House OKs $134.33M for FY 2015

PSS, NMC turn to Senate for more funding

With less than two months to go before the budget deadline, the House of Representatives passed yesterday afternoon a $134.33 million spending plan for fiscal year 2015 with three floor amendments. The budget bill now heads to the Senate, which will likely amend the spending measure.

By a vote of 17-0, House Bill 18-201, House Draft 3 passed the House at 3:30pm.

House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) said after the session that he’s hoping the Senate won’t “reinvent the wheel” because the “legwork” and budget hearings have already been held.

The Senate tends to duplicate budget hearings that the House had already held, calling the same agencies and agency representatives to talk about their budget needs, only for the Senate and House to later disagree on proposed appropriations leading to a budget deadlock.

Without a new budget by Oct. 1, the government is required to shut down until a spending measure is passed and signed.

Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan), author of the 2015 budget bill, offered three floor amendments that members adopted, including exempting the Public School System from the mandatory withholding of 1 percent of its budget for the Office of the Public Auditor, provided that 1 percent of PSS’ budget will be exclusively used for the purchase of instructional materials or textbooks.

While PSS is thankful for the House’ move to exempt them from the OPA fee, they said there are a lot more that PSS needs for public school students.

Education Commissioner Dr. Rita Sablan asked House members during yesterday’s session to give PSS at least $1.6 million more than its current proposal of $32.279 million to reduce large class sizes in public schools.

In public elementary schools, for example, the student-teacher ratio is at 33:1; PSS wants to reduce this to 20:1. Sablan said in high schools, for example, Marianas High School, the student-teacher ratio is 37:1; the ideal would be 25:1.

“Our children need more,” Commissioner Sablan told lawmakers, in testifying on the budget bill. Her sentiments were echoed by Board of Education chair Herman Guerrero.

In an interview later, Commissioner Sablan said it doesn’t seem like education is a priority when it comes to budgeting. She said PSS will continue to lobby; this time at the Senate, where the budget is headed.

Rep. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan) said just by looking at the projected revenue that the Inos administration provided, there are possible sources of additional funding for PSS such as collection from the hotel occupancy tax.

“There’s a spike in collection. Why can’t PSS be given more than what’s in the budget bill? Not only that. We should take note of the potential negative impact of not meeting the maintenance of effort requirement. Where is our priority?” Tebuteb later said.

Dr. Sharon Hart, president of Northern Marianas College, also asked the House for more funding.

Sonia A. Camacho, deputy director of courts, told the House during the session that the Judiciary is thankful for the House support to the judicial branch but said there are still areas of importance to the courts that require additional funding including hiring additional employees, utilities, and professional services.

Rep. Tony Sablan, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that worked on the budget bill for over two months, said during the session that while there was a $12 million supplemental budget, these were allotted for the retirement settlement trust fund and group health and life insurance plan.

He said coming up with an additional $1 million-plus for one agency such as PSS “is like shutting down an agency” such as the Division of Customs Service, for example.

Sablan’s second floor amendment, which was also later adopted, moved $1 from the Legislative Bureau’s budget to the La Fiesta lease payment, instead of zeroing out the account.

With such an account still existing, Sablan said, the government could reprogram funds when money becomes available. The government is supposed to pay $200,000 in annual lease for the La Fiesta property but has zeroed out the account lately, citing financial constraints. The proposed second amendment also includes moving money from the office of the Department of Lands and Natural Resources secretary’s office to the Office of Personnel Management to help move to another building.

The third floor amendment, which was adopted as well, moves money from the Rota Mayor’s Office to the Sports and Recreation Division to fill a vacant trainee position.

Of the 20 House members, three were absent yesterday but the speaker said they were “excused” from the session: Reps. Christopher Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan), Richard Seman (R-Saipan), and Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan).

The House speaker, during the session, said the budget process is “not over yet,” as it still has to go to the Senate.

Historically, the CNMI House and Senate always disagree on the budget bill that at one time led to a partial CNMI government shutdown even after a conference committee was formed.

Gov. Eloy S. Inos’ proposed 2015 budget of $134.33 million is lower than the fiscal year 2014 budget of $135.786 million after the governor recently signed a $12.386-million supplemental budget law.

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Haidee V. Eugenio | Reporter
Haidee V. Eugenio has covered politics, immigration, business and a host of other news beats as a longtime journalist in the CNMI, and is a recipient of professional awards and commendations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental achievement award for her environmental reporting. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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