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Bill asserts legislative power over NMI’s share in Biden relief law

Some Republican lawmakers question rushing on the bill without much review

House Committee on Ways and Means chair Rep. Donald M. Manglona (Ind-Rota) has introduced a bill to require legislative oversight over approximately $515 million that will be allocated to the CNMI for government operations under the American Rescue Plan.

In House Bill 22-33 that’s co-sponsored by six other Democrats, Manglona states that President Joe Biden’s economic stimulus package will possibly include a windfall of almost half a billion dollars to the CNMI for government operations, so a law needs to be passed that requires that any expenditure of such funding from the federal government be approved by the Legislature.

As such, any expenditure of Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund monies must be subject to appropriation by the Legislature, he said, with the Office of the Public Auditor creating a task force to monitor expenditure of all such monies and reporting on the task force’s findings quarterly to the Legislature.

During last Tuesday’s session, some Republican lawmakers questioned the rush to place the bill on the calendar. Lawmakers subsequently reached a compromise to allow the bill to remain on the agenda.

Manglona explained that, with the way the law is written, the money is expected to come within 60 days and that there is a need for the Legislature to quickly act on the appropriation.

Rep. Joseph Lee Pan Guerrero (R-Saipan) said the language of the bill is to appropriate, but this is a federal money and not the money that the CNMI collected.

“I don’t see that we are authorized to appropriate federal money,” said Guerrero.

House legal counsel Joseph Taijeron said he agrees with Guerrero, but stated that Manglona sees the need to actually establish the authority. “And that’s why this bill, this legislation is pretty important,” Taijeron said.

Guerrero also wants to know if the federal government has assured that the Legislature can do this appropriation. “I want something in black and white that the federal is saying, ‘Yes, the CNMI can appropriate this funding.’ We haven’t seen this money. We haven’t seen the guideline. I want to see the guideline,” Guerrero added.

Stressing that he needs to see a spending plan and other things, Guerrero objected to moving forward to put the bill on calendar.

“Because what if it’s the language in there and the authority remains with the governor? What’s the purpose of this piece of legislation?” he asked.

Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan) noted that the motion that Manglona offered is to take the bill on calendar but not for action that day.

Sablan said the American Rescue Plan is providing the Commonwealth and most other states and territories an unprecedented windfall of federal money that are intended to support the government operations and to address shortfalls in revenue.

Sablan said what Manglona’s bill proposes is to assert that authority to require the expenditure plan be reviewed by the Legislature first prior to certification to the U.S. Treasury.

She said House members will have time to review the specific legislation, the language on the American Rescue Plan, and also review the merits of what this bill is proposing, the checks and balances transparency and accountability for a lot of money that the Commonwealth has never seen before, that the CNMI is expected to spend responsibly over the next two years.

Sablan said there will be time for members to better understand what is being proposed, and why it’s important that they act quickly.

Sablan said as Manglona explained, time is of the essence, and if the money comes in and there are no checks and balances, then there will be no opportunity for them to act proactively and ensure that these funds are responsibly managed.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com

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