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Frustration builds with budget bill draft four

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 7, 2010) - Seven days into the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) government's partial shutdown which temporarily sent over 1,000 workers out of jobs, the House of Representatives and the Senate still differ on the fourth and latest budget bill to be introduced in the 17th Legislature mainly because of work hour cuts and reprogramming authority given to the governor.

Rep. Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan) introduced House Bill 17-122 in an emergency session yesterday.

HB 17-122, House Draft 2, passed the House on a 12-7 vote early yesterday afternoon. Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan) was absent because he was off-island.

Shortly before 9pm, the Senate passed the budget bill in the form of HB 17-122, HD2, Senate Substitute 1.

The bill passed the Senate on an 8-1 vote. Sen. Luis Crisostimo (D-Saipan) was the one who voted "no."

The latest budget bill goes back to the House.

It is again up to the House to accept or reject the Senate-amended bill.

"We urge the House to consider the budget bill. The Senate already compromised so much," Senate Vice President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) told Saipan Tribune last night.

Just like the House, the Senate also held an emergency session yesterday.

Rita Castro, a government employee who has not been allowed to report to work since Friday, was crying while she was testifying before senators last night.

"I'm begging you all to pass a budget. I'm putting a face to voters who put you in there," said Castro, who also held a placard urging the Senate to pass the governor's budget bill.

The mother of four said it has been very hard for government workers like her who has not been making a living since the partial shutdown started.

During the House's emergency session earlier yesterday, concerned citizens, government employees, and government officials also took turns asking the Legislature to reach a consensus and pass a budget "to end the suffering of the people."

Rep. Ray Palacios (Cov-Saipan), during the session, said he apologizes to the public for the Legislature's failure to meet its constitutional mandate to pass a timely, balanced budget. He said he shares the pain experienced by those affected by the shutdown, and expressed hope the deadlock would be over soon, so that a budget could be passed.

For the first time in CNMI history, the government has been in partial shutdown since Oct. 1 for the failure to pass and sign a budget by the Sept. 30 deadline.

Work hour cuts remains as the most contentious issue under HB 17-22.

The House stood firm on a 16-hour cut per pay period while the Senate officially offered a 12-hour cut per pay period in trying to reach a compromise with the House, from its previous eight-hour proposal.

House Speaker Froilan C. Tenorio (Cov-Saipan) reiterated that the Legislature should not pass a budget bill that Gov. Benigno R. Fitial will surely veto.

Vice Speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan) said a 16-hour cut per pay period and 13 unpaid holidays will maintain a "balanced" budget as the governor proposed.

Tenorio said a compromise budget bill he was earlier proposing is now impossible to introduce after the governor, during a meeting yesterday morning, said he would only sign a 16-hour cut per pay period and 13 unpaid holidays.

That compromise bill would have agreed to the Senate's original eight-hour cut but with an attachment of the revised figure of 333 employees to be laid off.

Under the latest budget bill, both houses now agree to 13 unpaid holidays for Fiscal Year 2011, a leadership account of US$138,000 each for the House and Senate, and lawmaker's annual discretionary allowance of US$85,000 each.

The bill that the House and Senate passed also agreed to a funding level for Northern Marianas College and the Public School System that meets the Maintenance-of-Effort (MOE) agreement between the governor and the U.S. Department of Education.

In the House, the latest budget bill passed only after a lengthy debate, and impassioned statements.

Both majority and minority members argued their stand mostly on the work hour cuts.

"I plead to each one of you my colleagues, I beg you, let's put aside our political differences, personality differences. Let's support this bill. Over 1,400 people, and more, are suffering now. You are adding insult to injury," Basa said as he introduced his bill.

Rep. Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) made a floor amendment to increase the budget of NMC to meet the MOE.

The result of the voting was 9-9. Rep. Stanley Torres (Ind-Saipan) abstained.

To break the tie, the speaker changed his vote to "yes," and Northern Marianas College (NMC) got a budget that meets the MOE.

Minority members led by Rep. Diego Benavente (R-Saipan) reiterated the need to pass revenue-generating bills. They said this was agreed upon on Monday night during a meeting with Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos.

The speaker said he did not sanction the Monday night meeting.

Rep. Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan), at one point, asked Basa, "When are you going to learn?" He was referring to the introduction of new budget bills that they knew would be changed by the Senate mostly because of the work hour cuts.

"If the bill doesn't pass, what will you do next?" Deleon Guerrero added.

During the public comment period at the House session, among those who testified were Ignacio Demapan of the Indigenous Affairs Office, NMC's Henry Hofschneider, former speaker Pete Deleon Guerrero, Public Lands Secretary and former speaker Oscar Babauta, and press secretary Angel Demapan.

In the Senate, members of the public, including Retirement Fund board's Sixto Igisomar, Workforce Investment Agency director Edith Deleon Guerrero and Commerce Secretary Michael Ada, took turns appealing to the senators to pass a budget. Just like in the House, tempers also flared at the Senate session.

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