Members of a bicameral panel tasked to come up with a compromise $114 million budget bill for fiscal year 2013 are deadlocked over funding for priority agencies and work hour cuts of up to eight hours per payroll. This is why there is still no budget bill that the House and Senate can vote on five days before the Sept. 30 deadline.
If no budget is passed and signed into law by Sunday, the government will have to partially shut down starting Oct. 1.
House Ways and Means Committee chair Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan) and Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) separately said that as of yesterday, the conference committee on the budget bill was still off track by $5.2 million.
This means they have appropriated $119.2 million for all agencies when the projected revenue is only $114 million in fiscal year 2013.
Taimanao and Basa confirmed a deadlock among the six conferees. But they said they will make a final decision today by vote.
Taimanao said there are at least two options that the conference committee will vote on.
She said Option A is prioritize funding for five government agencies with up to 72 work hours instead of 80 hours per payroll.
Option B is going with the governor's revised budget submission that has lower funding for the conferees' so-called “priority agencies” such as the Public School System and Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.
The third scenario would be a repeat of the 2010 shutdown, because of the deadlock between the House and Senate. A shutdown could result in having over 1,400 government employees temporarily out of job until a new budget is in place.
Basa and Taimanao said if the conference committee stays firm in giving priority funding to five agencies, such as $33 million for PSS and $5 million in direct subsidy to CHC, then they have to make an across-the-board cut of some 8 percent. This could also mean reducing work hours by eight every payroll, or no restoration of the full 80 hours biweekly in 2013.
“Giving is the easy part. Cutting is the hard part,” Basa said.
Some conferees want to restore 80 hours per payroll, while others said if the only way to balance the budget is to cut work hours, then they should go with it.
But if the conferees vote to go with Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's revised budget submission, then PSS will only be getting $29.5 million, for example.
The priority agencies as far as the conferees are concerned are PSS, CHC, Northern Marianas College, Medicaid reimbursement, and medical referral.
The conferees have already agreed to cross off the Senate's proposed $300,000 each in retroactive payments to Rota and Saipan, so this is no longer a point of contention.
Other lawmakers said they are looking forward to seeing a compromise budget bill from the conference committee. They said they do not want to vote on a budget bill without being given ample time to review it, at least for a day.
Government employees are now anxious about the looming possibility of a shutdown because of the impasse among conferees. They said the conferees have been meeting behind closed-doors, thereby depriving the general public of what's really holding up the panel from releasing a budget bill.
The House and Senate may call a session on Wednesday.
Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos said the Fitial administration has already been preparing for the worst, putting in place a government shutdown contingency plan and listing the positions exempted from the government shutdown such as doctors, nurses, police officers, corrections officers, and utility field crews.
The CNMI government went through a partial shutdown in 2010 over a bitter budget deadlock between the House and Senate. That shutdown, which lasted for some 10 days, resulted in over 1,400 government employees temporarily out of jobs.