February 20, 2009

The Kaselehlie Press

Weno, Chuuk - On February 16 at the Weno campus of the College of Micronesia, more than a hundred people gathered to hear the views of the three candidates for Chuuk State Governor on issues that will effect the lives of every man, woman, and child in the state for the next four years. Winds periodically blasted through the venue where the 2009 Solutions Forum took place, whipping dust from the "road" into the eyes and lungs of the spectators, a not too subtle reminder of some of the problems that the winner of the election on March 3 will have to face.

The event was broadcast live on the Chuuk state radio station for listeners on Weno and on the lagoon and outer islands. The audio content was also streamed on the Internet. It began just before 10:00 that Monday morning and lasted until after 12:30.

The 2009 Solutions Forum was organized by a committee from the College of Micronesia chaired by Joakim Peter. The committee solicited questions for the candidates from multiple sources in Chuuk and then met to determine which questions would be asked and how they would be worded.

Gillian Doone, Redley Killion, and incumbent Governor Wesley Simina were provided a list of the possible questions in advance of the event. There was a slate of 29 questions. 21 were asked of the candidates.

Joakim Peter was the moderator and time limits were strictly observed and enforced. The candidates were each given two minutes to respond to the questions and five minutes each for a summation. Candidates answered questions on governance issues, issues of the economy, health, education and environment.

Candidates had been asked to answer the questions in the language of the COM campus, the English language but the candidates answered in a blend of English and Chuukese. Incumbent, Governor Simina spoke entirely in Chuukese.

The Kaselehlie Press relied on the English translation skills of Joakim Peter and Roger Arnold of the Chuuk Campus of the College of Micronesia in order to cover the event. Representations of candidates' answers are based on those translations.

Transparency is a major component of democratic governance. The Chuuk State Constitution attempts to ensure transparency in mandating the offices of public auditor and independent prosecutor. As governor for the next four years, are you going to establish and fund these two offices and what are the timelines?

Candidate Gillian Doone promised to fill the offices in 100 days. Candidate Redley Killion promised to nominate qualified people for the position within 30 days.

Governor Simina said that he didn't know how either of those two promises could be kept. He said that it is not the Governor, the Lt. Governor, or the Speaker that makes the choice about filling the positions but that constitutionally the choice is up to the 49 members of the mayor's conference. He said that the US Office of Insular Affairs didn't want to fund the positions and the mayor's conference didn't want them. Most especially, he said, all they will do is prosecute top officials as has recently been done.

Do you support the idea of the CFCC (Chuuk Financial Control Commission)? If you say yes, explain. If you say no what are the proper measures on ensuring transparency and accountability?

Killion said that the CFCC is a requirement of Compact funding and that without it there would be no money from the Compact in Chuuk. He said that it isn't a matter of supporting or not supporting it. What is needed in his opinion is improvement of the management of Chuuk's finances so that Chuuk can convince JEMCO that the CFCC is no longer needed.

Governor Simina said that the CFCC was not a requirement of the Compact but one of JEMCO. He said that JEMCO targeted Chuuk because they were unhappy with some of the uses of funding through 2004. Chuuk created the office in 2005 and that Chuuk continues to desire the presence of the CFCC because of the wishes of the U.S. Government. He said that it is important to do the work for accountability in the use of money and that the state needs to support good measures even if it gives the state a bad name.

Doone said that he does not support the CFCC. He said that it is true that JEMCO demanded that Chuuk pass a law to establish the CFCC because the state was errant in its ways; because it doesn't take care of its money. He said that the CFCC is a bottleneck in the financial matters of Chuuk State. No other state in the FSM has an agency like CFCC because they follow the requirements of JEMCO. He said that the entity could be disbanded if the state can show that they can follow the requirements just as well as any other state.

We have experienced a sudden increase in the cost of living (rice and fuel cost as an example) as the salary remains the same. What are your long term plans to maintain a sustainable standard of living for the people of Chuuk?

Governor Simina had the first opportunity to answer the question. He said that the people of Chuuk have no control over international pricing of commodities and that people throughout the world are facing similar problems. He called on the people of Chuuk to return to its culture and to what they were eating before. He said that the people should be planting taro and bananas which don't cost anything. People should also return to their canoes for transportation, he said.

He said that infrastructure problems like the road and the power problems should be resolved so that investors will be attracted in order to create more income for workers in the private sector.

He said that his administration had increased the salaries of its workers by returning them to 80 hour pay periods. He challenged private sector employers to increase their employees' salaries as a means toward solving the problem.

Doone said almost jokingly that in some ways he was grateful for the increase in the price of rice because it has led some to return to farming. Today, he said, there are children running around eating taro and bananas for snacks and that this return to culture was good for Chuukese people.

He said that he knew that businesses were facing problems because of infrastructure and for other economic reasons and promised to find ways to provide more funding for the private sector.

Killion agreed that the import export imbalance in Chuuk is a big determinate of increased prices in Chuuk. He challenged the people to continue planting taro, bread fruit and bananas to replace imported food items.

He called for an increase in exportation from Chuuk.

He said that there has been a decline in agricultural products and in livestock production such as pigs and chickens and that the decline needs to be reversed in order to replace imported goods.

He also called for an improvement in Chuuk infrastructure.

In the past years we have experienced a downturn in Chuuk's gross domestic product. Given the infrastructure challenges the state has in doing business (for example, the lack of power, and the Weno roads that tear up rental cars) if you were elected governor of Chuuk State what specific measeures are you going to put into place, such as tax breaks and other incentives for local businesses to recover and to ease the burden of doing businesses? What are your plans to ensure stability and growth in Chuuk State's economy for the next four years?

Gillian Doone was the first respondent and said that for Chuuk to give a tax break at this time of financial crisis would be impartial.

He postulated that revenue increases could be made in Chuuk if import solutions could be found and gave as example the importation of salt when Chuuk is sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He asked why someone in Chuuk didn't make its own salt.

He said that tourism to Chuuk State was an unexplored revenue resource for no good reason since the people of Chuuk are sitting on a great natural treasure. Chuuk tourism should be marketed and promoted more efficiently.

Fisheries, he said, is a capital intensive program and that he plans to stay out of that business if he is elected.

Redley Killion said that most of the taxes paid by business owners in Chuuk goes to the National Government in the form of Gross Revenue taxes, withholding taxes, and Social Security. The only way those taxes could be reduced would be through negotiations with the National Government. Sales tax is the only Chuuk State controlled tax.

He spoke of a former plan that was never implemented to create tax relief for businesses. The money saved could be reinvested and the returns on those investments would provide increased future tax revenues.

He said that the government could return to its original plans of 20 to 25 years ago to develop fish processing in Chuuk as a means of generating revenue. Coconut industries in Chuuk have been run down but could be revived, he said.

Government, said Governor Simina, is not in the business of bailing out businesses when they fail. If businesses are good they will survive. If they are not they will fail. That is the nature of democracy and capitalism, Simina said.

Though the economy is shrinking there are certain ways that the government can help. Sales tax is not one of them since that cost is passed on to the consumer. He said that the state government should negotiate with the national government for a break on national taxes.

The government, he said should help to make it easier for businesses to get financing from local banks and from the FSM Development Bank. He said that it should help to find ways to help local farmers and fishermen to find markets to export their products.

He encouraged remittance from Chuukese citizens living abroad saying that way there will be more to spend and states will survive.

He closed his comments by encouraging local business owner to get goods more appropriate for the market they serve.

It has been identified in previous years that fisheries, tourism, and agriculture will provide stability in our state economy. Do you still support this? Why or why not?

Killion fielded this question first saying that he still believes that those three industries are still the foundation. We have lots of ocean and lots of fish, he said. Our land mass is small but still sufficient for agriculture. Our islands are unique and beautiful and we should encourage tourism he said.

Killion said that the service industry should be improved to help foster tourism.

The copra industry should be revived because all islands have coconuts. He said that the government should work to build skills in its young people so that they can work even outside of the country in order to bring back money to Chuuk.

Simina said that Chuuk has to be realistic about what can and cannot happen. He said that his administration as been working to increase farming and to help farmers find a market for their produce.

Simina described tourism in Chuuk as stable. He said that his administration has been negotiating with a big company to try to put Chuuk Fishing and Tuna Industries back on track and that project will provide approximately 100 additional jobs in Chuuk.

Plans are under way, he said, for an international fishing port that may bring as many as 5000 jobs to Chuuk.

The key, he said, is to work on the small ways of increasing revenues and then to move on toward the bigger ones.

Doone expressed doubt that Chuuk could attract a project that would provide 5000 jobs. He said the plan was too unrealistic and not possible. He said that Micronesia is small and should work on a number of micro projects. Agriculture projects, he said, produce immediate results to help the economy.

He reiterated his message that fisheries ventures are impractical. Because of the roads and other problems of infrastructure in Chuuk tourists go from the airport to the hotel or dive boat operated. He said that the state needs to improve its infrastructure if it is to attract tourists to spend their money outside of their resorts.

What specific regulations do you see as necessary to regulate responsible and appropriate foreign investment policies?

Simina said that he'd rather see no regulation at all. He said that foreign investment needs to be deregulated because it is the fastest way to create income for the islands.

He balanced the statement by saying that regulations that do exist should correct for problems of conflict of interest and that they should guard against "criminality".

He suggested that deregulation should be for foreign businesses who provide service that local businesses don't handle.

Candidate Doone said that foreign investors don't need restrictions they need protection. He agreed that restrictions should be lifted if those restrictions discourage foreign investment. "Let's be practical again", he said. We need to develop our own local economy first and what we cannot do we invite foreigners to do.

"I don't agree that we shouldn't regulate foreign investment," Killion said. We should regulate but also support development of Chuuk.

He said that while in previous days the National Government monitored foreign investment now the power is in the states' hands and that each state must prioritize what kinds of businesses to contact. The problem, he said, with the transfer of power over foreign investment regulations is that it is not clear who makes decisions on who can or cannot come in and some foreign businesses compete with local businesses.

We want foreign investment to employ people and to bring in new people, Killion said, but the foreign investment policy in Chuuk has failed. It needs to be revised so that not just any business that wants to come in can do so.

Job training is a major contributing factor to economic growth. Because of the scarcity of skilled labor and professionals here in Chuuk, what are your plans for the next four years to promote job training?

Doone said that he felt that the problem is a challenge for COM and said that he felt that the school is focused too much on the academic arena and needs to concentrate more on work force development.

Killion said that different approaches are required for job training for those in different positions. Training, he said, is necessary for government workers already employed as well as for those people of Chuuk who are unemployed but willing to work. He pointed to WIA as a program that is currently available for the latter group.

He said that COM should be involved in job training for young people who are readying themselves to enter the labor market who have no skills. He encouraged COM to expand not just academically but in the area of skill building for its students. He encouraged them to continue looking into the possibility of training new nurses and paramedical professionals who could work in Chuuk as well as outside of the country.

Simina said that Chuuk currently has no facility or program to train skilled laborers or professionals because COM is only a two year college. He said that the long term goal is for COM to become a four year college and possibly even a graduate school.

He said that there are already programs in place for job training including teacher training and hospital training. Included in the 2010 budget is money to work together with COM to develop a nurse training program.

He said that under the capacity building sector grants of the Compact there is "lots of money" to offer training in the private sector for people to learn to do accounting and other skills important to help the private sector.

About one third of the overall number of teachers working in the Chuuk State School system have not met any teacher certification as required by law. What are the ongoing problems of this stagnant situation, and what are the long term solutions?

Chuuk is behind in meeting the requirements of the teacher certification law, said Redley Killion. We might want to see if the law is good or not. He said that some teachers are not certified but good.

He called on the listeners to remember the teachers they had who were good but didn't have a college education but because they valued the job they were doing they did their jobs well and were good teachers.

He said that one problem was the political hiring of teachers. Some teachers are hired because they have contacts though they have little to no education. Others with educations are not hired even though they have Bachelor's degrees just because they are on the wrong side of the politics.

The bottom line is for teachers to do their jobs, show up, prepare their lesson plans and teach. Never mind if they are not certified said Killion.

Simina responded next and spoke directly to the teachers saying if it was the decision of the Chuuk state government uncertified teachers would not lose their jobs. He said the government would continue to help those teachers to continue their education and training because he knows how would affect the teachers if they lost their jobs like his fellow candidates want them to do.

He said that his administration would promote in place programs like on the job teacher training for college credit.

He said that he would continue to ask the FSM Department of Education not to rush to enforce the law requiring certification.

There are teacher shortages but there are remedies, said Simina. He has issued a memo allowing schools who have teacher shortages to rehire teachers who have degrees but are retired.

The government continues teacher training during summers. World Teach teachers are substituting for Chuuk State teachers so that those teachers can go back to school to further their own educations.

He said that his administration is working on incentive plans for students majoring in education and that most of all they are working to prevent disruption to teachers in their work.

Doone said that it wouldn't matter if all of the teachers were certified or not. He said that there is a serious problem with education in Chuuk.

As the governor for the four next years, how do you balance regional realities and needs against state unity to produce responsible and comprehensive economic development? (The moderator gave the Faichuuk move for statehood as an example)

Faichuuk statehood is impractical at this moment, said Gillian Doone. I'm being very realistic. I understand their desire because it's the key to get the development they want but even the National Government won't support it at this time, he said.

To continue state unity Chuuk needs to look at development beyond Weno.

Having made that statement, Doone promised to find a way to get projects to Faichuuk and to other outer islands.

He ended his answer with an apology to the people of Faichuuk saying that he was just being realistic.

Redley Killion was the next respondent. He talked about the introduction of the idea of statehood for Faichuuk and for the Mortlocks several years ago. The political reality is that Congress needs to approve the move first and that Chuuk does not have enough senators in Congress to get the idea through.

Though there is a political problem the fact is that basic infrastructure needs like roads, water, power and a port are important for the lagoon and outer islands.

He said that this is the best time to get infrastructure needs funded because they are awarded by a demonstration of need rather than by region. Chuuk still has plenty of unmet needs. Chuuk needs to make a compelling case and show the FSM, and U.S. governments, and JEMCO that Chuuk still has needs.

Simina once again spoke straight to the people of Faichuuk and said if you want to be a state you have to strive for it. He called the desire for statehood their given right.

He said that he wanted to know what the roots of the issue were. One of the people he knows from Faichuuk told him that the reason was economic development for the outlying island. Simina said that he felt the reasons were deeper than that.

He said that he will give the leaders of Faichuuk every opportunity to pursue the idea but if it doesn't happen it's just the way that the political system works.

In the meantime he promised to continue to advocate for development in the lagoon and outer islands just like what has happened in Weno. He said that government people are already work-ing in the islands toward easements for roads and other things.

He challenged the people of Faichuuk saying that if the issue is really economic development they should think about how they can contribute to his administrations' efforts there.

Our state has been struggling with maintaining electrical power to customers, what are your long term solutions to fix the problems?

Killion said that he wondered where the source of the problem was. Was it cash flow, management or other issues. He pointed out Kosrae's utility service and said that state had significantly fewer customers to service than does CPUC yet their power is on 24 hours a day even with that low customer base. Chuuk on the other hand sometimes has power. He said that he believes that the issue is one of management. Simina said that CPUC has been facing cash flow problems to run the generators. He said that experts have come to evaluate the problem and found three causes: the customer base is not sufficient; there is a management problem; and there is a maintenance problem.

He said that all of those issues are being addressed by the ADB in a collaboration with the US government and that once that effort is complete everything will be alright with power delivery in Chuuk.

Simina said that Chuuk needs to also focus on other geographic areas other than just Weno to gain a bigger customer base.

He talked about an experiment of having the government through the Utilities Task Force to help make decisions at CPUC though that is CPUC's responsibility. So far, he said, the experiment has worked.

Doone said that the problem at CPUC is based on many factors, political, managerial, and many others. One of the problems, he said is that some customers are getting free power because there are power poles on their land. Collections are insufficient to cover overhead expenses of CPUC.

He said that he believes that if the utility was well managed even the customer base in Weno would be sufficient.

By policy and practice, the Chuuk State Government provides limited health care coverage. What is your recommendation to provide full and comprehensive health care for all citizens?

Killion said that all people in Chuuk should have health care. He said that though we understand that those people who pay for health insurance are covered but what about those that are not covered? What do we do with them?

Perhaps, he said, we could ask for an annual appropriation from the government or the Department of Health Services but that he was not certain that JEMCO would approve such a plan.

He promised to look into other sources of funding for full health services for all citizens of Chuuk.

Simina said that there is no such thing as universal health coverage. Who wouldn't want all of their people to be covered but even the United States can't cover every one. There are realities to face. Chuuk is in a financial crisis.

He said that in Chuuk 75% of the population is not covered under a health plan. His administration has budgeted $250,000 in the 2010 budget to help to provide health service to those who are not under a health care plan.

People should remember, he said, that the Chuuk State Hospital provides free services to Chuukese citizens who don't have insurance, he said. His administration is also working to provide funding for private clinics to provide service to uninsured patients.

He warned the listeners saying that if they that full coverage is going to happen over night they should think again because of Chuuk's severely limited financial resources. He said that he will continue to ask the FSM and US governments along with JEMCO for help on the matter.

Doone said that the issue of health insurance coverage is not a uniquely Chuukese issue. Internationally the same issue is a problem.

He said that money is already set aside to assist patients who aren't covered by insurance. $12 million as already been designated for the health sector and that should be sufficient to deal with the problem.

He suggested that there should be an amendment to law that private sector businesses mandatorily offer insurance to their employees.

Candidates spoke out on issues of the environment saying that the environment is an important aspect of Chuukese life that deserves to be protected. One candidate said that violators of environmental laws should be punished more severely than they currently are.

The candidates, in alphabetical order offered their closing statements before the 2009 Solutions Forum came to a close.

Candidate Gillian Doone was the first to speak. He said that at events like the forum, candidates always have good answer to questions but that the point in the long run was what those candidates actually do. He claimed that he is not a politician but a practical person with practical answers.

Candidate Redley Killion picked up on the theme established by Doone and said that by virtue of the fact that all three of the candidates were running for public office all of them were politicians. That fact did not eliminate the possibility that he would make practical decisions. He said that during his time in Congress he stepped on a lot of toes because he was not acting like a politician. He said that ultimately he hoped that voters would make their choices based on the answers provided at the forum and other places.

He said that the Chuuk administration had waited too long to get infrastructure projects off the ground in Chuuk. He said that if he'd been governor for the last four years he would already have had $100 million in infrastructure projects off the ground.

Candidate Governor Wesley Simina was the last to speak. He launched an offensive against the other two candidates. He asked the listeners if they really wanted leaders who weren't willing to work with them like a politician would do. He said that he ran for office because he wanted to be a politician for the people and that politicians listen and work with their constituents. He said the other two didn't have the heart and that they didn't really care.

He said that when he came to office in 2005 the government was already in financial trouble and that the leaders in power were people like Redley Killion. He said that his administration inherited a mess and that they have been working hard to solve Chuuk's problems but that the solutions can't happen overnight. He asked the listeners to give him more time.

The Gubernatorial election will take place on March 3, 2009.