At a time when most people’s focus has turned to jeptas, holiday parties, shopping and family gatherings, this December has featured an usual development. Nitijela and the Cabinet are in a dust up over several public hearings scheduled by chairmen last week, one of which the Cabinet cut off from V7AB radio broadcast mid-way through the hearing as a Nitijela member was in mid-sentence.
Cabinet ministers challenged the authority of Health Education and Social Affairs Chairman Nitijela Member Kalani Kaneko and Appropriations Chairman Nitijela Member David Paul to call for public hearings last week Thursday and Friday.
Kaneko’s initial hearing Thursday morning asking the National Disaster Committee and Ministry of Health officials to update the committee on repatriation of Marshallese and other developments was cut from broadcast about half an hour into the proceeding with a panel of NDC and MOHHS officials present. Other hearings were scheduled to discuss budget and policy matters related to the RMI Scholarships, Tobolar and the ship and corporate registry. The latter is listed as providing $8 million in the current FY2021 national budget, but the agreement between the RMI and the Trust Company of the Marshall Islands and its parent company International Registries Inc. for funding expires December 31.
Kaneko and Paul expressed various concerns — ranging from scholarship students without funding to the status of the ship and corporate registry negotiations.
Cabinet Ministers and Appropriations Committee members Casten Nemra, Bruce Bilimon, Sandy Alfred and Alfred Alfred, Jr. signed a letter to Chairman Paul listing the reasons they refused to attend Friday’s announced hearing. They said they were not consulted about the plan for a hearing and should have had the opportunity of an executive meeting to agree on the substance and logistics of the hearing.
The Cabinet Ministers — along with President David Kabua, who sent a separate letter to Speaker Kenneth Kedi concerning the aborted hearings — said public hearings are only held when there is a bill, resolution or special assignment for consideration. “Nitijela is now in recess,” they pointed out, adding: “We will not take part in any hearing that is not properly sanctioned by Nitijela according to its rules and procedures.”
They also attacked Chairman Paul, who they accused of not consulting with other members. They objected to what they claimed was the Appropriations Committee taking over the job of the Public Accounts Committee, saying they “will not be part of such action.”
But the Nitijela chairman fired right back, with Speaker Kedi backing up these committees’ authority to hold hearings.
Both Kaneko and Paul said they were holding hearings in part to respond to the public’s request for information on various topics as well as the Appropriations concern that the looming end to the ship and corporate registry agreement with RMI potentially could affect the already approved national budget.
“Freedom and democracy is in jeopardy now,” said Kaneko of the Cabinet’s action to take the hearings off the air and instruct government workers not to appear before these two committees.
A key concern of Kaneko’s is lack of money for continuing college scholarships students. The scholarship office sent out a letter to some students in the US advising them that they could return to take courses at USP and CMI.
Kaneko said during budget hearings in September, scholarship office staff said they didn’t have enough money. “So Nitijela gave them more to cover the need, but they didn’t give it to the students,” he said. “We want to ask what happened to the money.”
Another concern is students who graduated from US universities so are no longer eligible to stay in the school dormitories, but cannot return home because of the RMI border closure, said Kaneko.
Kaneko said they weren’t politicizing anything. The planned hearings were to address unanswered questions and issues from the most recent session.
“Cabinet is responsible to Nitijela,” said Speaker Kedi, citing the Constitution’s Article 5, Section 2. “It is Nitijela’s responsibility to scrutinize (Cabinet and RMI government action).”
Kedi continued: “In the case of the Trust Company of the Marshall Islands, the chairman of Appropriations is concerned that the money guaranteed under the agreement expires December 31. The committee deals with the budget. If the money isn’t provided, it creates a deficit. Cabinet is not sharing information, we have no idea what is happening. The Nitijela has a right to know what the income (from the ship and corporate registry) will be. That is why the public hearing was scheduled. What is wrong with a public hearing?”
Kedi said if the government is still in ongoing negotiations, it was easy enough for Cabinet ministers to appear at the hearing and explain the situation of ongoing discussions.
In regards to the HESA Committee, Kedi said parents are concerned about these scholarship situation affecting their children.
“Being transparent to the public is more important than any shenanigans (by Cabinet ministers),” he said.
Nitijela Member Brenson Wase, who is on the Appropriations Committee, told the Journal that he has been in Nitijela since 1984 hand has never seen the Cabinet take action to cut off public hearings.
“This is a pivotal moment in the Marshall Islands,” Paul told the Journal Friday after his scheduled hearing was cancelled for lack of government attendance (two Trust Company of the Marshall Islands officials were in attendance as requested by the committee). “A democratic institution is being eroded (by Cabinet).”