A question of priorities
When Bill Gates announced that he was going to spend his wealth in his lifetime to help make the world a better place, he was proclaiming that public service is a goal worthy of pursuing. It’s too bad that so many of the current politicians are more of the Bernie Madoff mold, pursuing personal wealth, for wealth’s sake, regardless of the consequences for the public. It’s a reflection of the moral hazard of politics we discussed in last month’s column.
For some politicians, getting wealthy is more important than providing public service. How else can we look at politicians whose first act after getting into office was to give themselves a hefty pay raise?
The priority for most people is to keep their families safe. Instead of working to make our homes and villages safer, politicians are prioritizing empire building. Guam used to have a single head of public safety; now we have an airport police chief, a harbor chief of police, court marshals and a fire chief. Each one has a highly paid staff and entourage at a very high cost to taxpayers Their priority has changed from making people safe to creating public safety empires.
The priority for most people it to live within their financial means, a task made difficult as the cost of living continues to escalate, while compensation rates remain stagnant. While people are forced to choose between paying car insurance or the power bill, politicians are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel. While people choose between staying home to raise their children or getting a third job to pay rent and utilities, politicians are raising fees and taxes to increase the government income to support increased empire building efforts.
Most politicians ran with “reducing the cost of government” as part of their campaign platform. But instead of reducing the cost, they are raising taxes and fees to be able to continue the time-honored tradition of empire building. Bigger budget plus more employees, equal more personal political power in the traditional sense of Guam politics.
The Leon Guerrero-Tenorio administration has made no secret of their plans to increase property taxes, which will increase the government’s borrowing power. They’ve made no secret on plans to raise (and in some cases double) government fees. They try to justify such plans by saying fees haven’t been raised since the 1990s.
The priority for most people is to keep gambling illegal to protect our families from criminal activities such as robbery, burglary, drug addiction, prostitution, unemployment, broken families, and homelessness that plague areas with legal gambling.
The question on legalized gambling has been asked many times and the public, without exception, repeatedly said “No.” Yet, some of our elected officials try to circumvent that “No” by introducing limited gambling as a fund-raising mechanism. The “House of Cards” casino at the Liberation Carnival at Paseo was supposed to be a big crowd drawer and help fund the carnival and Liberation Day activities.
Gaming taxes were supposed to help fill the government coffers to help fund badly needed projects for the Department of Education. Unfortunately — and as predicted by many — the casino operation did not draw crowds to the carnival grounds as hoped, causing the event to lose nearly $200,000 that will have to be paid out of our taxes.
We will never know how much money flowed through the casino because the Mayors Council of Guam (MCOG) refused to incorporate auditing and tracking systems into the regulations to ensure proper accounting for taxing purposes. Based on the “honor system” of reporting cash flows, only $15,000 of taxes were collected, proving the priority for the MCOG is unregulated, untracked and untaxed gambling money for the benefit of themselves.
The Liberty machines are in a legal limbo, and the fig leaf of having some of the tax revenues going to MCOG to support youth sports programs and GMH’s pharmacy fund have enabled the machines to continue to wreak havoc on the community with impunity. Continued operations of these machines are backed by mayors eager to spend the few tax dollars they get for the machines, proving the priority for the MCOG mayors is to legalize gambling and find ways to steer more non-appropriated funding into the council’s operations. And to keep money flowing into the mayors’ pockets, as we saw with the winning bidder that also included a mayor and a vice mayor on the winning vendor team.
Yet, the MCOG still claims there was no conflict of interest in awarding the contract to team that included mayors.
It is interesting to see that a citizen, Jesse Mendiola, is standing up against the Liberty machines. His actions have forced the police, the Department of Revenue and Taxation and the Attorney General’s Office to shake up their apathy toward the gambling machines and start enforcing the law.
Governments exist to perform valuable services for the benefit of the public. We are seeing more citizens standing up like Jesse Mendiola to force government officials to do the jobs they were hired to do.
Guam would be a better place for all of us when the government works the way it is supposed to do. There are senators who are true public servants, but there’s not enough of them.
Many people working in government are public service minded — too bad so many of them are in offices that are led and managed by politicians who are in it only for the money. That model exists because we keep reelecting self-serving politicians.
My favorite line from Socrates poem “The Vicious Cycle” applies to Guam politics: “If you always do what you have always done; you will always get, what you always got.”
Voters must break the vicious cycle of partisan politics and start electing public servants if we are going to have a chance of making Guam a true paradise for all who call Guam home, and not just for the well-connected few.
Ken Leon-Guerrero is the spokesperson of Guam Citizens for Public Accountability. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org