Gov. Benigno R. Fitial postponed yesterday's joint leadership meeting with lawmakers, hoping that the Legislature “will act swiftly to prevent a government shutdown” four days before the Sept. 30 deadline. As of yesterday, a bicameral “compromise” bill has yet to be finalized.
Members of a six-member joint committee, nevertheless, were able to break a lingering deadlock late yesterday afternoon when they approved an across-the-board cut of only 1.9 percent-instead of 5 to 8 percent as earlier planned-although this means a lower budget for previously identified “priority” agencies such as the Public School System and Northern Marianas College.
House Ways and Means Committee chair Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan), chairman of the conference committee, said PSS will be getting only some $32 million instead of $33 million.
Basa, however, pointed out that the 1.9 percent and the PSS and NMC budgets could still slightly change when the numbers are crunched and the bill language is reviewed today.
He said the conference committee also decided to “chop down” the budgets of some agencies and programs such as the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs versus the governor's budget submission.
“We debated all these cuts. We had no choice but to cut so that we can have a balanced budget,” Basa told Saipan Tribune.
Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) said the funding for PSS and NMC, along with other agencies, will have to be cut compared to the conferees' earlier plan to “balance” the budget, capped at $114 million for fiscal year 2013.
Taimanao said additional flights from China will bring in more tourists to the CNMI and this will translate to additional revenue that the government can later give to PSS and other critical agencies.
Both Basa and Taimanao said the budget bill should be ready by today, to be presented to the full House and Senate.
Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) scheduled yesterday a Thursday session at 1pm to act on the budget.
Fitial, in his letter yesterday to Manglona and House Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan), said with just days remaining in this fiscal year, “It is my fervent hope that your conferees will act expeditiously to break any deadlocks so that a budget bill can be acted on as soon as possible.”
A partial shutdown could mean temporary loss of job for over 1,400 government employees starting on Monday, Oct. 1.
Only so-called critical positions will be exempted from a shutdown, including doctors, nurses, police officers, corrections officers and utility response crews.
Cabrera said it's “good” that the governor postponed the meeting so that lawmakers can prioritize the passage of a budget.
“We want the employees to report to work on Monday. Maybe the [leadership] meeting can be held next week, once the budget is passed and signed,” Cabrera said.
Senate Vice President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) separately said the governor was “right on” when he pointed out that “the utmost priority is passing a budget.”
Tinian Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz, in an interview at the Legislature yesterday, said conferees “need to compromise.”
He said government employees are already struggling because of work hour cuts to begin with, and a shutdown would worsen their situation.