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Friday, April 18, 2014

AG: Without new law, governor will define ‘essential services’

Without a new law defining “essential services,” it will be up to the governor to make that interpretation, giving him the latitude to decide which agency, department, or office will be exempt from a government shutdown should the Legislature fail to pass a budget by Oct. 1, according to a legal opinion of the attorney general.

In a seven-page opinion dated Sept. 7, 2010, Attorney General Edward T. Buckingham outlined the requirements necessary to prevent a government shutdown and responds to the question of what constitutes essential services if a government shutdown does occur.

The House and Senate remains deadlocked on the $132 million budget bill for fiscal year 2011 and a conference committee has been formed to hash out their differing proposals.

Buckingham said an appropriations bill must be a law to be considered “passed.”

The test is whether an appropriations act is in effect by Oct. 1, 2010, the start of fiscal year 2011.

If this is not the case, then the conditions of Article III, Section 9(a) of the CNMI Constitution take effect.

These conditions require all but essential services to cease, and legislators’ salaries to be suspended.

“The Constitutional provision is new and no definition of ‘essential services’ relative to its implementation presently exists. If a new statute is passed to define the term ‘essential services’, such statute shall govern. In the absence of a statute, the governor shall be responsible to define and implement appropriate provisions related to ‘essential services,’” Buckingham said.

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, in an interview, echoed the attorney general’s opinion should there be no budget passed in time for the new fiscal year.

“Should there be no balanced budget passed by Oct. 1, the government will shut down. Meaning the Legislature has to come up with a definition of what essential services are, and if they fail to do that by Oct. 1, then I have to step in and provide that definition,” he said.

Fitial added that he is “prepared to do whatever the Constitution requires me to do.”

The duty to clarify the term “essential services” will fall to the governor under his “emergency powers.”

In the November 2009 general elections, CNMI voters passed House Legislative Initiative 16-11, amending the CNMI Constitution to require a balanced budget and imposing penalties to ensure a budget is passed by Oct. 1.

These penalties include the shutdown of the government, except for essential services, and the suspension of lawmakers’ salaries.

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