Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's back is up against the wall with only two days to review a $114-million budget bill that the Senate and House of Representatives passed during yesterday's emergency sessions to try to prevent a partial government shutdown on Oct. 1.
There is no telling whether the governor will sign the budget bill in time for Sunday's deadline, given that some lawmakers themselves expressed “extreme reservations” about some of its provisions.
Fitial said last night it is “quite troubling” that even though he submitted his budget proposal ahead of the April 1 deadline, the Legislature “once again waited till the eleventh hour to get their acts together and pass a budget.”
“Our people don’t deserve having to wait anxiously to know whether there will be a shutdown or not. Surely, they weren’t expecting me to immediately sign the bill into law without conducting a proper review. They must remember that I am allowed up to 20 days to consider a bill for action. However, I know that so many people’s lives hang in the balance because some lawmakers were too busy prioritizing their political grandstanding agenda over real issues like the budget bill,” Fitial told Saipan Tribune.
The governor said he will work through the weekend with his budget review team to comb through the new version of the budget bill.
“I anticipate that a decision on whether a shutdown is necessary or not will be made on Sunday,” Fitial added.
If no budget is in place by tomorrow, the government will have to partially shut down starting Monday, as required by the NMI Constitution. Only those identified by the governor in a preparatory shutdown memo issued late Wednesday will be exempted from a shutdown.
A partial shutdown will force over 1,500 government employees to be out of jobs until a budget is signed into law.
80 hours restored
Despite heated debate among House members yesterday afternoon, the approved bill keeps intact a promised restoration of 80 work hours biweekly from the current 72 hours and earlier, 64 hours, but chops down funding for some agencies and imposes an across-the-board cut of 1.78 percent to “balance” the budget.
The 1.78 percent across-the-board cut also applies to the five priority agencies that the conferees identified: Public School System, Medical Referral Program, Medicaid reimbursement, Northern Marianas College, and Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.
“It's not a perfect budget bill but it's a product that's a result of concerted effort among conferees focused on priority programs. I'd like to think positive, that the governor will sign it,” House Ways and Means Committee chair Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan) told Saipan Tribune shortly after the House passed his budget bill.
But Rep. Frank Dela Cruz (R-Saipan) said the conference committee reduced the budget of agencies it earlier promised to prioritize, including PSS, “because of the 80 hours” which he said is political in nature.
Basa, during the session, described Dela Cruz's claim of being political with the 80-hour restoration as “garbage.”
“We worked not for political reason. If you don't like this product, then vote 'no,'” Basa told Dela Cruz on the floor.
True enough, Dela Cruz voted “no” to the conference committee version of the budget bill, along with five other members.
Basa, chairman of the conference committee that labored on a compromise spending package, said in an interview that restoring 80 hours will circulate more money within the CNMI and this will translate into more revenue for the government.
Sen. Ralph Torres (R-Saipan), one of the conferees from the Senate, said the 4-percent employer contribution to the defined contribution plan is under the discretion of each department or municipality.
“That's the reason we gave 100 percent reprogramming authority for each expenditure authority,” Torres said.
Vice Speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan), also a budget conferee, said, “Nobody is spared from cuts.”
House Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan) said the conference committee, which he was also a part of, “worked really hard on the numbers.”
“You win some, you lose some,” he said during the session.
The six-member conference committee also includes Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota), Senate Vice President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian), and Sen. Ralph Torres (R-Saipan). The alternate members were Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan) and Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian).
Race against time
The conference committee finalized the budget bill past 12:01am Friday.
The Senate passed the budget measure at around 4am Friday by a vote of 8-0. Sen. Luis Crisostimo (Ind-Saipan) was excused from the session.
“I am hoping we can avert a shutdown. That's the last thing we need now. Numbers don't make everyone happy but we have to abide by the conferees' work, compromise,” Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) said.
Manglona originally set a 1pm Thursday Senate session in anticipation of a budget bill by then, but this was moved to 7pm.
Senators, however, stayed at the Legislature to wait for the conference committee to finalize a budget bill.
The House speaker, meanwhile, originally set a 10am Friday session, which was moved to 11am, then to 1pm. However, the session didn't begin until 2:55pm.
The Senate, however, had to go into another emergency session around 3:30pm yesterday to “recall” the budget bill they passed during the wee hours of the morning that unintentionally “zeroed” the budget for the Board of Education.
The conference committee members repeatedly said yesterday the zero funding for the Board of Education was a result of a “computer glitch” and was not intended by any of the conferees.
The conferees corrected the bill to restore the $172,257 funding for the Board of Education.
By a vote of 7-0, the Senate passed the “corrected version” yesterday afternoon. Besides Crisostimo, also excused was Sen. Henry San Nicolas (Cov-Tinian).
BOE members Herman Guerrero and Lucy Blanco-Maratita, during public comment period at the House session, asked House members to restore funding for the board and expressed hope the zero funding was unintentional.
“I hope it's just an oversight.Basically, you're firing the commissioner and the board staff. The commissioner is also the expenditure authority. [Without the expenditure authority], you're shutting down the Public School System,” Guerrero said.
Education commissioner Rita Sablan echoed the board members' sentiments, adding that PSS will try its very best to live with the $30 million given to it, lower than the $33 million earlier promised it.
Northern Marianas College's Dave Attao also asked the House to keep in mind that “financial stability” is a critical factor to NMC's accreditation this year.
Saipan Mayor Donald Flores and his advisor Henry Hofschneider also addressed the House members later, asking for more funding for the Saipan Mayor's Office. Flores was particularly emotional, saying lawmakers “ignored” the people who put them in office by funding his office less.
How they voted
While the budget bill passed the Senate “twice” with all members present voting “yes,” it wasn't the same at the House.
House members debated the budget bill for almost two hours before voting on it.
The budget bill passed the House by a vote of 13-6 with one excused absence, Rep. Froilan Tenorio (Cov-Saipan).
Those who voted “no” were Reps. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan), Ray Yumul (R-Saipan), Tony Sablan (R-Saipan), Ray Tebuteb (R-Saipan), Frank Dela Cruz (R-Saipan), and Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan).
Maratita said the budget bill is “not only defective, it's deceptive” too.
Villagomez, for his part, reiterated his concerns on a $114-million budget bill and work hour restoration.
“Let's not forget that at $120 million-plus [years ago], we implemented austerity measures and cut the pay period down to 64 or 72 hours. But at $114 million, or $6 million less, now we can afford 80 hours? Forgive me if I sound a bit skeptical, but as far as I can tell, our government has not shrunk that much and our actual revenues have not increased that much,” he said.
Among the 13 who voted “yes” did so with “reservation.”
For example, Rep. Teresita Santos (Ind-Rota) and House minority leader Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) separately said they have “extreme reservation” about the budget bill but for the sake of averting a shutdown, they will be voting “yes.”
Besides Santos and Joe Deleon Guerrero, the others who approved the bill were Speaker Cabrera, Vice Speaker Ogumoro, floor leader George Camacho (Ind-Saipan), Reps. Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan), Fred Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), Sylvester Iguel (Cov-Saipan), Joe Palacios (R-Saipan), Ray Palacios (Cov-Saipan), and Stanley Torres (Ind-Saipan).
PSS will be getting over $30 million, which includes “outside sources” such as Compact-Impact funds and so-called Commonwealth-only worker fees. Conferees earlier agreed to give PSS $33 million as the Senate suggested but it became extremely difficult as the conferees labored to balance the bill.
The Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.'s direct government subsidy was reduced to $1.95 million from the original conference proposal of $5 million. But Basa pointed out that total appropriation for CHC is almost $8 million under the budget bill, including outside sources and a portion of a local matching fund.
“We're expecting CHC will get the $7 million loan from MPLT [Marianas Public Land Trust] so it will give them more. We will also be introducing a sweet tax bill that will be a source of funding to repay that loan from MPLT,” Basa added. When it wasn't a corporation yet, the health agency used to get $38 million.
NMC will get some $5.3 million including outside sources such as Compact-Impact and CW fees.
Medicaid will get some $8 million, Sen. Ralph Torres said, while Medical Referral will get some $3.5 million.
The government's defined benefit plan employer contribution is down to $10 million from the $11 million earlier proposed.
The Judiciary will get $3.739 million, while the Legislature will get $5.236 million.
The Executive Branch's budget is $30.654 million.
Rota and Tinian will each get $4.62 million.
The Saipan Mayor's Office, meanwhile, will get $1.165 million; the Northern Islands Mayor's Office, $334,159; and Saipan Municipal Council, $116,672.
The Marianas Visitors Authority will get a little over $2 million.