AG opinion sought on legislative allowances

Posted on Oct 21 2019


A concerned citizen has urged the Office of the Attorney General to look into the monthly allowances that members of the Legislature draw down, complaining that there is “little or no accounting and justification requirements,” among others, for these allowances.

Patricia Guerrero, who identified herself as a concerned citizen in a letter dated Oct. 18, 2019, has sought the opinion of Attorney General Edward Manibusan on the matter, citing the need for “more transparency” on legislative allowances.

The Legislature’s rules allow members of the NMI House of Representatives to draw a $2,500 monthly allowance from their office allotments, not exceeding $5,000.

“What is the meaning of ‘office and related expenses including all expenses for travel’? Is this restrictive language or a broad term leaving items of spending almost entirely to the discretion of individual members of the Legislature?” Guerrero asked Manibusan in her letter.

Other questions that she raised with Manibusan included whether allowances paid to members of the Legislature for “office and related expenses including all expenses for travel” were also listed, as well as questions on whether there are accounting requirements for the allowances and how the constitutional prohibition on the use of legislative appropriations for “personal or political activities” bear on those that receive monthly allowances.

She conceded that monthly allowances for each lawmaker’s discretionary use is nothing new and have been authorized and paid to senators and representatives

“…However, the justification offered for those allowances was the money was needed to defray the costs of attending to legislative work outside their home district and that financial liquidity and broad discretion were necessary to accomplish this purpose,” she said.

“What is new is that Saipan senators and representatives are now taking comparable allowances, even though the original justification does not and cannot apply to them,” she added.

Citing the CNMI Constitution, Section 16, Article II sets a ceiling on the budget of the Legislature, she said that Section 16(b) states, “…Each member of each [H]ouse shall receive an equal amount within this ceiling not to exceed one hundred fifty-five thousand dollars annually for office and related expenses including all expenses for travel.”

However, Section 16(f) states, “No part of the appropriations for the Legislature or the Legislative Bureau, other than a member’s salary, may be used for personal or political activities.”

Guerrero also cited other constitutional provisions, including Article X, Section 1, which states that “A tax may not be levied and an appropriation of public money may not be made, directly or indirectly, except for a public purpose. The Legislature shall provide the definition of public purpose.”

Article X, Section 8, states that, “The Department of Finance or its successor department shall control and regulate the expenditure of public funds. The department shall promulgate regulations including accounting procedures that require public officials to provide full and reasonable documentation that public funds are expended for public purposes.”

In an April 12, 2019, legal opinion, the Office of the Public Auditor said that Article II, Section 10 of the CNMI Constitution statement that the members of the Legislature can receive “…reasonable allowances for expenses provided by the law” specifies that allowances “must be reasonable and they must be created by law.”

“By law means the ordinary legislative process governed by [the CNMI Constitution], requiring a majority of each legislative body and action or non-action by the executive [the governor],” the OPA opined.

“Furthermore, creating an allowance regime by legislative rule instead of by law offends the separation of powers doctrine, bypassing the veto power of the Executive Branch and evading judicial review by the Judicial Branch,” the OPA further noted, citing the Analysis of the Constitution of the CNMI, p. 43 (1976).

The legal opinion of the OAG was also sought on this issue but, according to Rep. Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan), the OAG has yet to release a response.

Sablan noted that with the House minority bloc, she has been consistently following up on the OAG’s legal opinion, noting that she was reportedly told that it was still being polished as of publication.

Both the OPA and OAG’s legal opinion on legislative allowances were sought late February 2019.

Erwin Encinares | Reporter
Erwin Charles Tan Encinares holds a bachelor’s degree from the Chiang Kai Shek College and has covered a wide spectrum of assignments for the Saipan Tribune. Encinares is the paper’s political reporter.

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