A six-member joint legislative panel cleared Saturday night a “compromise” $123.4-million budget bill that the Legislature could pass this week, marking the smoothest budget process since the 2010 budget deadlock that forced a partial government shutdown.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos is expected to have the budget bill on his desk before the week’s end, giving him ample time to review the CNMI government spending plan before the Oct. 1 start of fiscal year 2014.
House Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan) and Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Sen. Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) separately confirmed with Saipan Tribune yesterday the compromise reached on the remaining sticky issues, including a decentralized government utility account and restoring $290,000 for Rota.
“The conference went with the House version of a decentralized government utility account except for some agencies, to hold each agency accountable for their utility use and spending. Each agency will be responsible for their account,” Sablan said in a phone interview.
The House proposed a decentralized government utility account, similar to the governor’s submission.
But the Senate changed this, to make it a centralized account once again totaling over $6 million. This centralized account exempts the Public School System, Northern Marianas College, Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., and the Marianas Visitors Authority, among other agencies.
Because of budget differences, a conference committee tasked to work on a compromise budget was formed.
Sablan said the committee expects to have hard copies of the compromise budget bill this morning for lawmakers’ review in preparation for upcoming sessions.
The committee met until about 6pm on Friday, and met again on Saturday around 2:30pm to up to past 7:30pm.
“We were able to wrap up on Saturday night. We adopted a compromise version. It’s just a matter of getting the hard copy Monday morning and then discuss it with the leadership of both houses. I hope both houses will pass it,” Sablan said.
The head of House conferees, Sablan said the committee also restored on Saturday the $290,000 Rota utility funding that the House cut and transferred to the Saipan mayor’s office’s “all others” budget. The Senate earlier objected to this as well.
These were in addition to the key issues resolved earlier such as the restoration of $2 million for the Department of Public Lands’ funding for homestead developments on Rota and Tinian, the restoration of $200,000 for the Marianas Visitors Authority, and giving the governor an extra 50 positions but with no additional appropriation just in case there’s a need to hire people in essential posts.
Taimanao said the smooth budget process was mainly about “give-and-take.”
“The beauty about this conference was that we agreed to give and take. We had a clear vision and clear goals,” she said. Taimanao is the head of Senate conferees.
Taimanao has been a member of a legislative conference committee on budget since 2010, when the Legislature was trying to pass a budget for fiscal year 2011.
That budget process was marked by deadlocks, walkouts, emotional and painstaking sessions combined with political wrangling that led to a partial government shutdown, forcing over a thousand public servants to be temporarily out of jobs until a new budget was passed and signed into law.
“Looking back it’s the smoothest budget process I’ve been involved in,” Taimanao added.
Last year, the former governor had only about two days before deadline to review the budget that the Legislature passed at the 11th hour.
Sablan also said yesterday that the conference committee agreed to add $10,000 to the proposed salary of an economist for the Legislature. This is a vacant position, but lawmakers plan to hire an economist either as a full-time position or on as-needed basis.
Both Taimanao and Sablan thanked their colleagues in the conference committee.
The House conferees include Sablan, House floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), and Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian).
Besides Taimanao, the two other Senate conferees are Senate floor leader Ray Yumul (Ind-Saipan) and Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian).
Yumul said yesterday that when the committee met on Saturday, they had “a $500,000-plus difference we had to balance.”
“All members were sincere and committed to compromise and I think we achieved that. We still need the rest of the members of both houses to accept the compromise version. So I hope they will. Overall, I support the compromise bill,” he added.