Guam senators have shot down Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s request for expanded emergency powers, voting 12-3 against a bill that would stretch the curfew law while shrinking from acting on a separate proposal to sanction violators of Covid-19-related directives.
For three straight days, public health tests for coronavirus have yielded negative results. Despite signs of Covid-19 tapering off on Guam, Leon Guerrero maintained it’s too soon to hang loose. But senators— up for midterm elections in November — declined to take the extreme options that have drawn mixed reactions from the community.
At Thursday’s session, only three senators— Speaker Tina Muna Barnes, Vice Speaker Telena Nelson and Sen. Amanda
Shelton— voted in favor of Bill 335-35, which proposed to authorize the governor to extend the curfew to adults.
The Guam Police Department on March 17 began enforcing curfew, which under the current law, covers only minors. The governor has imposed further road restrictions by setting up roadblocks, manned by the Guam National Guards, on certain road clusters.
The other measure, Bill 334-35, which proposed to criminalize violation of an executive order, was moved back to the committee earlier his week but never made it to the floor for a vote. Bill 334-35 would have established a $5,000 fine and jail time for violators of the governor’s coronavirus-related directives.
Both bills were introduced in the legislature shortly after the governor announced her request for broader authority to enforce the government’s social distancing mandate by further restricting the residents’ mobility.
“As a combat veteran who's fought for liberty both here and abroad, I voted against any chance of infringing on an individual's civil liberties,” Sen. Pedo Terlaje, a Democrat, said in a statement. “While I believe the governor and her team have acted swiftly to contain the spread of this pandemic outbreak, I also believe that, if her orders are followed, we can flatten the curve without instituting more restrictions on our residents.”
Terlaje said his vote was not cast against the governor. “It was cast because I trust that you, the community, will follow the guidelines set up by our Maga’ håga until we're all in the clear,” he said.
Republican senators dismissed both bills as “overkill” and “dangerous to democracy.”
They warned that if passed, both measures may be enforced without justification and without the need for ratification by the legislature.
"It is clear that the people's concerns matter more than party loyalty and we are grateful for our colleagues for coming across the aisle and voting to stop Bill 335 and to send Bill 334 back to committee," Minority Leader Telo Taitague said.
"U.S. courts consistently ruled that overly restrictive edicts upon our civil liberties are unconstitutional," says Assistant Minority Leader Louise Borja Muña.
Sen. Wi Castro said there are alternatives to road closures and ordering families to do anything against their will. “To change behavior, convince the people, don't coerce them," he said.
Prior to the legislature’s vote, the Guam Republican Party issued a statement reiterating its objection to what it called “a bad piece of legislation” that could not be fixed with “prettifying” amendment.
“During session this week, an amendment was added to the legislation to provide a conditional request to Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, that if she wanted to pursue establishing curfew policies or even to extend her dictatorship authority in stripping residents of their civil liberties, that she had to be ‘transparent’ to the public,” the Republican Party said in a statement.
“Why is the governor of Guam withholding information from the public, including members of her own political party? Why does it take legislation to be enacted for the governor to be more transparent? We live in a democracy, and she is expending taxpayer funds, thus she needs to be transparent.”
Meanwhile, senators have passed others bills including Bill 324-35, which would grant the governor increased flexibility in managing government funds.
Introduced by Sen. Mary Camacho Torres, the bill would suspend the government of Guam’s requirement to deposit monies into the Rainy Day Fund for Fiscal Year 2020. Under Guam law, 2 percent of the total revenues projected for the general fund must be deposited into the Fund for each fiscal year
“I think we can all agree that we are in the midst of uncertain times, with no clear idea of the extent and duration of this pandemic,” Torres said.
Torres highlighted that the economic impact of Covid-19 will inevitably result in a decline in revenues collection—inhibiting the government of Guam’s ability to meet its adopted revenue levels for Fiscal Year 2020.
“Given these circumstances, suspending this requirement will give our governor the flexibility she needs and allow her to instead direct those resources toward Guam’s current crisis, in the event actual revenues are collected,” Torres said.
Senators also passed Bill 326-35, which entitles certain essential employees to Covid- 19 hazardous pay differential.
“This measure ensures all of our COVID-19 responders are rightfully compensated for courageously carrying out extraordinary duties under extraordinary circumstances,” said Nelson, the bill’s author.
The compensation provides the following to eligible employees:
· Category 1: 25 percent hazardous pay differential to essential employees, who are in direct contact or in close physical proximity to a population infected with or may be reasonably suspected to be infected with Covid-19. Such positions include public safety/law enforcement officers, healthcare providers, and other positions performing essential critical mission duties.
· Category 2: 15 percent hazardous pay differential to essential employees, who provide humanitarian services or direct public assistance to the general public
· Category 3: 10 percent hazardous pay differential to essential employees whose positions do not allow them to telework and are mandated to perform their job duties at physical worksites pre-determined by their agency heads, as required by the government of Guam's response to the Covid -pandemic
· Double payment: The Department of Administration is authorized to issue payment at double the regular rate of pay during the public health emergency, including for employees eligible under Covid- 19 hazardous pay differential
“Our frontline responders and essential workers take great personal risks and sacrifice precious time away from their families to carry out the work that must go on. To these heroes who continue to display courage and uphold their commitment to our people: know that no matter what you do, you have saved lives and livelihoods, and you will always have our island’s gratitude,” Nelson said.
Some road clusters on Guam are closed daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. as part of the government's measure to restrict the residents' movement. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Bills 332-35 and 339-35, each passed unanimously, respectively exempt 12th grade public school students from service learning requirements provided that they meet all other graduation requirements and the Guam Department of Education from instructional hour requirements for school year 2019-2020. GDOE sought guidance on temporarily waiving these requirements while Guam responds to Covid-19. Due to the unprecedented events, Vice Speaker Nelson introduced the measures to allow GDOE flexibility and ensure that eligible 12th grade students are able to graduate and receive the recognition they’ve earned.
Also receiving unanimous votes were Bills 336 and 333, both sponsored by Sen. Therese Terlaje , which provide the governor with tools and flexibility to rapidly respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bill 336-35 increases the governor’s current transfer authority under the Health Emergency Declaration from $100,000.00 monthly for three months, up to $4 million during the Covid-19 emergency response.
The increase in transfer authority removes any potential impediment to compete today in a market where there is a global shortage of ventilators, personal protective equipment and test kits, Terlaje said.
When these items become available, she added, there should be no barrier within the government’s control to obtain them.