Work Hour Cut Proposed To Curb CNMI Spending

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5 percent cuts hoped to reduce budget to $114 million

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Sept. 21, 2012) – A bicameral legislative panel in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is poised to include a 5-percent across-the-board cut among government agencies that would allow them to implement 72 work hours per payday as part of efforts to cap spending at $114 million.

House Ways and Means Committee chair Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan) and Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) separately confirmed yesterday that each expenditure authority will be given the "flexibility" to implement the proposed 5-percent cut in their agencies or programs.

Basa said the conference committee agreed to include the 5 percent across-the-board cut after their latest calculations showed that spending will reach $119 million, exceeding by $5 million the projected revenue of $114 million in fiscal year 2013.

Taimanao and Basa said they are waiting for some government figures before finalizing their decision on the amount of the cut today.

"If we have the 5 percent across-the-board cut, we would be able to achieve a balanced budget, so that we would be able to bring down the projected expenses at $114 million. Right now we exceed that by $5 million, which we hope will be taken cared of by the across-the-board cut," Basa told Saipan Tribune in an interview at the Legislature at almost 5pm yesterday.

Basa said each expenditure authority will be given flexibility to decide whether to cut from either operations or personnel, or both.

He said if the expenditure authority decides to make the 5 percent cut in personnel, that could mean an eight-hour work cut per payday. This means a 72-hour work per payday instead of the regular 80 hours.

"But we'd put a language in there that should they decide on work hour cuts, it will be no more than eight hours per payday," Basa added.

Many government agencies had just restored the 72-hour work per payday, up from 64 hours, because of some savings prior to the end of fiscal year 2012.

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial had wanted to restore the 80-hour per payday under his proposed 2013 budget. But because the bicameral committee wants to give more to the Public School System and Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., these would stretch the budget further.

"We want to see 80 hours, but expenditure authorities will be given the flexibility whether to cut work hours or cut on other areas of operation to live with the 5 percent across-the-board cut," Basa added.

Taimanao said some agencies such as the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., the Public School System, and Northern Marianas College will be exempted from the cut, along with medical referral and Medicaid reimbursement.

Basa said the House and Senate may hold back-to-back sessions on Saturday to act on the compromise budget bill, if it's finalized today.

The Legislature has until Sept. 30 to pass a budget or the government will have to shut down starting Oct. 1.

The conference committee on the budget bill resumes its meeting this morning. It has six members and two alternates.

Rep. Joe Palacios (R-Saipan) said he hopes that the House and Senate conferees will be able to set aside politics to produce a "compromise" budget before the government shutdown provision of the NMI Constitution kicks in.

"For the sake of avoiding a shutdown, they should compromise. We already experienced a shutdown in 2010; we don't want a repeat of that," Palacios said.

Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos said the administration doesn't want to see another partial shutdown but they would like to see a workable budget bill from the Legislature. Otherwise, it will face a governor's veto.

The Fitial administration earlier said it is "preparing for the worst" and has been putting in place a government shutdown contingency plan, in case no budget is passed and enacted into law by Sept. 30.

The CNMI went through a partial government shutdown in 2010 over a bitter budget deadlock between the House and Senate. That shutdown, which lasted for some 10 days, resulted in having over 1,400 government employees temporarily out of jobs.

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