With still no budget bill reaching his desk ahead of Sunday's deadline, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial said he's left with no choice but to issue a preparatory government shutdown memo identifying exempted “essential” positions even as the legislative budget panel labored through last night to come up with a compromise $114-million spending package for legislative action.
Even if the House and Senate pass a budget bill in the nick of time, the spending measure could still face veto if the administration finds it unworkable and not balanced.
“Once again, despite hopes that this memorandum could be avoided, for the second time a possible shutdown is looming,” Fitial said in a five-page memo sent out late Wednesday.
Press secretary Angel Demapan said yesterday this is a “preparatory” memo to government offices.
“Ultimately, in the event of a shutdown, the governor’s executive order will be the governing document for the shutdown period,” Demapan told Saipan Tribune.
The Constitution requires a government shutdown if no new budget is in place by the beginning of each fiscal year, which is Oct. 1. Only those positions delivering essential services related to health, safety and welfare will remain functioning. These include doctors, nurses, police officers, corrections officers, firefighters, and utility crews.
Fitial also exempted from the shutdown the Public School System, Commonwealth Ports Authority, Commonwealth Utilities Corp., and Northern Marianas College.
The governor's memo is addressed to the Judiciary, the Legislature, mayors, municipal councils, NMC, PSS, autonomous agencies, departments, and agencies.
Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos said more than 1,500 government workers will have to stop working starting Monday and until a balanced budget is in place.
He earlier said the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. will be exempted because it is now a corporation.
Some of the affected employees on Capital Hill expressed disappointment yesterday with lawmakers for not working together “earlier” or “months ago” to avoid creating anxiety at a time when they are already dealing with work hour cuts.
“It's still politics. A lot of families will suffer if there's a shutdown,” one said.
As of 8:30pm last night, the conference committee led by House Ways and Means Committee chair Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan) and Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) were still locked inside the House chamber trying to “balance” a $114-million budget.
As of yesterday, conferees were working on a budget that gives lesser funding to priority agencies they earlier identified such as PSS, NMC, and the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., chops down funding for some departments, and calls for an across-the-board cut of 1.477 percent. This is lower than the previous rates of 5 percent and 8 percent.
Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) moved yesterday's 1pm Senate session to 7pm in anticipation of a budget bill from the conference committee, to no avail.
Manglona, in an interview, said he instructed the Senate conferees “to not come out of the room until there's a budget bill” that the Senate can act on “even if it's late Thursday night or midnight or early morning.”
“We no longer have the luxury of time. We're not going home until we have a budget passed,” Manglona told Saipan Tribune.
Manglona said the governor's memo is a “standard precautionary measure.”
Basa and Taimanao said the biggest problem is “balancing” the budget.
House floor leader George Camacho (Ind-Saipan) said last night that House members remain on standby, just in case the speaker calls a session to act on a budget.
“Am I a bit disappointed? Yes. Surprised? No. We had a lot of time to work on this. I'm not sure where's the holdup,” he said in a phone interview.
The last time the government shut down due to the lack of a budget was in October 2010. It lasted some 10 days.
In 2011, then acting governor Eloy Inos was able to sign into law a budget bill by Sept. 26, his birthday, although he pointed out several problems in that spending package.
With only two days before the Sept. 30 deadline, the governor has yet to receive a budget bill from the Legislature.
Administration officials said the governor submitted his budget proposal to the Legislature in end-March.
Since then, the budget bill has been with the Legislature which, until recently has been dealing with a milestone resolution impeaching Fitial for 16 allegations of felony, corruption, and neglect of duty.
Seven agencies are exempted from shutdown as they are completely funded by federal programs and have no impact on general fund resources. These are the Coastal Resources Management; Commonwealth Development Authority; DCCA's Nutrition Assistance Program; Division of Environmental Quality; Joeten-Kiyu Public Library Outreach; Northern Marianas Housing Corp.; and the Military Integration and Management Committee under the Office of the Governor/Office of Lt. Governor.