As expected, the House of Representatives yesterday nixed comprehensive changes made by the Senate to the FY 2001 budget, bringing the issue into the negotiating table between the two chambers.
House Speaker Benigno R. Fitial appointed Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Antonio M. Camacho, Floor Leader Oscar M. Babauta and Rep. Malua T. Peter to the bicameral conference committee.
They will meet with Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Sen. Edward U. Maratita, Floor Leader Pete P. Reyes from Saipan and Sen. Joaquin G. Adriano from Tinian to hammer out a compromise agreement.
It is not certain when will the two panels begin discussion, although both houses have expressed intention to speed up the process in order to come up with the budget before the end of the year.
The spending measure amounting to $221.66 million has been delayed already for nearly two months. FY 2001 started Oct. 1, 2000 and ends Sept. 30 next year.
The government is running under a continuing resolution reflecting the spending limit from FY 1999 as last year’s budget was vetoed by Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio last June with barely three months into the next fiscal year.
The House conferees may meet today to map out their plan before tackling the budget with their Senate counterparts, according to Mr. Camacho.
“Maybe early next week [we are ready to meet with the senators] because we have to digest everything down first,” he told reporters.
The Senate last week passed the spending proposal following three months of scrutiny, cutting appropriation to several department and agencies to increase share of other programs such as scholarship and medical referral.
At least $10 million were taken away from the Executive Branch to give to projects or programs endorsed by the senators, like separate Marianas Visitors Authority offices on Rota and Tinian as well as implementation of the free trade zone law.
Mr. Babauta said the House is looking at restoring the budget level they approved for the Department of Public Health as well as for the Department of Public Safety since these are critical agencies in need of additional money.
DPH had received $38 million under the House version, but was cut down to $34 million by the Senate, while DPS went down by half-a-million dollars to $13.5 million.
“We understand there are other menial programs that were cut down,” Mr. Babauta explained. “Eventually we’ll find a compromise solution in this budget crisis.”
He added the House would press the $700,000 eliminated from the budget to pay lobbying campaign in Washington D.C. The Senate had transferred the money for the FTZ program, stressing this is more important than to hire lobbyists.
Preston Gates has been hired recently by the CNMI to block fresh attempts of federal takeover, including removal of the trade privileges granted the islands under the Covenant.
“We will be definitely discussing that cut. It’s vital that we continue maintaining the appropriated funds whether it will be for the same firm or whatever firm the administration decides to hire to continue helping us in our endeavor,” said Mr. Babauta.