the results of the simulation exercises throughout the federation, Senator Perman, chairman of the Congressional Committee on Health & Social Affairs, asked: “How come we didn’t do the [Republic of] Palau model of how they brought and repatriated their citizens? In the Palau model, they put people in a hotel, quarantined them, tested them twice, and brought them back to Palau for additional quarantine and tests.”

Livingston A. Taulung, secretary of the Department of Health & Social Affairs and chair of the FSM Covid-19 Task Force, said: “We are moving in that direction. We recently found that the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands model showed that people would get tested negative and then, once they were repatriated, show up as positive for the virus. So this reinforced our movement towards a model that learns from the experiences of the CNMI and Palau, and would uniquely serve the equally unique needs of the FSM and its citizens. We are aiming for a 14-day pre-quarantine in Guam with two tests, followed by arrival and onsite quarantine for 14 days and additional tests.”

The bulk of the executive branch’s supplemental budget requests —approximately $1.7 million —is Covid-19 related, the bulk of which is regarding setting up pre-quarantine  processes in Guam. This includes funding for potentially chartering a flight via an international commercial carrier.

“To add to what the secretary of Health mentioned,” began Eugene Amor, secretary of the Department of Finance & Administration and vice chair of the FSM Covid-19 Task Force, “we are looking at two options for hotel quarantine sites in Guam and contracts are on their way. The same with the medical facility that will help with daily monitoring of our citizens that will be repatriated, including tests at day seven and 11. We’re looking at targeting medical referrals first.”

The FSM Covid-19 Task Force has prepared a second report on the Covid-19 Response Framework, dated Aug. 17, 2020, including this information, the results of simulation exercises, and all other relevant matters regarding the pandemic. Citizens, residents, and stakeholders are encouraged to read it:

The next item discussed was regarding expanding the Tourism Sector Mitigation Fund or the FSM Economic Stimulus Package, to additional categories of businesses.



FSM President David W. Panuelo, right, and other administration officials meet with Vice Speaker Esmond Moses and other lawmakers on Monday. FSMIS photo

“I have sent Presidential Communication 21-363, a proposed bill to amend Title 55 that is to provide other businesses that are impacted by Covid-19 outside of the current limits of the Tourism Sector Mitigation Fund,” President Panuelo said. The total FSM Economic Stimulus Package has approximately $16 million allocated for this purpose. “Of course, we will issue relevant regulations and detail what criteria are required for any payout given to those businesses. Secretary, can you update us on the expenditures of the fund so far?”

“We’ve only spent 1.8 million so far,” Secretary Amor said, echoing the president’s request that the committee overseeing the funding is of the professional opinion that more categories of businesses are affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and that the FSM economy would benefit from the assistance.

“Mr. President,” said Senator Perman, “the question raised to me [by citizens] is that they’re saying there is a delay in the distribution of the checks. If we expand to more businesses, are we going to address the distribution of the assistance?”

Secretary Amor advised that the primary delay in businesses not receiving timely checks from the Tourism Sector Mitigation Fund is because businesses may not be updated on their tax filings. “We have asked businesses to please update their filings for last year so that we can do the proper analysis.”

“Some of the checks may seem a bit slow in going out but that is because we have procedures to follow,” added Rob Solomon, the FSM’s macroeconomist. “For the Tourism Fund there is paperwork tied to the tax roll, and we have to follow the law. All of our programs — including the [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] Program, and the Stranded Citizens Economic Package — take up a lot of time due to strict rules and regulations. For the Stranded Citizens Package, more than 50% of the applicants don’t have the documentation we need under the rules that are set, and that’s what takes up all the time.”

Regarding supplemental budget requests, President Panuelo explained how the amount totals for $2.3 million in capital and human resources development, of which $1.7 million is for Covid-19-related efforts, in addition to $400,000 to assist the College of Micronesia-FSM for the fall semester. The Panuelo-George administration has requested an additional $300,000 from the 21st FSM Congress for the purpose of expanding the economic assistance to stranded FSM citizens.

President Panuelo noted that approximately 40 or more applicants to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program are non-citizen full-time residents of the FSM, who do not qualify because they are not FSM or U.S. citizens. “We’re looking at a way to carve out in the regulations to be able to pay these residents from our local revenues. These long-time residents are appreciated members of the FSM community, but we would need to pay them from our local revenues.”

Senator Perman, noting that the FSM’s depleting revenue projections may hinder the government’s capacity to serve all of its needs, asked: “With all of this foreign aid coming in for the Covid-19 pandemic, why can’t we use it?”

President Panuelo explained that the $7.7 million under the U.S. CARES Act is for the state governments, of which  Yap, Chuuk, and Kosrae have submitted their budget justifications to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The president further described how the $6 million of disaster assistance support from the Asian Development Bank  has been split into two separate groups: half for the Department of Finance & Administration’s implementation of the Tourism Sector Mitigation Fund/FSM Economic Stimulus Package, and half for the Department of Health & Social Affair’s Covid-19 response. This funding is largely being used by both MiCare and continual reimbursement to the state governments for their Covid-19- related programming and activities. “The supplemental budget requests are for items that we cannot use other funding for,” the president said.

The meeting also covered nominations to the FSM Trust Fund Board, the Board of the FSM Telecommunications Corp., and a candidate to head the FSM Office of Personnel. Historically a part of the Department of Finance & Administration and more recently a component unit of the Office of the President, the FSM Office of Personnel is now legally a standalone entity of the FSM national government that retains its mandate but is less shackled from bureaucracy by being under a separate line agency.

The final topic discussed in the Committee to Wait on the President was with regards to the ownership, rights, and liabilities of the Pohnpei spur of the HANTRU-1 fiber optic cable. The Panuelo-George administration laid out its arguments on transferring the ownership, rights, and liabilities of this spur to the FSM Telecommunications Cable Corporation or the Open Access Entity, in a previous Press Release which may be found here: president-panuelo-submits-for-congress-review-a-bill-to-transfer-the-ownership-of-the-hantru-1- fiber-optic-cable-s-pohnpei-spur-and-other-rights-liabilities-to-fsmt-cable-corporation?Itemid=177

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