CNMI Government Prepares For Possible Shutdown

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Contingency plans readied if critical budget passage fails

By Emmanuel T. Erediano

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Marianas Variety Guam, Sept. 20, 2012) – The Fitial administration in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is preparing for another government shutdown if a balanced budget is not enacted on Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year 2012, Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos said yesterday.

The Senate and House conferees on the bicameral budget committee had already agreed on some items in House Bill 17-313, or the fiscal year 2013 budget bill, but were still trying to iron out a few differences, especially regarding funding for personnel.

In an interview, Inos told reporters that he has not heard about the status of the budget bill.

"I cannot comment on the progress of the joint budget panel is making because I don’t know if there is progress," he added.

"What we know is that we are preparing for the worst. We are putting together a plan for a possible shutdown unless we see a budget," Inos said.

It is also possible, he added, that a budget that will be passed by the Legislature "may not be a workable budget for us, which could mean a veto."

Anticipating any of those circumstances, Inos said the administration is already putting together appropriate plans to make sure that the government continues to provide critical services during the shutdown.

In Oct. 2010, the CNMI government, for the first time in history, had to shut down non-critical government services for eight days after the Legislature, amid very contentious deliberations, failed to pass a balanced budget for fiscal year 2011. The partial shutdown affected more than 1,000 government employees.

Asked if the contingency plan will be the same as in 2010, Inos said "yes, it will be the same format, basically."

But since the administration has learned a lot from its experience, they can make adjustments this time, said Inos

He recalled that the administration did not expect the government shutdown to last for eight days.

"We thought the shutdown would be only for a couple of days," he said.

If the government has to shut down again this time, Inos said the administration has to prepare different sets of plans for each extension of the shutdown. There should be Plans A, B and C if the shutdown goes on for a month.

"But I still hope there will be a balanced budget [before Oct. 1]," he said.

He assured that the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. (CHC) will not be affected by a shutdown.

In a separate interview, Sen. Jovita M. Taimanao, Ind.-Rota, said it is a "standard" preparation that administration has to make as time is running out.

"The central government has to be prepared," he said.

But Taimanao, who co-chairs the bicameral panel, said she is optimistic about the progress they are making now.

The conferees, she added, just have to continue working together to pass a budget that both houses will support.

She noted that in the last meeting, both sides agreed to compromise.

The Senate conferees, she said, gave in to their House counterparts’ request to give CHC more, which resulted in a $5 million budget proposal for the hospital — which used to get $38 million a year.

The House conferees, in turn, agreed with their Senate counterparts’ proposal for a $33 million budget for the Public School System.

Yesterday, the budget panel continued "working on the numbers," Taimanao said, adding that they decided to call in the Office of Management and Budget "for some verifications." They will resume their meeting this morning, she added.

One item that the Senate is not ready to compromise is the $300,000 retroactive pay — mandated by a 1991 law — for the then-government employees of Rota and Saipan.

Taimanao said she will continue to push for this funding because the employees deserve it. She added that the Rota Legislative Delegation consider it a priority.

Senate President Paul A. Manglona, Ind.-Rota, said the possibility of another government shutdown should be "very slim." He noted that the Senate and House conferees have already agreed on several things.

He believes the conferees have enough time to come up with a compromise budget bill.

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