Public Auditor Michael Pai's recommendations to the conference committee on the fiscal year 2013 budget bill-specifically to strengthen government accountability by recognizing the public auditor's required independence-fell on deaf ears.
“Inadequate independence of the government auditing authority may unnecessarily jeopardize access to federal and private grant funding,” Pai said in a letter to House Ways and Means Committee chair Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan) and Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) while they were working on a “compromise” $114-million budget bill.
However, the committee didn't include any of Pai's four specific recommendations, all to help improve accountability in government. None of the requests asked for additional funding.
One of Pai's suggestions is to include “the public auditor” as a recipient of a mandatory quarterly report to the Legislature indicating payments of the 1 percent public auditor's fee.
Pai said this is to better assist OPA in tracking payments of the public auditor's fee to the Department of Finance.
“This will help increase government efficiency and avoid unnecessary duplication of effort,” said Pai, citing suggested change to Chapter VII, Section 713.
The 2013 budget bill that became Public Law 17-85, however, didn't include OPA's recommendation.
Budget conferees Sen. Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) and Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian), when asked for comment yesterday, said separately they don't recall having any discussion about OPA's recommendations to improve accountability during their budget deliberations in September. Basa and Taimanao (Ind-Rota), recipients of OPA's letter, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Pai also recommended a change to Chapter III, Section 302, which requires Finance to certify that lawful and sufficient funds have been appropriated before OPA can enter any contract. Exempted from such requirement are the Public School System and Northern Marianas College.
Pai is recommending that OPA be also exempted from the requirement of prior certification of funds for three reasons.
First, government auditing standards require sufficient independence, as recognized in OPA's implementing legislation.
Second, the public auditor is the sole expending authority for OPA's funds.
Finally, OPA funding is not appropriated, but instead computed out of general fund appropriations and operations budgets of autonomous agencies.
The public auditor also wants a change to Chapter III Section 303, requiring all Section 301 expenditure authorities-such as the Commonwealth Development Authority, Commonwealth Ports Authority, Commonwealth Utilities Corp., and Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.-to submit a quarterly report to the Legislature to indicate payments of the public auditor's fee.
Pai said OPA recommends adding the public auditor as a recipient of this mandatory quarterly report to “enable OPA to monitor its funding level,” among other things.
“It will also allow OPA to compile its annual report on amounts collected and uncollected from the autonomous agencies. This annual report is then consolidated with the CNMI-wide financial statements in order to show the correct balances of receivables and payables between the CNMI general fund and the autonomous agencies. This will improve government-wide accountability and reduce duplication of effort,” Pai told Taimanao and Basa.
Pai also recommended that the public auditor be included among expenditure authorities exempted from spending any appropriation in connection with prosecuting any matter against another agency “to ensure sufficient independence as required by government auditing standards and recognized in OPA's implementing statutes.”
The budget law only exempts the governor, the attorney general, the CNMI Supreme Court chief justice, presiding officers of the Legislature, mayors and municipal councils.
The passed budget bill, however, didn't consider OPA's recommendation to change Chapter VI, Section 603.
The House of Representatives and the Senate passed the bill on Sept. 28 and two days later, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial signed it into law to avert a partial government shutdown starting on Oct. 1.