Taking care of unfinished business
By Frank Whitman
As she heads into her second four-year term in Adelup, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero is looking forward to continuing with the initiatives she began during her first term.
“(My priority is) to provide our people with a better quality of life,” Leon Guerrero told the Pacific Island Times. That requires keeping the government financially stable which “we’ve done in the first four years and we’re going to continue that.”
She noted several indicators of stabilized government finances. These include the retirement of an $83 million deficit “that we inherited.” Income tax refunds are now paid, for error-free returns, in 12 to 14 days as compared to the months and years it took previous administrations. “We have now, through a financial audit, a surplus of $30 million in the last fiscal year,” she said. “Our cash flow is good. We’re collecting revenues.”
The Department of Revenue and Taxation has been “automated and modernized,” facilitating the collection of revenues and issuing tax refunds.
Increased military activity, particularly the recently announced $1.2 billion to $2 billion in planned annual military construction will result in brighter government finances, she said.
In addition, Leon Guerrero is optimistic about efforts to diversify Guam’s economy by encouraging new industries to open on the island as well as the expansion of existing ones to supplement tourism and military spending – the longtime mainstays of Guam’s two-legged economy.
“I have an economic diversification task force that is so aggressive,” she said. The task force is headed by Melanie Mendiola, CEO and administrator of the Guam Economic Development Authority.
Additive manufacturing, aquaculture, agriculture, telecommunications, transshipment and ship repair are among those being considered as industries with the potential to expand Guam’s economy. “We are working with (the University of Guam, Guam Community College) and the GCA Trades Academy and we are taking people and shifting their skills into better-paying jobs – welding, plumbing, electrical, mechanical, things like that, that are stable sources of income,” she said. “I think this pandemic has bought some opportunities for us.”
Leon Guerrero said she is well aware that the federal pandemic assistance funds that have been bolstering Guam’s economy will stop at some point. “That’s temporary assistance and we’re using it for that,” she said.
She is confident that Guam’s economy will recover with increased military spending, eventual recovery of tourism and diversification of the economy.
As government finances are stabilizing, the governor plans to tackle projects, such as building a medical complex center at Eagles Field in Mangilao, which she marked as one of her biggest priorities. “I think that’s a realistically achievable priority,” she said. “If we get the lease at the end of the year from the federal government, I’m looking by next year to break ground, that’s my goal. Then three or four years for construction. It’s urgent that we build this hospital because our current hospital has only five years of life.”
The complex is to be a state-of-the-art medical center able to provide treatment not currently available on island, putting an end to the need for patients to fly off island for care. “This is a very prime health care delivery system complex center,” she said. “It’s going to have an acute care hospital, it’s going to have Public Health there, it’s going to have mental health there, it’s going to have a veterans’ clinic there. It’s also going to be regional so we can provide the acute care treatment for our brothers and sisters in the neighboring islands.”
Leon Guerrero would like to be remembered for her fight against the pandemic, which began in early 2020, two years into her first term. She noted the unprecedented nature of the crisis and the uncertainties surrounding it at the time. In determining her strategy, she relied on the best available advice and made difficult decisions as needed.
“We had very good relationships with (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, and World Health Organization),” she said. “We followed their science and their recommendations.”
When she was advised that, according to projections from health officials, as many as 3,000 Guam residents might die from Covid-19 if no preventive measures were taken immediately, she took steps intended to decrease the populace’s risk of exposure to the disease.
“I was the governor who made the hard decision of ‘Hey, we need to close our island,’” she said. “How do you not make those difficult decisions when your main focus is to save the lives of our people? We can bring back our economy, but we can’t bring back a loved one that has been lost. That was my driving force in making those decisions.”
Tourism on Guam closed because tourists stopped traveling, she said. “There were no people in the hotels. It was a function of the pandemic, not necessarily a function of my actions. I never closed hotels; I never closed tourism.”
Federal funds were used to pay for quarantine and Covid testing, all of which were duly reported, she said.
Leon Guerrero listed several challenges she is facing in her second term. Drug addiction on the island is “the biggest challenge,” she said. “I’m working very closely with the leadership in law enforcement, mental health and the schools for education and prevention, and Customs and Quarantine for decreasing the supply and decreasing the demand.”
She said she considers the completion of the new Simon Sanchez High School a priority. She is also looking to settle “and get some closure” on the ongoing Ordot dump lawsuit filed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.
She plans to “take back the whole of the receivership for the landfill and solid waste,” she said. “That needs to be closed also. We’re at a point where we just have one more step to do.”
When her second term ends, Leon Guerrero is looking forward to spending time with her family, including her eight grandchildren and her husband, she said. She does not plan to seek another elected office nor to return to the Bank of Guam, where she had been president and CEO before being elected governor.
She would be willing, however, to support a gubernatorial administration of current Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio, “who is very interested” in running for governor in 2026.