The House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations released yesterday a report recommending passage of a “substitute” version of a 17-month-old legislative initiative that now increases the term of House members to four years and cuts the number of senators from nine to six. These were not in the original proposal.
The original version only sought to reduce the number of Saipan House seats from 18 to nine, and an islandwide election for House seats instead of election by precinct level.
The islandwide election for Saipan House seats was retained in the committee version.
The committee version also retains the original proposal to reduce the House Saipan seats from 18 to nine. There will still be one representative each from the House and Senate, for a total of 11 proposed House seats.
Yesterday's release of the committee report, although dated July 24, comes barely a week before the Aug. 8 filing deadline for initiatives to make it to the Nov. 6 ballot.
Rep. Joseph Palacios (R-Saipan) said yesterday that the last-minute release of the report recommending a substitute version some 17 months since the original initiative's introduction does not bode well for the measure's passage.
“The way I see it, the changes to the initiative would make it more difficult for it to pass the House and the Senate. If it dies [today] in the House, at least I tried to have it presented to the people for them to decide on it,” Palacios told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
The committee version is expected to be voted on during today's 3:30pm House session, on the eve of the Senate's Wednesday session.
Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota), in a phone interview last night, said the “Senate is open to positively deliberate on proposals to restructure the Legislature.”
He said the Senate will look into the amendments made, and it is likely that the Senate will have their amendments. But he said the Senate is open to a “compromise.”
The House JGO panel version of the initiative also seeks to reduce the number of senators from each of the three islands-from three to two. This was not in the original version.
Despite Palacios' misgivings about the amended version of his initiative, he said he will still vote “yes” to it in today's session.
“The committee version retains the islandwide election for House members rather than by precinct. This will enable members to work together instead of working against each other, especially when it comes to appropriation of local money,” he said.
Palacios also said some members don't realize that even if the initiative passes and is ratified by voters, the reduction in seats will take effect in 2014 and not during this midterm election.
He said should the initiative pass the House today, the Senate will be racing against time to act on it before the Aug. 8 deadline.
Acting House speaker George Camacho (Ind-Saipan), in a separate interview, said House Legislative Initiative 17-4, House Substitute 1 will need two-thirds “yes” vote from members present and voting if it were to pass in today's session.
Camacho is among those voting “no” to the initiative.
“I come from the smallest precinct,” said Camacho, adding that in an islandwide election, the biggest precincts will have most, if not all, House seats. “So who's going to represent the people from this precinct?”
He said as it is now, Saipan is “already underrepresented” if we're going to apply the one-man, one-vote principle.
Rep. Frank Dela Cruz (R-Saipan) said he has yet to read the committee version of the initiative but he supports the general principle of reducing the number of CNMI lawmakers.
“We have too many lawmakers. Guam has only 15 but the CNMI has 29, although their population is triple ours,” he said.
As of yesterday, at least four members were off island, bringing the numbers present today to only at least 16. Camacho said 12 “yes” votes will be needed if there's 16 members present today, to pass the initiative.
The four-page JGO Committee report said the amendments to HLI 17-4 remedies the problems that concerned citizens identified during the May 2012 public hearings held on the measure.
The JGO panel, chaired by Rep. Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), said the initiative's intent remains the same-“ensuring that the 18 representatives representing the island of Saipan [are] reduced to nine members elected at large in an islandwide election.”
The substitute version has a language that cuts the number of senators by three, which will change the composition of the Senate consisting of six members with two members elected at large from each of the senatorial district.
The initiative will amend Article II Sections 2, 3 and 4 of the NMI Constitution to reduce the number of House seats from 20 to 11; the Senate seats from nine to six; provide islandwide elections; and change the term of representatives to four years.
House members have two-year terms.
A constitutional amendment a few years back added one year to House member's terms but this is only applies to the 17th Legislature. One year was also added to the current governor's second term. After this current term of the Legislature and the governor, the number of years for each term will go back to normal, unless new initiatives are passed changing the length of terms once again.
The JGO Committee said that Saipan's population has significantly declined, and a 20-member House is “currently too large given the ratio of members to constituents.”
The panel also said reducing the number of House Saipan members from 18 to nine would result in some $1.4 million in annual savings. This comes from subtracting each member's annual salary of $39,300 together with their respective annual budgets of $78,000 each.
“This savings of $1,407,600 would be significant in light of the current economic circumstances,” the panel said.
By reducing the number of lawmakers, “additional revenues would be available to fund the essential public services, namely health and welfare, safety, and the education of our children.”
Some residents who spoke up during the May 2012 public hearings on the initiative asked lawmakers to pass HLI 17-4 “so that it will be placed on the ballot for the people to decide whether to vote for it or not.”
“It's about time we take action to reduce this bloated government. Lawmakers should pass that legislative initiative to allow us voters to decide. Saipan is a small island with 18 House members. What better way to reduce this government than starting at the Legislature? The Legislature has become an employment agency,” resident Herminia Fusco had said.