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By Jayvee Vallejera

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (August 21, 2002 – Saipan Tribune)---The House of Representatives is expected to transmit this morning to Gov. Juan N. Babauta the proposed $213 million Fiscal Year 2003 budget, after the Senate gave the green light yesterday afternoon to the Environmental Beautification Tax.

Both chambers of the Legislature had already passed House Bill 13-170—the spending plan for the next fiscal year—but the House has held off transmitting it to the Office of the Governor until the Senate passes House Bill 13-171—the beautification tax—which the lower chamber considers key to achieving the projected revenue for next fiscal year.

In yesterday afternoon’s session, the upper chamber voted to pass House Bill 13-171 on a vote of 7-1, with only Sen. Pete Reyes dissenting. Sen. David M. Cing was absent.

Reyes said the Commonwealth cannot afford to create new taxes at a time when the economic picture remains bleak. Senate leaders argued, however, that unless the measure is passed, the budget bill could be jeopardized—a scenario that all branches of government do not want to see.

The House had earlier passed the beautification tax, with instructions from House Speaker Heinz S. Hofschneider to hold on to the budget bill until the Senate acts on House Bill 13-171.

With the expected transmittal this morning of the budget measure and the beautification tax to the Office of the Governor, it remains to be seen whether Babauta would immediately sign it into law.

Although the Governor had committed himself to signing the spending plan as soon as possible, Lt. Gov. Diego T. Benavente said that they still need to review the measure once it gets to the Office of the Governor.

He went only so far as to say the Babauta administration is going to sign it as soon as possible. Benavente promised that House Bill 13-170 would be reviewed expeditiously.

"The budget being here is important in itself. At the same time, we still have over a month before it kicks in, so we don’t really need to sign it [today]. The Governor and I have talked about this and he has committed himself to signing it," said Benavente.

When asked which portions would undergo scrutiny, Benavente replied: "Everything. Even though the number we sent over and the number that was passed tally, there were a lot of changes made, so we need to look at the difference between what we proposed and what the Legislature passed."

He declined to comment, though, on the possibility that some items on the budget bill could undergo line-item veto, saying that is something that they will have to find out as soon as their review of the bill is over.

Babauta had submitted a $213-million spending plan but, although the House maintained the funding level, it redistributed some of the funding to some of the unfunded programs such as the Prior Service Trust Fund.

The lower chamber also adjusted the personnel ceiling for the Public School System, raising it from 916 to 1,111—or an additional 195 new positions—to accommodate the new teachers that would be hired to man the new schools being opened.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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