CNMI Governor Signs Budget Bill, Averts Government Shutdown

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Fitial says working hours to be cut over next year

By Emmanuel T. Erediano

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Sept. 30, 2012) – Governor Benigno R. Fitial signed the new budget at 5:05 p.m. on Sunday, averting a government shutdown, but admitted that he may have to cut working hours "at some point" in fiscal year 2013, which starts today.

Surrounded by his House allies and administration officials at the Fiesta Resort, Fitial signed House Bill 17-313, now Public Law 17-85, but vetoed three of its provisions: Rota’s budget, including the $200,000 retroactive pay for its government employees pursuant to the 1991 law P.L. 7-31; the $500,000 in commonwealth worker funds for the Northern Marianas Trade Institute; and the $365,298 in poker revenue for the NMI Retirement Fund’s cost of living allowance.

The governor said he had several other concerns, adding that he signed the budget with "deep reservations."

Fitial said while his administration intends to restore the 80 government working hours, the "callous reductions imposed by the Legislature may trigger an adjustment to government work hours at some point in fiscal year 2013."

The governor said the Legislature raised its own budget by $401,704 or 37.8 percent while proportionately cutting most agencies by 1.79 percent. This, he said "crippled critical service agencies."

He said the Department of Corrections budget was reduced by 24.18 percent and the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs by 10.29 percent.

The Legislature also reduced the Department of Commerce’s budget by 9.78 percent, "maybe not realizing or not caring that the department is responsible for rejuvenating our economy," Fitial said.

"Frankly, I find it quite troubling that a bloated Legislature deems it absolutely necessary to increase the budget of their support staff, yet does not appreciate DCCAs’ role to provide critical services to our elders, our youth and to the needy," he added.

Fitial said the lawmakers’ failure to act promptly on the budget also "impacted my ability to improve upon [their] submission and make any comments."

"I should have been given 20 days as provided by our Constitution to review this budget act. However, in order to avoid a repeat of the 2010 shutdown and resulting payless government workdays I have signed the budget bill," he added.

In an email, Press Secretary Angel A. Demapan said Fitial and his budget review team conducted an "intense scrutiny" of the budget measure. The team was composed of Demapan, Finance Secretary Larrisa Larson, special assistant for management and budget Vicky Villagomez acting Attorney General Viola Alepuyo and the lt. governor’s legal counsel Teresa Kim-Tenorio.

After receiving the "11th hour" budget bill from the Legislature, Demapan said Fitial and his review team "went straight to work even into the late evening hours Friday and Saturday racing against time to comb through the appropriations measure hoping to have a budget enacted into law by the Oct. 1 deadline."

Fitial said he "submitted my budget proposal ahead of my April 1 deadline in the hopes that the Legislature would have passed the bill with ample time before the deadline. Doing so would have allowed the administration to not just conduct a review of the appropriations, but also make further recommendations to further refine the bill."

He said "it is unfair for the executive branch to be given a bill on the eve of a looming government shutdown that would have negatively impacted the lives of over 1,500 government employees and their families. It is for the sake of the people that my key officials, the lt. governor and I spent considerable time in a 48-hour window to review the bill and come up with the final decision to enact a budget and prevent a shutdown."

Fitial thanked "the lt. governor and our budget review team for their tireless efforts through a weekend that they spent away from their families and personal obligations."

The governor also thanked his executive assistant Lucy C. Castro, Special assistant for programs and legislative review Victoria Guerrero and SAPLR assistant Nace Soalabai for their assistance in processing and transmitting the new budget law.

Technical amendment

On Friday, by a vote of 13 to 6, the House of Representatives passed the fiscal year 2013 budget bill.

The House deliberated on H.B. 17-313 — which was passed by the Senate at 3:25 a.m. — from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Before the House session started, the bicameral conference committee tasked to draft the measure had to make a technical amendment to correct the budget for the Board of Education which was inadvertently "zeroed." The budget panel rectified what it described as an "unintentional" mistake.

After more than three hours of a closed-door meeting, the joint budget committee restored BOE’s $172,257 allotment. The Senate then held another session to pass the amended bill and transmit it to the House.

Before the House passed the bill, members of the minority bloc expressed disappointment with the House conferees’ decision to cut funding for critical services just to restore the government employees’ 80 working hours as proposed by Gov. Benigno R. Fitial.

Rep. Francisco S. Dela Cruz, R-Saipan, criticized the House conferees for insisting on a reduced budget for PSS and the Saipan mayor’s office as well as inadequate allotments for the government employees’ defined benefit contribution plan and the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.

"It appears the restoration of 80 working hours was placed above everything," Dela Cruz said. The House budget conferees he added, fought for the 80 working hours because they believed that it was political suicide not to do so.

Rep. Janet U. Maratita, R-Saipan, said the House conferees’ support for the restoration of the 80 hours was "not only defective but also deceptive." She asked: How long can the Fitial administration maintain 80 working hours for a cash-strapped government? "Come Jan. 2013, and let see if the governor will not reduce the working hours again."

The House conferees are seeking re-election on Fitial’s Republican slate: Speaker Eli D. Cabrera, Vice Speaker Felicidad T. Ogumoro and Rep. Ramon S. Basa. None of the Senate conferees are running this year: Senate Vice President Jude U. Hofschneider, R-Tinian, Sens. Jovita M. Taimanao, Ind.-Rota, and Ralph DLG Torres, R-Saipan.

Basa described as "garbage" Dela Cruz’s comments. He said politics had nothing to do with the budget panel’s decision. He noted that they actually "raised" the budgets for CHC, PSS, NMC, Medicaid and medical referrals which he described as the conferees’ priority items. Compared with the governor’s original submission, Basa said the budget panel’s proposed budget had higher allotments for the priority agencies and services.

Ogumoro, for her part, said they had to work with meager financial resources while trying to address the needs of every agencies and services. The limited resources, she added, compelled the budget panel to identify priorities: CHC, PSS, NMC, Medicaid, medical referrals and the restoration of 80 working hours.

Aside from Cabrera, Basa and Ogumoro, the other House members who voted yes to the passage of the budget bill were House Floor Leader George N. Camacho, R-Saipan; Reps. Fredrick P. Deleon Guerrero, R-Saipan; Joseph M. Palacios, R-Saipan; Sylvestre P. Iguel, R-Saipan; Stanley T. Torres, Ind.-Saipan; Ralph S. Demapan, Covenant-Saipan; Raymond D. Palacios, Covenant-Saipan; and Trenton B. Conner, R-Tinian. House Minority Leader Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, R-Saipan, and Rep. Teresita A. Santos, Ind.-Rota, voted yes but with "extreme reservations."

Those who voted no aside from Dela Cruz and Maratita were Reps. Ray N.Yumul, R-Saipan; Tony P. Sablan, R-Saipan; Ray A. Tebuteb, R-Saipan; and Edmund S. Villagomez, Covenant-Saipan.

Under the bill, PSS will get $30 million which is $3 million less than what the Senate earlier proposed. CHC’s "subsidy" was reduced from $5 million to $1.95 million, but the House conferees said CHC will also get a $7 million "loan" from the Marianas Public Land Trust,and the collections from a "sweet tax" measure, which has yet to be introduced. Before it was turned into a "public corporation," CHC received a budget of $38 million.

NMC will get some $5.3 million including Compact-Impact aid and CW fees; Medicaid, $8 million; medical referrals, $3.5 million; and the government’s defined benefit plan employer contributions, $10 million, which is $1 million less than what was earlier proposed.

The judiciary will get $3.739 million; the Legislature, $5.236 million; the executive branch,$30.654 million; Rota and Tinian, $4.62 million each; the Saipan mayor’s office, $1.165 million; the Northern Islands mayor’s office, $334,159; the Saipan and Northern Islands Municipal Council, $116,672; and the Marianas Visitors Authority, $2 million.

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