CNMI Legislature Send FY2015 Budget Bill To Governor

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Inos expected to sign $134.33 million proposal

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Sept. 8, 2014) – For the first time in CNMI history, the Legislature passed on Friday a budget bill more than three weeks before the start of a new fiscal year on Oct. 1. The $134.33-million fiscal year 2015 budget bill is now with Gov. Eloy S. Inos, who is more than likely to sign it into law.

The House of Representatives and the Senate passed the 2015 spending measure in back-to-back sessions on Friday afternoon.

The final version that’s now before the governor for action was a product of a six-member bicameral committee tasked to come up with a compromise budget bill.

At the Senate, the budget bill passed by a vote of 7-0 with one absence.

But at the House, the 2015 spending bill passed at 3:04pm by a vote of 16-1, with three absences.

Rep. George Camacho (R-Saipan), the only one among 17 House members present on Friday who voted "no," said there are still a lot of "big" and "small" concerns that the Legislature still has time to address before sending it to the governor for action.

"We’re not on the 11th hour. I think we still have time to address these concerns," Camacho said. "We can never have a perfect budget for sure but I think we can make it better so that everybody will be satisfied or can sleep at night."

Among the concerns that Camacho, along with Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan), and other members, raised during the session were the lateral transfers of Department of Public Works employees to the Department of Lands and Natural Resources’ Parks and Grounds Division. Camacho said these employees have different skills, knowledge, training, and responsibilities.

"So my question to the chairman was, are we moving bodies or are we just moving numbers because it’s going to be difficult for these people to transfer and the government has invested so much into these people, to their training," he added.

Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan), co-chair of the bicameral budget committee, said "there’s no such thing as a perfect budget" bill but he said he’s confident that the spending package passed is a workable one and takes into consideration most agencies’ needs including the Public School System and Northern Marianas College.

Sablan, author of the original budget bill, co-chaired the conference committee with Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota). The other conferees were House Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan), House Floor Leader Ralph Demapan (R-Saipan), Sen. Pete Reyes (Ind-Saipan), and Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian).

House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) confirmed on Saturday night that he has signed off on Friday afternoon on a document transmitting the budget bill to the governor.

The speaker said with the Legislature’s early passage of a budget bill, the governor has the luxury of time to scrutinize it unlike in previous years when Inos and others before him only had one or a few days to review the spending package before acting on them.

"I know he has more than ample time, so we don’t have to shut down the government," he added.

Rep. Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan) also sought justification on the salary increases for certain positions mostly in the Department of Finance, to which the Ways and Means Committee chairman said were justified given the long-time stagnation of these salaries and the increased collection and enforcement efforts.

Education Committee chair Roman Benavente (Ind-Saipan) thanked the conferees for adding more funding for PSS and NMC.

Other members also thanked the conferees from the House and Senate for coming up with a compromise budget bill.

The budget bill gives PSS $1.161 million more specifically to hire new teachers to reduce student-teacher ratio in classrooms, as well as to ensure that salaries will comply with a new 50-cent federal minimum wage increase effective Sept. 30. NMC also got $157,000 more to ensure that it also meets maintenance-of-efforts requirements, just like PSS.

The compromise bill also allows a two-month advance allotment for lawmakers, instead of a three-month advance as the Senate earlier proposed.

The House and Senate also sent the governor a budget bill that no longer has an earlier Senate provision allowing a $400,000 offsetting of government debt over unpaid La Fiesta leases in exchange for waiver of taxes and gaming fees for property owner Bridge Capital LLC.

The spending measure also restored a nearly $400,000 funding for Tinian, bringing it to its 2014 level.

House Bill 18-201, House Draft 3, Senate Substitute 1, Senate Draft 2, Conference Committee Draft 1, is expected to be signed long before the Sept. 30 deadline.

The governor said his staff has been monitoring the progress of the budget bill at the Legislature.

Three years ago when he was acting governor, Inos signed the budget bill on the day of his birthday. Inos turns 65 on Sept. 26. He said on Friday that waiting for his birthday won’t necessarily be the case this year.

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