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By Gemma Q. Cassas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Oct. 10) – The Senate, on Rota Thursday, passed a measure that will allow the cash-strapped government to stop paying its employees for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ 14 official holidays. The move could save about US$7 million annually.

The vote was five in favor and three against.

Senate Vice President Pete P. Reyes, Ind.-Saipan; Sen. Paul A. Manglona, R-Rota; and Sen. Luis P. Crisostimo, D-Saipan, voted no.

Sen. Maria Frica Pangelinan, D-Saipan, was excused.

Offered by Senate President Joseph M. Mendiola, Covenant-Tinian, Senate Bill 15-102 now goes to the House, which is scheduled to hold a session this afternoon.

The bill will suspend pay for 14 holidays: Jan. 1, 2008, New Year’s Day; Jan. 21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day; Feb. 18, President’s Day; March 21, Covenant Day; March 31, substituting for March 24, Commonwealth Covenant Day; April 28, substituting for Nov. 11, Veterans Day; May 26, Memorial Day; July 4, Liberation Day; July 28, substituting for Dec. 8, Constitution Day; August 15, substituting for Dec. 25, Christmas Day; Sept. 1, Labor Day; Oct. 13, Commonwealth Cultural Day; Nov. 4, Citizenship day; Nov. 27, Thanksgiving Day.

"No employee shall receive leave with pay, with respect to (these) legal holidays and days substituted for a legal holiday for the 2008 calendar year, except that an employee who is required to work on any such holiday or holiday substitute shall be paid only his or her regular salary," the bill stated.

It will apply to all full-time government employees as well as those whose positions are federally funded.

Rep. Manuel A. Tenorio’s House Bill 15-196 also proposes to suspend holiday pay but only covers seven official holidays. It also has a provision reducing tax rebates by 20 percent.

According to Mendiola, the austerity holiday law which allowed the shutdown of public offices every other Friday, did not lead to much in savings for the cash-strapped government as about 20 percent of the workforce was exempted.

He said it also did not cover personnel whose positions were constitutionally protected.

"Reports have revealed that out of approximately 5,000 government employees, approximately 1,000 government employees were exempted from the provisions of Public Law 15-24 (the austerity holiday law) as amended," Mendiola’s bill stated.

He said such exemptions "thwarted" the intent of the austerity holiday law and resulted in "frustration."

"These employees have had to cope with less income, a depressed economy, and the rising costs of goods and services, particularly vehicle fuel and utilities. This is likely the leading cause of increased delinquency in the payment of bills and debts, increased dependency on social programs…criminal activity, particularly theft, and the growing number of residents who have left the commonwealth to improve their lives elsewhere, mostly to other U.S. jurisdictions," the bill stated.

It added that the biweekly government shutdown also resulted in the disruption of government services.

According to the bill, the proposed unpaid holidays will not disrupt government services.

With a new budget not yet passed, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands government’s spending level for FY 2008 remains at US$163.5 million although it only has projected revenues of US$160.1 million.

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