The State Board of Education finally filed what board chair MaryLou S. Ada called a “friendly” lawsuit against the CNMI government—to let the Supreme Court to settle once and for all the definition of “general revenue” and the 25 percent of the annual budget that the Commonwealth Public School System is entitled to receive.
Ada said that BOE legal counsel Ryan Meyerhoff filed the lawsuit last week. Saipan Tribune learned that the lawsuit was filed electronically last Thursday.
“We want to settle this question once and for all. What are general revenues? It is a certified question that would be for the Supreme Court to address. We will wait and see. We’re not doing this out of malice,” said Ada, after yesterday’s PSS kickoff rally for the 2018-2019 school year at the newly renovated Marianas High School Gymnasium.
“We just want it settled once and for all. It is not an unfriendly lawsuit but…to really clarify [the issue], that’s all; we’re not being combative.”
She added that it was about time to finally clear things up since the issue has dragged on for almost three years now. “We’ve been circling the issue and discussing it so many times. Still, we can’t come out with a concrete and definitive answer: what are general revenues?”
“It has been brewing for two or three years now. We’ve been giving other parties time to join us, and they agree and then back out. Now that we lost two potential [parties] that was going to join us, we can’t stop, we want to keep the wheel going. The train has left the station,” Ada said.
CNMI House Speaker Rafael S. Demapan (R-Saipan) earlier stated the Legislature’s desire to settle the issue of what general revenues are and the 25 percent of the general budget that PSS is entitled to under the CNMI Constitution.
CNMI Attorney General Edward Manibusan also issued his own opinion, stating that the definition of general revenues comprise only those revenues deposited into the general fund according to CNMI law.
“The speaker came out and still he didn’t address exactly what we’re asking, ‘what are general revenues?’ Our opinion and the AG’s opinion also differ. So we need to have it settled,” said Ada.
The BOE was planning to file the lawsuit as early as June but gave Demapan almost a month to answer their certified questions by July 31. The Legislature failed to answer by the deadline, prompting the BOE to push through with their lawsuit.
Article XV (e) of the CNMI Constitution states that PSS is guaranteed an annual budget of “not less than 25 percent of the general revenues of the Commonwealth through an annual appropriation. The budgetary appropriation may not be reprogrammed for other purposes, and any unencumbered fund balance at the end of a fiscal year shall be available for re-appropriation.”
The BOE believes everything that enters the CNMI government’s general fund is general revenues, therefore they are entitled to a 25 percent share not only from the annual budget.
Manibusan, in a written opinion, said that revenues deposited into the general fund is the definition of general revenues as stated in Article XV (e) of the CNMI Constitution.
“Funds which are deposited into special funds and accounts separate from the general fund are not general revenues,” Manibusan wrote in his opinion and then listed 36 types of funds that are separate from the general funds like the Land Compensation Fund, Commonwealth Lottery Fund, CNMI Scholarship Fund, and the Marianas Visitors Authority Trust Account.
Manibusan concluded that PSS is only supposed to receive an annual appropriation of 25 percent of the projected revenues to be deposited in the CNMI general fund. “As discussed, not all of the revenues and resources of the Commonwealth are deposited into the general fund.”
“A substantial amount of Commonwealth revenues is deposited into multiple funds and accounts that are kept separate and apart from the general fund. Those special funds and accounts are not included in the computation of the [PSS’] annual budget. Only the revenues deposited into the general fund will be used to compute PSS’ budget.”
In full support
Demapan, in a statement, said that he has always supported defining general revenues in an all-inclusive manner. “For the record, general revenues as used in Article XV of the CNMI Constitution should include all the revenues that the CNMI collects, period.”
“Accordingly, because I am actually in full support of the BOE position relative to the definition of general funds and my views are not in conflict with [Ada’s]. I cannot legally or morally join in the certified question.”
Demapan said there’s a legitimate dispute between public officials relating to the exercise of their duties. “So far as I can honestly tell, my position and the BOE’s position are not in conflict on the issue of what constitutes the general revenues of the CNMI.”
“If I were to disagree or dispute a position, I would respectfully disagree with the opinion of the attorney general that would limit the definition of general funds by excluding so-called proper earmarks that create special accounts for special purposes. When funds are separated from the general revenues, then the amounts that would otherwise be available to fund our children’s educations are reduced accordingly,” he added.
“Therefore, I support the decision of [chair Ada] to take this issue up with our central government and the AG’s office so that this issue can be resolved among the proper stakeholders and without, with all due respect, any judicial intervention.”
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres said his administration has also discussed BOE’s concerns and he believes that the issue needs to be clarified once and for all. “It is something that we’ve been looking at. It’s a certified question that we need to go on this route.”
“This is something that needs to be clarified. It doesn’t matter who is in the administration. That’s a question that needs to be answered one way or another.”
His administration has proposed a $41,759,806 for PSS in the fiscal year 2019 budget.