Legislators mull nonbinding referendum on troop move
By Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Thursday, March 5, 2009
TOKYO — Guam voters may get a chance later this year to say whether they want 8,000 U.S. Marines and their families to move onto the island, according to Guam lawmakers.
The proposed referendum would also ask voters whether the military should be allowed to lease Guam-controlled lands currently set aside for residential development and for reparations for some island residents who lost land decades ago to military use.
Lawmakers and leaders from both parties support the idea of the nonbinding vote, though for differing reasons, according to interviews with Guam senators in recent days.
Some say a strong showing could help persuade federal leaders to funnel more money to Guam, a U.S. territory that lacks a full vote in Congress and grapples daily with an inadequate tax base, aging infrastructure, troubled public schools, an overcrowded hospital and an overflowing landfill.
Others say that after three years of ample public discussion but few tangible investments, the public deserves a say about the project, especially now that the military is surveying land outside its fences to find adequate room for firing ranges.
Gauging the support of this last issue — the military’s need for more land — is the most important part of the proposal, according to Sen. Benjamin J.F. Cruz, sponsor of the referendum.
"There was a lot of concern from the community about losing that much property to the military," said Cruz, a Democrat and vice speaker of the legislature. "I thought, well, let’s ask the people."
As currently written, the referendum would take place 90 days after it’s approved by the legislature.
The special election would cost $150,000 to $200,000. Cruz said he hopes for a vote in the legislature in coming days.
More than three years ago, U.S. and Japanese governments announced an agreement to move Marines from III Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa to Guam. The buildup plans have grown to include the addition of an Army air defense unit and the ability to host weeks-long aircraft carrier visits.
It amounts to an expansion of the current 14,000 troops and Pentagon workers to an estimated 40,000 by 2014.
Currently, the military controls a little more than a quarter of the island’s 212 square miles, according to Sen. Judith Guthertz, another Democrat who heads the legislature’s Committee on the Guam Military Buildup and Homeland Security.
Earlier this year, military leaders shepherding the project told Guam officials they needed to look beyond the Navy and Air Force’s current land holdings to accommodate the Marines’ need for firing ranges, senators interviewed said. It was a change in tack for the military’s Joint Guam Project Office, whose officials had said for years they hoped not to increase the military’s footprint on the island. As plans developed, that goal became harder, according to Capt. Neil Ruggerio, a spokesman for the project office.
With the buildup, the military needs more area for rifle and machine gun ranges, he said. That means the military also needs to secure a pie-shaped wedge of land behind the targets for safety reasons. On existing bases, that safety area comes too close to popular tourist areas, endangered species’ domains and munitions storage, Ruggerio said.
This week, surveyors from the Navy’s Facilities Engineering Command in Hawaii are on Guam to look for adequate land. No land has been selected, though the military is talking with landowners and local mayors as it surveys, Ruggerio said. Some of the surveyed area includes Guam-controlled land in the Chamurro Land Trust Commission and the Ancestral Lands Trust Commission, according to senators who were interviewed.
The former is undeveloped land set aside for residents who were on the island before 1950. Those who qualify for the land can lease plots; in return, the government uses the lease payments to invest in infrastructure for the lots.
The second category is reserved for families who lost land during World War II but cannot reclaim it because of current use.
"You have to be very sensitive here," said Guthertz, who added she had not made up her mind about the land-use issue.
"People had difficult experiences at the end of World War II. … There has to be an overwhelming reason [to use more land]. That’s going to be a hard nut to crack for our indigenous people."
Sen. Edward Calvo, the legislature’s minority leader, said he too supported the referendum and he thought a public vote would overwhelmingly favor the buildup.
"The biggest question is paying for the election," he said Tuesday.
"And, if we find out that it’s not supported any more, we have to find out why."
Military officials, in a written statement, said they would welcome the public’s opinion.
The office of Republican Gov. Felix Camacho also had indicated support. Any passage would send a vote of confidence for the project, Lt. Gov. Michael Cruz wrote last week in response to written questions.
A public rejection, however, could slow down the process, Lt. Gov. Cruz wrote.
"Whether or not it will stop the process is tough to determine," he added.
Even Sen. Benjamin Cruz, who does not support the buildup, acknowledged that the referendum effort may be moot. "We may not have a choice in the matter," he said.