After almost three hours of discussions-mostly on a proposed increase in lawmakers' funding for fiscal year 2013 that was later thumbed down-the House of Representatives passed early last night a $114-million budget bill that the Senate is poised to amend and send back to the House.
House Ways and Means Committee chair Ray Basa's (Cov-Saipan) budget bill passed by a vote of 11-4.
The four who voted “no” to the budget bill were floor leader George Camacho (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Trenton Conner (R-Tinian), Rep. Fred Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), and Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan).
Five members were absent because they were either off-island or sick. They were Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan), Reps. Froilan Tenorio (Cov-Saipan), Teresita Santos (Ind-Rota), Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan), and Ray Palacios (Cov-Saipan). The rest voted “yes.”
The budget bill now goes to the Senate, two and a half months before the start of fiscal year 2013 on Oct. 1. If a budget is not enacted by then, the government will have to shut down until a budget is signed into law to comply with a constitutional mandate.
Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) told Saipan Tribune last night that preliminary discussions by the Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee raised concerns on some of the House's proposal on critical agencies that would call for amendments.
House members discussed and adopted 10 floor amendments to the 2013 budget bill, while two other amendments were withdrawn.
Many of the amendments targeted House and Senate members' allocation, which went from the original proposal of $94,000 annually per lawmaker and ended up at $78,000, the same level as that of fiscal year 2012.
Rep. Frank Dela Cruz (R-Saipan), whose amendment made sure lawmakers' annual allocation is the same for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, said lawmakers should make do with what they have and told his colleagues to be mindful of the government's tight financial situation.
“We are raising our slush funds here at a time when we have problems with Medicaid, CHC [Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.] and Retirement Fund,” Dela Cruz said during the session that didn't finish until close to 6pm.
Dela Cruz, one of the minority bloc members, twice used the word “unbelievable” when he referred to the leadership's proposal to increase lawmakers' annual allocation by $16,000.
Dela Cruz's amendment gave $289,000 to the Public School System instead.
His other amendment allocated $3.28 million in Tobacco Control/Tobacco Settlement Fund to the following: $1.365 million for the Medical Referral Program and $1.915 million for Medicaid reimbursement.
House minority leader Joseph Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) lowered members' allocation from $94,000 each to $88,000 each. This was further reduced to $78,000 courtesy of Dela Cruz's amendment.
Deleon Guerrero then raised the budget for the Commonwealth Election Commission's operations and personnel by $174,000 or from $548,317 to $722,317.
He said the Election Commission needs additional funding given that it's an election year and additional money is needed to educate the public on initiatives that will be on the ballot.
So far, two legislative initiatives are now sure of being placed on the Nov. 6 ballot: the elected attorney general legislative initiative and the Northern Marianas College mission statement legislative initiative. Others like the pension obligation bond are expected to also be placed before voters in the midterm polls.
'Equal CW funding for PSS, NMC, NMTI'
Basa gave an equal amount of $500,000 each to PSS, Northern Marianas College, and Northern Marianas Trades Institute from the $1.5 million transitional Commonwealth-only worker funding.
His amendment eliminated the $177,406 for the Workforce Investment Agency because it does not qualify for the federally mandated CW funding, paid for by employers at a rate of $150 per foreign worker they petition for a CW status.
Rep. Ralph Demapan's (Cov-Saipan) amendment incorporated the Judiciary's concern on the language of the bill relating to the Judiciary's appropriation. He deleted a sentence that wanted to equally distribute all funds among all judges-with the exception of the presiding judge-allocated to the Superior Court.
Demapan's other amendment cut by $5,000 each of lawmakers' allocation for a total cut of $10,000. He also cut the House and Senate leadership accounts by $7,500 each for a total of $15,000.
The total $25,000 from these cuts was given to the Saipan Municipal Council for its personnel and operations.
Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan) offered three separate floor amendments. The first one said funds appropriated for the Judicial Branch “shall not be reduced without the joint approval of both the houses of the Legislature.” The second was mostly technical amendments.
Acting House speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan) offered a subsidiary motion to Yumul's third amendment. Ogumoro's amendment basically deleted the provision talking about austerity measure of 16 hours biweekly, citing the planned restoration of 80 work hours in fiscal year 2013.
Rep. Tony Sablan's (R-Saipan) amendment deleted provisions that require lawmakers to document and report on a quarterly basis all their expenditures to the House speaker and Senate president, as well as the penalty provision for failing to do so.
Reps. Fred Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) and Conner withdrew their respective amendments.
Conner, however, put it on record that Tinian needs the additional amount of half a million dollars that Gov. Benigno R. Fitial gave to Tinian in his revised budget submission but was slashed by the House Ways and Means Committee and later by the House when it passed the budget bill.
All other provisions of the bill that the House Ways and Means Committee adopted remained the same.
'Minority in conference committee'
House minority leader Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) asked Ogumoro to include a member of the minority bloc if and when a conference committee on the budget bill is formed, to break a House-Senate deadlock.
Ogumoro said the leadership will include a minority member should there be a conference committee.
The budget bill reduced some of the governor's allocations for many programs and agencies, including the Marianas Visitors Authority but at the same time increased the Legislature/Legislative Bureau budget.
Under the governor's revised budget as a result of a $12-million increase in anticipated revenue, the total identified budgetary resources for 2013 is $133.641 million.
Of this amount, $114.320 million is available for appropriation. This brings back the CNMI government's budget to the level of over 20 years ago.
The measure that was finally passed is House Bill 17-313, House Draft 10.