Gov. Eloy S. Inos spelled out yesterday his specific concerns on the Senate and House of Representatives’ versions of the $123.4-million budget bill, including a proposed return to a centralized government utility account and giving the governor authority to hire either 25 or 75 additional full-time equivalent posts when the need arises. He had asked for 100 extra FTEs.
But the governor said the Senate and House differences over the fiscal year 2014 budget “are not too significant.”
Moreover, he believes that the chance of having a budget passed on time this year is “a lot better” compared to previous years.
“We do have some concerns and we like them to be addressed. But again, let’s follow the legislative process. They would have to do what they have to do and I hope they do the right thing,” the governor said in an interview at yesterday’s groundbreaking for a new traffic signal system in Chalan Kanoa.
He said he has communicated his concerns to the Legislature and “we hope that they heed those recommendations.”
Senate President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) separately said yesterday that although the Senate had hoped that the budget bill will be approved by the House, “we are not disappointed that they are working on modifying and amending the current proposal.”
“I have communicated to the House that the Senate is prepared to appoint the necessary committee to work together so that the process can proceed proficiently,” Torres said.
Torres also said “it appears that the House has reasonable reservations relating to the Marianas Visitors Authority’s budget and the increase of employees for the administration.”
“These were the most objected provisions by the Senate which narrowly passed,” Torres added.
The Senate further slashed by $200,000 the budget for MVA, something that the House said is counterproductive when the CNMI is trying to improve tourism marketing and promotion, among other things.
The House rejected on Tuesday the Senate’s substitute version of the House budget bill, effectively sending the spending measure into a six-member conference committee—three each from the House and Senate.
House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) immediately appointed three House conferees, while Torres will appoint the Senate conferees today.
House Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan) and other members said they look forward to working with the Senate to pass a balanced budget on time.
Torres said the Senate also wants the same.
“It is essential that we work cohesively to achieve a balanced budget [that] can maximize our government output, given our limited resources and the current NMI Retirement Fund’s predicament. This remains the fundamental interest of the Senate and we are certain that this is shared by the House of Representatives,” he added.
The governor said he looks forward to a complete budget package that is “workable.”
“It’s very difficult to adopt a budget at the Legislature and expect the Executive Branch to implement things that may not be possible because of certain restrictions at a time when the amount of money is so small that I think maximum flexibility should be given to all departments and activities so that we can carry [out] our programs and provide services to the public with the minimum amount of funds that’s available. But that would require greater flexibility on the part of the program manager and I hope they will take that into consideration when they address the budget,” Inos said.
He said he is not okay with the Senate proposal to once again centralize the government’s utility account, except for some agencies such as the Public School System and Northern Marianas College.
The governor submitted a budget that reflects a decentralized government utility account “so that we can have accountability” on the part of individual departments.
A centralized budget, he said, will once again pose a challenge to Finance and the Office of Management and Budget that have to figure out where to get the money from for a centralized budget.
“It’s very difficult for us to keep monitoring but with a decentralized [account], we put the responsibility on the user, to make sure they minimize [energy consumption] and more efficient [use],” he said.
When asked whether he sees this Senate proposal to centralize anew the government utility account as a bargaining chip since the Senate gave the governor the flexibility to hire 75 FTEs, much more than the 25 the House approved, the governor said, “It’s not.”
He reiterated that the FTE pool is one the flexibilities that the administration wants.
“The normal budget thing would be for us to include the vacant FTEs and not a lot money for it. So it’s pretty much the same thing. All we’re doing is we’re collecting all the vacant FTEs from all the departments, put them in a pool, no funding is provided, and then if there’s a critical need to fill a position somewhere, we pull it from that pool and then we go and look for funds to be able to fund that. And I think that’s a better way of managing it. But is it a bargaining chip? No,” the governor told Saipan Tribune.
Inos said without the FTE pool, the CNMI would go back to its old problems wherein it couldn’t respond to emergency needs for personnel.
“I don’t know what’s in their thinking. It’s an FTE, that’s all. We’re not asking for any dollar associated [with it] because we don’t know if we’ll be able to fill it. But if and when there’s a need to fill it, then we have an FTE. Right now, most of the positions, even if they’re needed, they cannot be filled because there’s no approved FTEs even though the money is there. With this system, you would have the [FTE] pool and it’s pretty controlled. I think it’s a better way of managing the personnel,” he added.
The House Ways and Means Committee chair hopes to meet as soon as possible with their Senate counterparts, considering that the time is ticking away.
There’s barely a month left before the Sept. 30 deadline to pass and sign a new budget or the government will shut down starting on Oct. 1.
Conferees from the House and Senate are tasked to come up with a “compromise” version of the budget bill.
The Senate also reinstated some House cuts—$2 million in Department of Public Lands budget for homestead projects mostly on Rota and Tinian, along with a $229,000 budget for Rota utilities.
Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Sen. Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) said yesterday that she will be among the three Senate conferees. She said the other two will be from Saipan and Tinian.