As expected, the House of Representatives rejected yesterday afternoon the Senate version of a $123.4-million budget bill over yet another centralized government utility account of $6.06 million, authorizing the governor to hire 75 extra employees instead of only 25, and a $200,000 cut in tourism funding in fiscal year 2014, among other things
House floor leader Ralph Demapan’s (Cov-Saipan) motion to reject the Senate substitute budget bill got 17 “yes” votes and a lone “no” vote from Rep. Teresita Santos (R-Rota) at 4:17pm.
Two members were absent.
It is now up to a six-member conference committee—three each from the House and Senate—to hash out the budget differences between the two chambers.
If no new budget is passed and signed into law by Sept. 30, the government runs the risk of another shutdown starting on Oct. 1.
The Inos administration, meanwhile, is hoping the conference committee “will act swiftly to agree on and pass a budget.”
“It is important to note that the governor would also need an opportunity to review whatever version gets passed by the Legislature. Thus it will be most prudent to pass a budget ahead of the deadline and not at the eleventh hour,” press secretary Angel Demapan told Saipan Tribune.
House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) appointed Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan), floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), and Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian) as House budget conferees shortly after yesterday’s rejection of the Senate budget version.
Senate President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) has yet to name the three Senate conferees as of yesterday. However, it is expected that Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Sen. Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) will lead the Senate team.
At the House session, the Ways and Means Committee cited the panel’s major concerns about the Senate version of the budget bill “in no particular order.”
Sablan said these include having government utility allotments placed under one central account again, and giving the governor authority to hire 75 full-time government employees when the governor already has reprogramming authority.
Sablan, main author of the original House budget bill, also said the panel is concerned about the Senate’s removal of $200,000 from the Marianas Visitors Authority’s budget at a time when the tourism industry needs funding to maintain and promote the islands.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos asked for 100 additional FTEs. The House gave him 25, while the Senate raised this to 75.
Conner, for his part, questioned an attached Schedule A in the Senate version that shows the government utility account as “zero.”
“It is our responsibility to correct the mistake,” he said.
Rep. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan) later asked the conferees to consider also funding homestead projects for the Northern Islands, if they have to compromise with the Senate on the use of $2 million in Department of Public Lands funding for homesteads on Rota and Tinian.
The House removed $2 million from the DPL budget for homestead projects and $229,000 for Rota utilities. The Senate reinstated these funding.
Rep. Teresita Santos (R-Rota) told Saipan Tribune that she voted “no” to the House rejection of the Senate budget bill because of these very same issues.
“As you may be aware, I voted ‘no’ on the House budget version for extracting $290,000 for the First Senatorial District’s utility account, which is not the municipality’s debt. Also, for taking away $2 million from DPL funds for ongoing homestead developments on all three senatorial districts,” Santos said.
Reps. Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan) and Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan) were absent from the session. The speaker said they were “excused.” The rest of the 17 members present voted “yes.”
Meanwhile, Sablan said the House budget conferees will meet Thursday morning. He hopes the House and Senate conferees could meet as soon as possible as time is ticking.
Once the conferees come up with a compromise bill, the full Senate and House will still have to vote separately on the budget measure.
Besides passing and signing a $123.4 million budget for fiscal year 2014, the Inos administration and the Legislature also have to approve a supplemental budget to pump more money into the NMI Retirement Fund to meet the requirements of a tentatively approved settlement agreement.