Power outage delayed but didn’t stop the Senate and House of Representatives from discussing and eventually passing during yesterday afternoon’s back-to-back sessions a “compromise” $123.4-million budget bill that’s now on Gov. Eloy S. Inos’ desk. No government shutdown is expected.
The governor, in a brief interview with Saipan Tribune, said he has 20 days to review the fiscal year 2014 budget bill that would come out of the Legislature.
Fiscal year 2014 begins on Oct. 1, 2013, and ends on Sept. 30, 2014.
It was the smoothest budget process at the Legislature since at least 2010 when a deadlock between the House and Senate on a 2011 budget bill resulted in a partial government shutdown. That sent home over a thousand government employees for days.
A power outage hit Capital Hill just as the Legislature was about to start its back-to-back session yesterday afternoon.
After putting off the start of the session to see whether the power would go back on, the Senate—and later the House—went ahead with their session in the dark.
At the Senate, for example, the light from some lawmakers’ laptop screens, some functioning emergency lights, and a flashlight helped senators read documents and go on with the session. The sergeant-at-arms used an audio recorder to record the session during the power outage.
DFS president Marian Aldan-Pierce was the only one who stood up during the public comment period, but only to say that she’s impressed that the Senate went ahead with the session even without power.
By the time the power came back on, the Senate had already passed the budget bill by an 8-0 vote. That was at 2:50pm.
At 4:02pm, the House also passed the conference report on the budget bill by a vote of 19-1, essentially passing the spending package.
Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan) was the only one who voted “no,” citing her opposition to a provision in the compromise bill that gives the governor the authority to reprogram up to 50 percent of the budget, which is more than the 25 percent already provided for by the Planning and Budgeting Act.
At the session, Maratita said she believes the Legislature has relinquished its duties and responsibilities by giving the governor broader reprogramming power and therefore defeating the purpose of check-and-balance in government.
In a later interview, Maratita said if the Legislature continues to give such concession to the governor, then the Legislature might as well close or the people could demand that lawmakers don’t get paid at all.
Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan), lead conferee from the House, said the 50 percent is only half of the authority given to the governor to reprogram up to 100 percent of the fiscal year 2013 budget so in essence, the conferees—and the Legislature—clipped the governor’s power. Sablan is the author of the original budget bill.
The House’s original budget version gave the governor power to reprogram only up to 25 percent of the budget or what’s already allowed under the law. The Senate’s original budget version gave him authority to reprogram up to 100 percent of the budget.
The compromise—50 percent—was to ensure there is reprogramming of funds to pay the $200,000 La Fiesta annual land lease.
House Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan) pointed out that the Judiciary asked for $6.2 million yet ended up getting—based on the conference committee-recommended budget bill—$4.392 million. He also noted how Rota and Tinian had their way with the budget.
“Yes there’s always no perfect budget but it’s appropriate to bring out the issues so we’re reminded what we could have done differently,” he said at the session, adding that he’s voting for the budget because he’s also mindful of the employees that would be affected should a shutdown occur if no budget is passed on time.
The House floor leader said he agrees with Dela Cruz that this is not a perfect product but one that can be approved.
Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan) said the Judiciary’s budget may still be addressed once a supplemental budget for fiscal year 2014 is submitted.
House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) managed to have the budget bill passed close to the target 4pm, so that the budget measure could be transmitted immediately to the governor’s office before close of office hours at 4:30pm yesterday.
The House was able to transmit House Bill 18-98, House Draft 6, Senate Substitute 1, Conference Committee Substitute 1, to the governor’s office before close of business yesterday, the speaker and others confirmed last night.
Press secretary Angel Demapan, when sought for comment, said the administration “is very pleased with the Legislature’s swift action on the budget bill ahead of the end of the fiscal year deadline.”
“This will give the administration ample time to thoroughly review the budget to determine if any areas of concern need to be rectified. The governor and lieutenant governor applaud the lawmakers for acting diligently and in a very timely manner,” he added.
Both in the House and Senate, members took turns commending members of the conference committee for coming up with a budget bill acceptable to both houses.
The six-member panel is led by House Ways and Means Committee chair Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan) and Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota), along with 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).
The conferees worked on at least 17 items and differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget bill.
Six of those were “highly debated” but nevertheless were settled, 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.