Budget skips conference committee
The House of Representatives accepted Friday afternoon the Senate version the government’s budget for fiscal year 2020, skipping what has become a standard practice since 2010 of going into a conference committee that is tasked with the job of coming up with a compromise version.
Notably, the bill does not contain austerity cuts, which signals that the CNMI government will go back to regular operations when the fiscal year starts on Oct. 1, 2019.
The fiscal year 2020 budget identified over $233.2 million in revenue, of which over $148.8 million is available for appropriation.
The House voted 14-2 to accept the budget bill, with Reps. Edwin K. Propst (Ind-Saipan) and Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan) voting against.
The bill now heads to Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ desk for review and enactment. His office has 20 days to review the budget bill.
House Bill 21-64 HD2, SD1 was introduced by Rep. Ivan A. Blanco (R-Saipan), who said Friday that the budget is a product of the hard work of each member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs.
He also acknowledged the efforts of the Senate, led by Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Sen. Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian).
Although fiscal year 2019 ends with austerity measures, the budget bill for fiscal year 2020 left the Legislature without austerity measures. However, with reports of a possible $19 million shortfall in fiscal year 2019, Propst noted his concern over the budget and wishes to discuss it further at the conference committee.
“I have a hard time to believe realistically that the amount projected [in this budget] is fair and more than that, accurate,” Propst stated. “In fiscal year 2018, well before Super Typhoon Yutu hit us, we found out we had a $26-million deficit. Today…there is a $19-million shortfall. I am concerned,” he added.
Sablan further pointed out that, with the revelation of a possible $19-million shortfall, there is no reason to believe that austerity measure will not continue through fiscal year 2020.
“…We have had no signal from the governor yet as to whether austerity measures will continue through fiscal year 2020, but we have no reason to believe that it would not continue. [But there is] every reason that it will [with] no new economic activity; we are already in a hole of $19.5 million,” she said. “The best way out of a hole is to stop digging.”
“I do understand that the projection does not reflect the current economic crisis we have right now,” Rep. Ralph Yumul (R-Saipan) noted in a statement. Yumul represented the House during Senate discussions of the budget.
“As a government, we need to…take a position to make projections and follow through on that [to set course toward] the stabilization of the economy,” he added. “We may come to a shortfall, but we don’t know that. We are hoping the administration and the Department of [Finance] does follow through with the tax…but that is not our position as this body. Our job is to look at the budget and accept or [reject Senate amendments].” He pointed out that if the House fails to accept the Senate amendments, the CNMI government will have to shut down.
Rep. Janet Maratita (R-Saipan) noted that the House’s political climate differs from the Senate’s political climate.
“I just don’t want to see a shutdown,” she stated. “If we go into conference committee, we don’t know the games or politics at the Senate. I will just be very disappointed if we reject this and the Senate plays their games,” she said. “I don’t want a shutdown, I don’t want…the people of the Marianas to suffer. I know this is not a perfect bill, but I ask the members [of the House] to please consider and let’s move on.”
In a later interview, House Speaker Blas Jonathan “B.J.” Attao (R-Saipan), described the budget as a collaborative effort, noting that this was the first budget to skip the conference committee panel since the 17th Legislature back in 2010, prior to the ratification of the CNMI constitutional mandate that required the Legislature to enact a budget bill instead of the government going into continuing resolution.
“At the end of the day, the House members’ concerns at the beginning of the budget process from the House Committee on Ways and Means…were addressed during the House session and those concerns were maintained at the Senate,” he noted.
“A lot of the issues that brings the budget to the conference committee are differences in how the money is shifted,” he said. “The senators did work on how they took care of their senatorial districts without touching our [districts],” he added.
Reps. Sheila Babauta (Ind-Saipan), Joseph Arriola Flores (Ind-Saipan), Joseph “Lee Pan” Guerrero (R-Saipan), and Marco Peter (R-Saipan) were absent from the session last Friday.
FY 2020 Budget (PARTIAL ONLY)
Judicial Branch $5,669,224
Legislative Branch $6,756,666
Governor’s and Lt. Governor’s $2,102,895
Department of Commerce $1,755,515
Department of Community and Cultural Affairs $3,352,372
Department of Fire and Emergency Services $5,108,905
Department of Corrections $4,449,894
Department of Finance $6,582,426
Department of Labor $1,131,449
Department of Lands and Natural Resources $3,240,923
Department of Public Safety $6,936,138
Department of Public Works $2,928,389
Department of Public Lands $4,103,865
Rota Mayor’s Office $3,201,629
Rota Municipal Council $298,618
Tinian Mayor’s Office $4,030,208
Tinian Municipal Council $201,814
Saipan Mayor’s Office $2,900,971
Saipan Municipal Council $149,792
Northern Islands Mayor’s Office $495,507
Commonwealth Cannabis Commission $551,479
CNMI Scholarship Office $1,985,039
Commonwealth Health Care Corporation $ 2,020,000
Northern Marianas College $5,965,277
Public School System $37, 718,904
Board of Education $322,837
NMC Board of Regents $107,853