With only over a week before the Sept. 30 deadline to pass a fiscal year 2013 budget or the government will have to shut down, a joint House and Senate panel more than doubled their original direct subsidy to the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. to $5 million and agreed to give the Public School System's requested $33 million, among other things.
Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan), lead conferee from the House, said yesterday that besides the CHC and PSS budgets, the joint panel also agreed to go with Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's proposed budget of $3.8 million for the Judiciary and go with the Senate proposal of $5.9 million for Northern Marianas College.
Basa said the figures that the joint conference committee on the FY 2013 budget has come up with “may still be subject to change” as they continue to work on the $114 million spending package.
“As you can tell, we're making progress and we are trying our best to have a draft bill by Thursday,” Basa told Saipan Tribune.
He said here's renewed spirit and “change in approach” to ensure that a budget will be passed on time to avoid a shutdown by Oct. 1.
The eight-member conference committee, inclusive of two alternate members, met yesterday mostly to discuss and agree on the budget for the Executive Branch, independent agencies and the three senatorial districts.
Basa, one of two spokespersons for the joint committee, said their approval of a $5-million direct subsidy to CHC is premised on the fact that the corporation will eventually receive a long-awaited $7-million loan from the Marianas Public Land Trust.
MPLT, in turn, is expecting that an amended “sin tax/sweet tax” law will be in place to ensure there's funding source for CHC to pay back MPLT for its loan.
“We are looking at introducing the budget bill and the sin tax bill simultaneously,” Basa added.
Rep. Stanley Torres (Ind-Saipan), not a member of the joint budget panel, said he hopes the committee will be able to come up with a compromise bill as soon as possible so that there won't be a repeat of the 2010 government shutdown that forced more than 1,000 government employees out of work for days until a budget was put in place.
The deadlock at that time was mostly on work hour cuts per pay day.
But this year, the House and Senate agreed with the Fitial administration's proposal to restore 80 work hours every payroll.
Basa said the panel also has yet to address the additional 4 percent in employer contribution for those who will continue to be in the defined contribution plan because as of now, they still don't know how many will be sticking to this plan.
“What I recommend is past the budget now and later on, we can amend it when we have solid data on how much it will cost the government,” he added.
Melvin Faisao, secretary of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, along with other DCCA officials and employees, met with the conference committee on budget members to ask for additional full-time employees for the Division of Youth Services and the Historic Preservation Office, among other things.
Faisao said they are asking for nine additional FTEs, but the joint panel is so far looking at six. These include positions for an administrative hearing officer, a social worker, and a historian.
Among those who met with the DCCA officials were Basa, vice speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan), and Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair and lead Senate conferee Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota). Taimanao said the panel is intent on coming up with a compromise budget on time.
Besides Taimanao, Basa, and Ogumoro, the other budget conferees are House Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan), Senate vice president Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian), and Sen. Ralph Torres (R-Saipan). The alternate members are Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan) and Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian).
Other lawmakers interviewed said right now, the priority should be the budget.
Just the same, the Special Committee on Impeachment chaired by House minority leader Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) will resume their meeting today to review subpoena letters that will be sent out.
The impeachment panel is reviewing House Resolution 17-111, which listed 16 articles of impeachment against Gov. Benigno R. Fitial for felony, corruption, and neglect of duty.