At least 17 specific items and differences between the House and Senate versions of the $123.4-million budget bill were hashed out by a conference committee recommending passage of a “compromise” spending package in today’s back-to-back sessions of the House and Senate.
A simple majority of the votes in each house is needed to pass the compromise budget bill.
“There are enough votes to pass the bill in the House,” House Ways and Means Committee chair Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan) told Saipan Tribune yesterday. Sablan is the lead conferee from the House, with Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) leading the Senate conferees.
House Speaker Joe Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) convened a leadership meeting yesterday afternoon in preparation for today’s 1:30pm session, whose main objective is to take up the fiscal year 2014 budget.
The six-member panel compromised on six “highly debated” differences in the House and Senate versions, such as the decentralized government utilities account, the reinstatement of $2 million to the Department of Public Lands for homesteads, restoration of $200,000 to the Marianas Visitors Authority, giving the governor extra 50 full-time equivalent positions, and giving the governor authority to reprogram up to 50 percent of the budget to be able to fund the annual $200,000 La Fiesta land lease deal.
But based on the conference committee report signed late Monday afternoon, other items were discussed and compromised on, and some of them were at the administration’s request.
The six-member conference committee, for example, gave the Department of Lands and Natural Resources secretary 100 percent reprogramming authority over funds allocated to the Division of Parks and Grounds in the event that the division is not privatized.
Taimanao said the conferees agreed to “give and take” to come up with a budget bill they hope could pass both houses.
The conferees include House floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian), Senate floor leader Ray Yumul (Ind-Saipan), and Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian).
At the administration’s request and after deliberation, the conference committee agreed to increase the salary cap for the Finance secretary to “up to $60,000” per annum and the Commerce secretary, “up to $54,000” per annum.
Sablan said this is only applicable for 2014. He said a similar provision in the 2013 budget law expires on Sept. 30 so they had to include a similar provision in the conference committee version.
Another provision that the conferees compromised on relates to any lapsed funds from the Office of the Public Auditor’s fee of 1 percent of the total appropriations for each government agency’s operations and activities.
Any lapsed funds from this will be applied first to the utility payments for the Tinian and Rota Liaison Patient Guest Houses, in the event of a utility funding shortfall for these specific entities within the respective municipalities’ budget.
Any remaining balance, meanwhile, applies to the deferred 25 percent defined benefit restoration fund account, as a result of a tentatively approved NMI Retirement Fund settlement agreement.
The conferees agreed to allocate the $1.4 million Commonwealth Worker Funds as follows: $500,000 for the Public School System, $500,000 for Northern Marianas College, and $400,000 for the Northern Marianas Trade Institute or other appropriate job training program.
The panel also settled for a $4.392 million-plus budget for the Judiciary; $3.471 million-plus for the Department of Corrections; $432,528 for the Joeten-Kiyu Public Library; and $123,744 for the Veterans Affairs Office.
Conferees also compromised on a $5.510 million budget for Rota, and $5.916 million budget for Tinian.
If both chamber pass the conference committee-recommended budget bill, it will be on its way to the governor’s desk some two weeks before the Oct. 1 start of fiscal year 2014.