Candidates Answer Questions of Transparency Micronesia

February 21, 2007

The Kaselehlie Press

In an effort to give voters another tool to make informed decisions in the Congressional Election, The Kaselehlie Press asked Herman Semes of Transparency Micronesia to formulate a list of questions for the candidates. The questions were posted on the MicSem Discussions Forum as well as the January 24th edition of this newspaper. The candidates had until February 16 to respond to the questions. Of the 35 candidates across the FSM only three responded. The questions Mr. Semes posed and their answers, in alphabetical order by candidates' last names, are as follows:

1. Beginning this Fiscal Year 2007 until the end of Compact II in 2023, there will be an annual reduction of $800,000 from the Compact fund. An amended Gross Revenue Tax takes effect January, 2007, which will drastically reduce national local revenue that would be needed to replace the Compact fund reduction and would also reduce the States' share of the national taxes. Can you explain the logic behind the reduction in GRT and the impact of such loss of revenue on the on-going programs of the national and state governments and what you plan to do to make sure that current services are maintained at all levels of government?

Mohner Esiel: There is no logic behind this sad and publicity stunt by our FSM Congress. One might view it as a campaign move for re-election comes March 6, 2007. We all know that the GRT amendment would affect both national and state interest in its effort to move forward with development plans. Equally important is the implementation of the Infrastructure Development Fund that has recently been suspended due to the conflict of interest issues depicted in the contract between GMP and PMU.

We need to revisit the GRT issue and address it seriously together, state and national in order to smooth out the rough edges and institute a sound policy direction that would be beneficial to us. We need to research the current tax structure to see what we can do to keep abreast with our commitments under the compact. This undertaking will be difficult and painful, especially in recognizing our current financial status.

Resio Moses: The question expressed concerns about Congressional Act No. 14-111 amending certain sections of Title 54 of the FSM Code which eliminated the GRT on businesses. Will this change of law affect the states' ability to provide public services? Yes, most definitely. Even before the effective date of the law our states of Chuuk and Kosrae are already facing cash flow problems. The implementation of the law will further exacerbate the problem, and Pohnpei and Yap may find themselves in a similar predicament as in the cases of Chuuk and Kosrae.

Based on the foregoing, for myself I did not (and still do not) see any logic behind the business GRT amendment and, as such, I spoke strongly against the passage of the new law and voted no on it. As of late, President Urusemal has transmitted a bill to delay the implementation of the law, but Congress did not act on it last session. This attests to Congress' unreasonableness on this issue. Hopefully, the new Congress will amend the law, thus easing the cash flow in the states.

Paulino Rodriguez: The annual reduction of $800,000.00 from the Compact fund and the amended Gross Revenue Tax both of which will take effected Fiscal Year 2007 and Calendar Year 2007 respectively is barbarian in definition and out of context with the idea of effectuating these drastic moves/actions at this point in time. Some poor, unfortunate and unlucky PTA employees were laid off a couple of weeks ago. What would happen to their immediate family? My friends and countrymen my heart is pumping red blood and my eyes are shedding white crystal tears for you, wherever you may be. I'll be there waiting for you if you want to meet me under my lucky star to solve our problems. Our/My plat for the future is to down-size certain non-essential areas such as leasing and renting of private office buildings and office rooms. Avoid and eliminate expensive, extravagant travels. Private usage of government means of transportation both on land and sea outside of government time and etc.

2. FSM has 16 years remaining before Compact II terminates in 2023. In its annual meeting in August, 2006, Chairman of JEMCO made it clear that FSM needed to make its own commitments to ensure that FSM would be able to sustain its own government after the Compact II ends. It is clearly evident that the only way for FSM to be self-supporting is to help create a favorable investment climate and create a strong partnership with the private sector. In trying to build the private sector, would you support an "open door" policy for foreign investors or would you prefer to empower the local entrepreneurs and invite foreign investors to work with them in building the economy of FSM?

Esiel: If there is one thing that everyone in the FSM would agree to in terms of the FSM Economy is that we do not have a vibrant and strong economic base. We continue to exist exclusively on cash economy; funds extended to us under the Compact, and other donor countries, which really provide us a false economy in conventional terms based on production and sales of goods and services.

However, in response to the question, I would suggest utilizing both options, depending on what each state policy dictates. It can be foreign sole proprietor or joint venture, depending on the collective interest. The rational behind this; (a) we need to stimulate the economy through foreign investment, we all know that. An investment scenario that would not compete with what our local entrepreneur can do such as wholesaling, retailing, farming, etc. However, on a broader scale we must prioritize our policies and enact laws that would enhance the economy of the state and the nation in general.

We need to encourage foreign investment concentrating on export. We need to venture into manufacturing to export finished products. And it should and must be the responsibility of the government to identify outside markets for us to trade whatever is manufactured in the FSM.

We must come to realize that good governance has to be built on the quality of the system so that development is based on this rather than simply relying only on political will, personal will of a strong leader and state power, which may not be sustainable over the longer term. We must stop playing politics and concentrate more on economic development if we are to survive after 2023. A healthy and vibrant business environment is always a sign of economic success.

Moses: On foreign investment, of the two alternative scenarios presented, I see it more meritorious to empower our entrepreneurs, but of course, with some "controls" to ensure that local businesses do not take unfair advantage of foreign investor partners.

Rodriguez: I like wide open doors; I don't like to be closed in behind closed doors. But, if empowering local entrepreneurs to lure or invite foreign investors to work with them in building the economy of the FSM that would be great. Let us pray that foreign investors still have faith and trust in us after what we have done with our multi-million dollars corporation such as the Pohnpei Fisheries Corporation (PFC), National Fisheries Corporation (NFC), and the others, most if not all failed. Therefore we must, at all times, place someone very capable and very honest at the steering wheel.

3. Lack of transparency and accountability in government creates an environment of corruption in government at all levels. There are clear evidences of white collar corruption that are being ignored and not being litigated. Would you support an Anti-Corruption Law to be established in FSM that would cover the whole FSM society?

Esiel: Yes. Sound public policy stems from the very concept that transparency and accountability is to good governance as food is to people. We are dependent on the will of the people and their shared role in the making of public policy, and are therefore crucial and cannot be undermined. I would strongly advocate and even sponsor a bill that would reflect that interest, if elected. Public sound policy on transparency and accountability should and must be the pillars of our future because it is the foundation of good governance. Many times we have seen economic policies overturned the very next day a new administration has taken over. I believe that government is merely a facilitator of the means for progress and not the source. On the other hand, the Constitution with all its noble principles and guarantees creates a culture of dependence and expectations, which is impossible to achieve. I believe the situation today is akin to that of a sakau addict: you know it will kill you yet you can't get rid of it. We know that what we are doing is illegal but we continue to do it getting satisfaction and richness out of it while it slowly catch up. Corruption involving government officials is simply a reflection of the poor quality of public governance in the FSM, in the case Pohnpei.

Witness the fact that Congress is expected to enact a law every time a bad incident happens rather than give the appropriate government agency a chance to investigate and rectify the wrong done. For example, misallocation and expenditure of appropriated funds for projects not specified by law. In turn there is a tendency to amend the law to reflect the misallocation of funds to make it legal after the fact, among others. The net result is failed expectations, which in turn, leads to indifference and opposition.

The institution of a transparent and accountable government is good and effective government. These are the vital ingredients for economic development to take place, or else we will just be another failed state in the Pacific where the rich will become more richer while the poor become more poorer or in simple terms "haves" and "the have nots." We must have in place a strong transparent and accountable system because it would provide a positive rippling effect of good governance. Accountability can be both an end in itself representing democratic values and a means towards the development of more efficient and effective government in order to provide for the need of its people.

Rodriguez: I fully support whatever Anti-Corporation Law that could be established in the FSM that would cover the whole FSM Society from top to bottom.

Moses: On anti-corruption legislation, the FSM needs a simplistic but coherent ethics law now, but there has been a lack of interest in the subject on the part of the current lawmakers. In the past, I co-sponsored an ethics proposal introduced by former Senator George, but for unknown reasons, that legislation did not see the light of day. I am resolved to resurrect the same or similar proposal when the opportunity again presents itself.

4. MiCare and the FSM Social Security are in financial distress. Health care providers overseas are beginning to reject services to MiCare members. Future retirees may find it difficult to collect retirement benefits in the years to come. What policies need to be put in place that will protect the interest of the people in MiCare and Social Security?

Esiel: We must at this point in time appreciate that the government cannot continue subsidizing these benefits without the support of the private sector industry. That is the more reason why we must entertain foreign investment to stimulate a healthy and vibrant economy in order to assist support these services. I think we probably have experienced in some instances both public and private sector industry aging work force that to certain extend are not productive anymore because it is not mandatory to retire at age 60. It has also been observed that this trend will continue take its effect on these programs into the future unless we do some serious reform to address it.

As for now, if the law allows every government employee and private sector employee to retire at age 60, we might deplete the limited funds we have in our systems, maybe within 5 plus years. These two vital programs must be studied and researched carefully before a policy direction is taken to avoid the unthinkable, and that is the pain and suffering our people will encounter. In the meantime our governments should work together and assist support financially medical needs for our people while the matter evaluated thoroughly. Life is precious and we cannot disregard that responsibility to provide for our people.

Moses: The question which relates to the MiCare and our Social Security systems is a bit more alarmist than the situations now. The programs are not yet in "financial distress", although they may be if no enhancement interventions are put in place.

New legislation is already in place to help the Social Security system attain more fiscal sustainability. Additional steps are being taken by the system to improve its administration, including making current Chuuk's payment of its contributions which have been in arrears for several years.

We owe, the last time I hear, a little over one million to health care providers, locally and abroad. The Congress has directly appropriated emergency funds to assist the MiCare program, and steps are being taken by the program to increase contributions by participants. I know that Director George and Board are working diligently to overcome the current cash flow problem the program is facing and to strengthen the administration and management of the program.

Rodriguez: Strict policies such as annual audit and court trial when reports are found to be negative; when someone is found guilty he/she must be terminated; serve time in prison and pay back whatever amount he/she has misused or stolen.

5. FSM States having been responsible for the basic educational, health and social services have continually faced financial constraints which affect the delivery of these basic services effectively and efficiently. The 50- 50 revenue sharing seems to favor the national government and not the state governments. Would you support a constitutional amendment to change the revenue sharing to one more in favor of the states? Also, the FSM National Government is not sharing fishing access fees with the States. Would you support sharing the fishing access fee on a 50-50 share?

Esiel: The key relationship in the FSM that impacts our development is the relation between the national government and state constituents. Our National Government is constituted among men by men to protect and facilitate the affairs of the society and not to impede its progress. We governed ourselves through elected representatives and they are entrusted by us to advance us and lead us and in so doing they are further obligated to inform the people of;

Our local revenues generates barely 20% of the total national revenues collected and much of it is from income taxes and very minimal from the sales of goods and services. The major contributor over the past years was MMA, now NORMA, through fees collected from fishing license. Portion of the fishing license fees collected and the 50% revenue sharing is also allocated to the 4-FSM States through project appropriations. In reality, the states actually experienced a revenue sharing return of more than 50% through the projects and services.

The problem we have today is that the states are not realizing the return of these funds intended for projects, goods and services because of the pork-barreling scheme. The question we should be asking is: Do we support pork-barrel projects? My answer to that is No. I do not support pork barrel projects because it provides a false interpretation on the legality of how these funds are expended through projects that might apparently are not authorized by law.

We must work together if we are to be recognized sub-regionally and regionally, let alone globally. And we must have a strong and responsible government that can lead us through these difficult times. The objective of a strong national government is to maximize its economic plans through the enhancement of the productive sectors of the four FSM states. We all know that the private sector is rightfully the most emphasized policy in the FSM opportunities to state its importance. These sentiments, I think, should be translated into real support. Politics and development of the private sector must be kept apart. I mentioned these because if we had not abused the funding that was made available to us during the first compact we would not be debating this issue today. I think what needs to be done is to reform and transform our government system in order to be responsive to the requirements and needs of today. The past and current efforts initiated to review the structure of the government and private sector is an excellent and noble task, however, the terms of reference should be carefully put together to reflect our set goals and objectives.

Moses: On division of the fishing-access fee, I have always supported, and will continue to support, the 50/50 proposition, or a greater cut to the states.

Rodriguez: I fully support a constitutional amendment to change the revenue sharing to one that is in favor of the states. The four states are the ones immediately responsible for its population.

6. The fact that the President of the FSM is elected by only 14 people in the FSM Congress makes the President answerable to the Congress and not the people. It also does not provide true "check and balance". Would you support the Nation to have its president elected directly by the people?

Esiel: Yes. The right of the people to influence the direction of the government and public policy is original and one that the government is held responsible and not to get in the way. I would strongly support that the Constitution is amended to empower the people to vote for their president. It is an over due constitutional right that the people of the FSM rightfully deserve and should be given to them.

The right to vote is a basic right extended and is a powerful tool for us to voice our views and opinions on the direction of our policies. In exercising this right, information becomes the pillar of the decisions we make. Absent the right to vote for the President, what influence do we have over the President that benefits the many since he is chosen among his 14-friends to sit as President of the nation. It is high time for the FSM to be heard and to be heard loud enough that would compel our congress to adopt a resolution calling for the amendment of the FSM Constitution to allow FSM citizens to vote for their President.

In conclusion, young as we are, we are driven not by choice but by need of survival and we are already contemplating on our future. Although we seem to be drained with the ups and downs of life in Pohnpei, we have to make a brave choice. And with deep prayers, we all hope that God will one day decide to send us a savior (a special, talented, skilled, compassionate leader) to rescue us from the mess created by our own countrymen who do not have the heart or conscience to do what is best for the country. What should we do? We should and must be given that right to vote for the President.

Moses: On political recruitment methodology for the presidency, a direct election may not lend itself to a true "check-and-balance" in government. It may not necessarily improve the current check-and-balance system, but it might change the influence the Congress has on the Executive Branch. An immediate effect, as I see it, may be the shift of control from the Congress to the voters of Chuuk; theoretically, Chuuk may elect, or control, the President of the FSM until kingdom come.

Rodriguez: I am in support of having the President of the FSM elected directly by the FSM populace. This way he will be answerable to the people NOT to Congress.