Congressional Address 2018 - "Guam's Voice: Strong and Clear"
My Dear People of Guam: Tonight I am here to once again report on my work on your behalf in the nation’s capital. The climate is divisive, the tensions are escalated, and the ability to accomplish more in a gridlocked Congress is proving difficult not only for me as a non-voting Delegate, but even for those in the highest levels of national leadership. And this is the concerning and very real reality on the busy side of the Potomac. But I assure you that my lone voice in the sea of 541 Members of Congress is louder, stronger, and clearer than ever before.
I begin tonight’s speech by addressing the thousands of working families and GovGuam employees concerned by the devastating blow to our local government revenues as a result of the Trump Tax Cuts enacted into law last year. The impact is real and the worsening fiscal challenges facing GovGuam are, part-and-parcel, consequences of this law. This is a law that had no input from Democrats or rank-and-file Republican Members of Congress, which is a reflection of the gridlock that has succumbed Congress’ ability to pass meaningful bipartisan legislation that helps, not hurts, working families.
As we speak, I recognize the Governor’s and Legislature’s ongoing efforts to address the general fund shortfalls, while also working to protect the critical services our people deserve and rely on every single day. While the Trump Tax Cuts have no instant redress for the immediate crisis, I am working hard to increase federal assistance to Guam and provide more equitable treatment in federal grant programs. GovGuam receives some $390 million in federal civilian funding each year, and I am fighting every day in Congress to ensure that Guam receives its fair share of support for our island.
Moving forward it is critical that we re-examine the impacts of de-linking from the internal revenue code and consider creating our own local tax system that will accurately respond to the needs of our island and people. The authority is within the power of the Legislature and Governor to do this and it is high-time we capitalize on the momentum to accomplish this goal. I want to commend the voices of Senator Joe S. San Agustin, Senator Jim Espaldon, Speaker BJ Cruz and members of the Guam Tax Commission for their efforts in prioritizing and reviewing this process. Additionally, I recognize Senator San Nicolas, Senator Aguon, Senator Rodriguez, Senator Ada, Senator Morrison, Senator Muna, and Senator Esteves for their efforts in also working to address the fiscal challenges of our government.
With the support of my fellow Members of Congress from the other U.S. territories, I continue to examine every major federal funding source for Guam, to verify that our island is given parity with the 50 states. To date, I have sponsored and cosponsored numerous pieces of legislation to ensure that Guam gets state-equivalent funding under all federal programs. For example, earlier this year, I introduced the Land and Water Conservation Parity for the Territories Act, which would remove the artificial cap on funding for the territories, and provide three times more in federal funding for conservation grants.
Locally, I want to commend the voice of Senator Telena Nelson who was able to secure local funding to further support the conservation and protection of our natural resources.
Just last week, the House of Representatives passed my bill to triple funding to Guam for fish and wildlife conservation programs. I will also be introducing a bill with Congressman Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands to increase federal support for students with disabilities in Guam schools and in the other U.S. territories.
As I often say, the territories need to stick together, and so I want to commend Senator Wil Castro for his efforts in leveraging a “One Marianas” approach through federal and local partnerships. His is a welcomed voice as we look at our place in the world as a “sea of islands” and not just “islands in the sea.”
In addition to securing Guam’s fair share of federal funding, I have heard the voices of our residents who demand a stronger economy. For this reason, I have long worked to secure the Marine relocation to Guam because I believe that it will provide job opportunities for our people, new investments that strengthens our civilian community, and most importantly, greater security for our island.
However, as I have said repeatedly, the buildup must be good for our entire island and not just the U.S. Defense Department. I continue to hold the military accountable to the promises it made to the people of Guam, and to me personally.
Just last week, the House of Representatives passed the conference agreement of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, and with it a number of key Guam provisions. I am pleased to report that the Senate, in record time, passed the NDAA today and is now headed to the President for his signature.
I am also happy to report that this is the best national defense bill ever for Guam. This year’s defense bill includes provisions for an increase in H-2B workers, my Guam Land Return Act, and over $448 million in new federal dollars. This is not just for the military; it is more federal contracts for local businesses, more federal investment in our island’s economy and civilian infrastructure, and more well-paying civilian jobs for Guam residents.
The relocation is also important to our national security and will help deter acts of aggression against Guam, the mainland U.S., and our allies. This is more important than ever, given the threats made by North Korea against Guam and the continued push by China to spread its influence in our region.
We must resist these foreign influences and I continue working with the Defense Department to ensure that Guam and our people are protected. I am also hopeful that the meeting between President Trump and the North Korean leader will produce concrete results that strengthen Guam’s security, ultimately dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program, and bring a lasting peace to our region.
As progress on the Marine relocation continues, I stand firm in demanding that this program is good for all of Guam’s residents. A key part of my efforts is ensuring that the military’s promise to hold less land on Guam at the conclusion of the relocation, is met in full.
To that end, I included in this year’s NDAA a requirement for the military to be more transparent in listing the land that will be returned to the people of Guam, as part of the “net negative” commitment. My provision holds the military accountable by requiring them to publish and regularly update on a public website the list of properties that will be returned and the expected date when those lands will finally be handed over to GovGuam. It also gives our governor new legal authority to request that additional properties to be added to this list and returned to Guam families.
During my time in Congress, I have secured more than 680 acres of military-controlled land returned to GovGuam and our people. I have also secured a commitment from the military, in writing, to return an additional 115 acres in the near future, and I am pushing aggressively for the return of even more military-controlled land, totaling 432 additional acres and counting. All told, that is more than twelve hundred acres that have been returned, that soon will be returned, and more to possibly be returned to GovGuam and our families during my tenure. The people of Guam have worked for years to see more of their ancestral lands returned, and because of their voices, I stand with them here today.
Last year, I committed to working in earnest to address our H-2B crisis. A provision I included in last year’s defense bill allows an additional 4,000 H-2B visas to be approved for civilian and military construction projects related to the Marine relocation, and we are already seeing 727 visas approved as a result of my provision. I continue advocating in Congress to extend relief to our entire community, not just the military. The fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act builds on my provision by giving flexibility for our healthcare providers to attract healthcare workers under the program.
Through legislation I cosponsored with Congressman Sablan, and was signed into law by President Trump last week, Guam’s exemption from the national H-2B visa caps has been extended until the end of 2029. Let me be clear, this new federal law benefits both the CNMI and Guam by extending our island’s exemption from the nation’s H-2B cap for another 10 years.
I also introduced standalone legislation in the House of Representatives to provide even more flexibility for Guam and give the Governor the final authority to approve and certify the temporary need for H-2B visa applications. Under my bill, our island’s H-2B labor needs will be determined at the local level, not by Trump political appointees in Washington, D.C.
Because of voices like Senator Regine Biscoe Lee, Greg Massey, the Administrator for the Alien Labor Processing & Certification Division at the Guam Department of Labor, and the companies who are taking up the battle in tandem with the legislative process at the federal level, we are making significant strides in attaining the flexibility and authorities Guam needs in order to meet our labor demands. These voices are loud and clear.
I am also working hard to support the soldiers and airmen of the Guam National Guard, who are among the best in our nation, and stand ready to protect our island and serve around the world when called to duty.
I have been proud to support the expansion of the Guard’s mission and facility enhancements right here on Guam. Because of voices like Major General Roderick Leon Guerrero and his leadership team, I am working to bring additional capabilities to the Guard, including building new IT infrastructure to support the Guard’s growing footprint. I also fought for the Guam National Guard to assume the security mission for THAAD, and today, Major General Leon Guerrero and I announced that the Guard has received its activation orders for this mission. I consistently raise the Guard’s issues to the highest levels, up to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau and senior leaders in the Pentagon.
As I support our current servicemembers, I also recognize the significant challenges facing those who previously answered our nation’s call and have now returned home. Our veterans served our nation with distinction, and we owe them not only our eternal gratitude, but our lasting commitment to provide them with the services and care they deserve. Whether at the federal or local levels, we must work to provide them with the recognition, benefits, and health care that they deserve.
To that end, I secured a provision passed last year as part of a Veterans Affairs law requiring Congress’s independent investigatory agency, the Government Accountability Office, to study the staffing, outreach, scheduling, and access management practices of the VA’s Pacific Islands Health Care Services and make recommendations on how to improve services to veterans on Guam and the other Pacific territories.
In April of this year, the GAO released its report and found that key services areas were deficient and made recommendations on how the VA could resolve these. I am pleased that the VA has concurred with the GAO’s findings and is actively working to implement the recommendations in full. I was further pleased that the new VA Pacific Health Director Jennifer Gutowski visited Guam at my request and met with my Veterans Advisory Council to hear firsthand from Guam veterans. The VA is working to improve health services on Guam, as recommended by the GAO, including the hiring of additional doctors and medical staff, and reducing veterans wait times at the Community Based Outpatient Clinic.
I continue to press the VA to move forward with expanding the CBOC to better meet the demands of Guam’s veterans. I secured $5.5 million in funding for the CBOC expansion project, and I am pleased that the VA is near completed with its architecture and engineering designs and will break ground on the expansion at the beginning of next year.
I am pleased that the VA has selected Guam for a new pilot program to partner with a local hospital to provide specialized services that are unavailable at the VA clinic. Through the new hospital within a hospital program, the VA will partner with the Guam Regional Medical City to provide veterans access to services at GRMC that are not available at the CBOC. This program will bolster cooperation between our federal and civilian health care facilities and create a true whole of community support system to care for our veterans. The VA-GRMC partnership is expected to be finalized and ready to start servicing veterans by the summer of 2019.
This evening, please join me in recognizing the voice and work of Margaret Bengzon, President and CEO of the Guam Regional Medical City, and her leadership team. Margaret and your team, please stand. Your commitment to our veterans and entire community is an example of corporate stewardship and enduring commitment to the people of Guam.
AGENT ORANGE AND RADIATION EXPOSURE
I continue fighting for veterans exposed to harmful substances during their service, to ensure they receive the support and benefits they deserve. I am working in Congress to ensure that the testimonies of Guam residents and veterans who recount spraying Agent Orange on Guam decades ago is taken seriously. At my direction, the Government Accountability Office is reviewing evidence that could prove that the military used or transshipped Agent Orange on Guam in the past. As part of its review, the GAO conducted site-visits to Guam and focus groups with veterans on Guam and in the mainland to gather evidence and testimony for its report.
I am encouraged that the U.S. and Guam Environmental Protection Agencies will broaden their testing to include areas off-base where Agent Orange may have been used. While this should have been done from the beginning, this new round of testing will identify any traces of Agent Orange or other tactical herbicides to ultimately determine any risks to the community. I look forward to reviewing the GAO’s study when it is completed by mid-October and bringing this issue to a resolution for our veterans once and for all.
In the same light, my office has also been working closely with the Pacific Association for Radiation Survivors in advocating for Guam’s inclusion in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, commonly known as RECA. While progress continues to be made on this front, I want to recognize the voice of Mr. Robert Celestial, the president of PARS. Robert returned from Washington, D.C. two months ago after he testified before the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee on this very matter. I attended the hearing with Vice Speaker Terlaje before the Senate. Mr. Celestial is here tonight and I ask everyone to please join me in recognizing his work.
Vice Speaker Terlaje, I also want to thank you for taking up the mantle and for giving your voice to a legacy issue that the late Speaker Ben fought so hard for.
Another major issue I am addressing is Compact Impact. The intent of the Compacts is to protect our national security, ensuring that Guam is surrounded by allies, and not dominated by hostile foreign powers like China. However, GovGuam cannot provide social services under the Compacts without the federal government contributing its fair share of the costs.
I am fighting to ease the burdens of the Compact Impact, and this year I successfully beat back the Trump Administration’s proposal to eliminate $3 million in Compact Impact funding. While this is a small amount compared to the total costs incurred by GovGuam, any proposed decrease in funding demonstrates a lack of focus and attention to one of the largest fiscal challenges affecting our island. It was not easy to defeat the Trump Administration’s proposal, but for the second year in a row, I got it done with the help of my colleagues in Congress.
I also reintroduced the Compact Impact Relief Act. The Compacts between the United States and the Freely Associated States are up for renewal in 2023, and my bill outlines the concessions we must seek ahead of any renewal of the Compacts, including provisions for our healthcare and education agencies.
I am supporting our school children and ensuring that every child on Guam receives a quality education that will prepare them for their future.
I am working with the Guam Department of Education and the Guam Education Board to remove the special conditions imposed by the U.S. Department of Education that cost our students and teachers $3 million every year. While these special conditions may have been needed a decade ago, Guam DOE has made significant progress to improve management and oversight of federal funds, and the conditions are no longer necessary. This $3 million can better be spent directly in the classroom for our students and teachers.
Because of voices like Education Board Chairman Mark Mendiola, Superintendent Jon Fernandez, and Guam DOE’s leadership team, we have been able to work with USEd and make the best case in removing these special conditions. In fact, last month, I secured a meeting between Guam DOE leadership, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and senior leadership so they could make their case directly to the highest levels in the Department of Education.
As a Member of Congress, I am honored to have students from Guam as interns in my Guam and Washington, D.C., congressional offices. This program gives our young people an opportunity to witness firsthand the legislative process and the workings of Congress. Throughout my tenure I have had 121 Congressional interns and four Congressional Pages in my office. Tonight, a few of them were able to join us and so please join me in recognizing: Athena McNinch, Danielle Arriola, Dasson Tan, Jay Milan, and Gabby Avilla.
In a special way, I would like to recognize Athena McNinch. In addition to completing her Congressional Internship, Athena is a Truman Scholar and the first recipient from Guam to receive The Congressional Award Gold Medal for excellence in public service, physical fitness, personal development, and exploration. Athena is joined by her parents, Dr. Ron and Rose McNinch. Please give them a round of applause. I am inspired by the voices of our young people and I look forward to their continued success.
I am deeply concerned with the challenges facing the Guam Memorial Hospital, most pressing of which is the potential loss of all federal Medicare funding. This loss of funding would be catastrophic for GMH and leave our people, especially some of our most vulnerable, with a significant gap in healthcare coverage. GMH submitted a corrective plan of action to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and I hope that the GMH administration implements an approved corrective plan of action swiftly, fully, and transparently to prevent a loss of certification.
To assist GMH through this crisis, I have requested that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs work collaboratively and establish an emergency task force to coordinate federal assistance to GMH. As Guam’s only public hospital, we cannot allow GMH to fail or lose its ability to serve Medicare and Medicaid patients. This would not be a receivership or the federal government assuming responsibilities of GMH management. Rather, I believe that a coordinated federal response to provide GMH with technical assistance to improve services and administration would greatly benefit the hospital as it navigates out of these dire times. This follows the voice and precedent set by former Assistant Secretary Tony Babauta, who is present this evening, in 2013 for help provided to the Northern Mariana Islands’ Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation. So Governor, Speaker, and Members of this esteemed Chamber, if there was ever a time the “One Guam” approach could prove most effective for us…now is that time. I continue to stand in the ready to do my part. On this issue, I share the concern in Senator Mary Torres’ voice, we cannot afford to reach a point of no return in caring for the most vulnerable in our community.
In addition to helping GMH navigate through its challenges with CMS and loss of accreditation, I am working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that all federal monies allocated to Guam continue to be available. The Affordable Care Act provided Guam with an additional $268 million to expand our Medicaid program and allow more people to receive care. The law required that this funding be spent by the end of 2019, yet because of unique federal requirements set for the territories, Guam has been unable to spend all this money, and it is estimated that about $100 million will expire at the end of 2019.
I am also working with my colleagues from the other territories to increase our federal reimbursement percentage and remove the Medicaid caps on how much the federal government will reimburse Guam for expenses. Our work in Congress needs to be matched by action at the local level to ensure that our Medicaid program provides for all the services and benefits required by Medicaid. However, there is bipartisan consensus that we must resolve this issue before the end of 2019.
I continue to make progress in conserving Guam’s natural heritage and securing a sustainable, more self-reliant future for our islands. I am happy to report that my Coral Reef Conservation Act has the most bipartisan cosponsors in nearly a decade. Congress is also poised to provide millions in new federal funding for local conservation projects, public recreation, invasive species control, and fish and wildlife management, stemming from my bills ensuring that Guam and the territories get state-equivalent shares of this federal funding.
This past spring during the annual Island Sustainability Conference, I spoke on the critical importance of expanding renewable energy to lower utility bills for Guam residents, reduce pollution that makes our people sick, and lessen our island’s reliance on costly fossil fuels imported from abroad. Well, I am pleased to announce that I will be introducing legislation upon my return to Congress this fall to authorize offshore wind development and guarantee Guam a state-equivalent share of royalty payments. Given that land is limited, offshore wind development has enormous potential for our island and is something my husband Ricky proposed decades ago. Ricky was before his time on many things, but my office has already been approached by offshore wind developers very interested in Guam. Obviously any offshore wind project will need to be sited appropriately, but I am thrilled that the world is taking notice of Guam as a potential leader in the western Pacific on offshore renewable energy technology.
Our environment is a key aspect of our Chamorro culture, but we have some other milestone accomplishments this year. First, we had the opening of the permanent exhibit at the world-class Guam Museum. Finally after decades, visitors and Guam residents alike have a permanent exhibit dedicated to our island’s rich Chamorro culture and history. Also this year was the groundbreaking for the new cultural repository to be built on the UOG campus. This facility, once completed, will support scholarship and long-term preservation of our island’s past and precious Chamorro artifacts for future generations. It reaffirms Guam’s place as a cultural center for all of Micronesia. I worked hard, very hard, in Congress to secure the $12 million necessary to construct this cultural repository, which will be the first such facility funded by the U.S. Defense Department. These really are major accomplishments for Chamorro cultural preservation on Guam, for which we should all be proud.
The challenges that we face should give renewed emphasis on our quest for true self-governance and deciding for ourselves the political status we want to attain for our island and our future generations. In recent history, I could not be more proud of the emerging voices we have heard from and the advocacy we have seen in our community. Whether it has been for Statehood, Free Association, or Independence there is no denying that our people now have the resources and education tools at their disposal to learn about and ultimately participate in this important process. I would like to recognize the efforts of Mr. Leo Llegado, Chairperson of the University of Guam Spring 2018 Master of Public Administration Graduating Class and the UOG Regional Center of Public Policy Director Dr. John Rivera and Assistant Director Mr. Jesse Quenga for their efforts in organizing the One Guam Gubernatorial Debate, reinvigorating the conversation and work toward Guam’s decolonization.
As we work towards decolonization, we cannot ignore that we are currently part of an American system that disenfranchises our people and prevents us from having a meaningful say in the selection of our country’s highest office. Our people are patriotic Americans and we contribute to every aspect of American life. Yet our exclusion from voting for the president dilutes our rights as American citizens and contributes to our lack of political capital to raise our issues within the Administration.
Last week, a day before returning to Guam, I introduced an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would require all of the territories to have Electoral College votes based on our respective populations. This amendment builds on the precedent of the 23rd amendment that gave DC electoral votes.
I want to be clear that this amendment will not affect the right of our people to determine our political destiny and hold our decolonization vote. However, until we decide for ourselves how we want to be affiliated with the United States, as Americans, we should be allowed to vote for President and Vice President.
I want to formally recap the efforts made during the war claims filing period. Over the last year, my office joined by other community organizations have worked diligently to assist our manamko’ and the family members of those who died during the occupation in completing their applications for war claims and ensuring that every person who was eligible was able to file before the June 20 deadline.
Throughout my time in Congress, and indeed over the last 74 years since the end of World War II, the voices of our manamko’ have pled for justice and closure for the atrocities they endured. Securing this recognition has been a driving force behind my work in Congress, and we can finally see the end of this long journey.
The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has reported that 3,640 war claims applications were filed, with a vast majority, over 3,000 filed by manamko’ - our living survivors and victims of the occupation of Guam. The Commission is currently reviewing these applications for adjudication and making the necessary arrangement to ensure that the voices and stories of our manamko’ receive the full recognition they deserve.
At this point in time, the Commission is working to adjudicate the claims after which payment amounts will be forwarded to the Department of Treasury for processing. Due to high volume of submitted applications, this process may take some time, but rest assured that I am working diligently to ensure that this process is administered appropriately and in line with the spirit of the law. I will not rest until this process is brought to final completion.
In Congress, I want you to know that I work in a very bipartisan manner, reaching across the aisle at every opportunity. Tonight you heard directly from me on federal-territorial issues important to our community. But we also heard the different voices shedding light on issues important to the work here and in Washington, D.C. These are just some of the voices that inspire me every single day to keep going, to keep fighting, to keep believing, and to keep knowing that our brighter days are still ahead of us, regardless of what goes on 10,000 miles away from home.
The voices in our community, sometimes differing, is what makes us so special as an island and as a people. There is no denying that the season is ripe for the cynics to swing left and right and for competing voices to say that I have failed or that I did not do enough or that others deserve the same chance to bring about change and progress we hope to see. To be quite frank, I am not deaf to those voices. But having dedicated my waking moments to serving the people of Guam for over 50 years, I know that walking out on seniority and leadership in Congress and the ability to achieve even the smallest milestones for our people will be regrettable. And that is why I have come back to you time after time - because it is you - it is your voice that chooses whether we build on the progress we are making or whether we change course, turning back the hands of time to start right at the bottom.
We cannot afford to be misled just because it is election time. There is no new frontier awaiting me or anyone after me in Congress. What determines the work on behalf of this great island is how we use the collective voices of our people to advance an agenda that is strong and that is sound - not just for today, but for generations after. It is a work that requires us to be undaunted by the uncertainty of what will happen next and that has always been the inner voice that drives me to serve.
Tonight, I know I have kept you long enough. We are all anxious to hit the trail again. I know because I have to do the same. But for everything that it is worth, tonight, let us renew ourselves to the values of decency…and respect…and compassion…the same ideals that were breathed into the spirit of our island. Let us find that inner voice that pays homage to who we are as a people and as a land, the voice that says:
Ginen i mas takhelo’ gi Hinasso-ku,
From the highest of my thoughts,
i mas takhalom gi Kurason-hu,
from the deepest of my heart,
yan i mas figo’ na Nina’siñå-hu,
and with the utmost of my strength,
Hu ufresen maisa yu’ para bai hu Prutehi
I offer myself to protect
yan hu Difende i Hinengge,
and to defend the beliefs,
i Hanom yan i tano’ Chamoru,
the water and the land of the Chamorro,
ni’Irensiå-ku Direchu ginen as Yu’os Tåta.
which are our inherent God-given rights.
Este hu Afitma gi hilo’ i bipblia yan i banderå-hu,
This I will affirm by the holy words and our banner,
i banderan Guåhan.
the flag of Guåhan!
God Bless You and Si Yu’os Ma’åse.