Record 3-day conference committee negotiations
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate accepted over the weekend the final version of the $145-million fiscal year 2018 budget, about two weeks before the end of fiscal year 2017.
With the House unanimously accepting the bicameral conference committee version and the Senate likewise accepting it, albeit with an 8-1 vote, the bill now heads to Gov. Ralph DLG Torres for review.
Sen. Paul Mangloña (Ind-Rota) was the sole legislator who voted against the budget.
The conference committee initiated discussions just hours after a House emergency session in the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2017. The conference committee came out with a final product last Thursday morning after consecutive meetings throughout last week.
Major disputes between both chambers included the Marianas Visitors Authority’s budget, which the Senate amended to indirectly impose a $1.5-million reduction. Through the bicameral conference committee, both chambers agreed to reduce it to $1 million.
Salary increases for elected officials were also a cause for concern, especially with an ongoing certified question filed by Attorney General Edward Manibusan and Finance Secretary Larissa Larson with the CNMI Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the salary increases. The House previously received information that Larson would voluntarily hold off on the increases while the Senate is reviewing the budget.
The conference committee agreed to appropriate $104,759 to the Department of Public Works’ streetlights program, and $380,900 to the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres later issued a statement expressing his gratitude for the Legislature’s swift negotiations.
“As I review this budget, it is my administration’s priority to have a budget that supports the needs of our growing and thriving community, while providing more resources for more economic opportunities for every person who call these islands home,” reads the statement.
“I want to thank the members and the conferees of both the House and Senate for their work these last several months debating over our Commonwealth’s priorities and for meeting with my administration’s heads to discuss the critical needs of each department and agency in our government.”
House Speaker Rafael Demapan (R-Saipan) commended the conferees for their swift work.
“Hopefully the governor will approve our budget so that we could avoid a government shutdown,” said Demapan, who also commended the Legislative Bureau and other legislative employees.
He assured that the Legislature is committed to addressing the needs of critical agencies that did not receive sufficient funding through supplemental appropriations.
“The budget does not end here. In a very short time, we would be having another session that would include an appropriation measure,” said Demapan.
House panel conferees chair Rep. Angel A. Demapan (R-Saipan) said this year’s budget deliberations were different from the previous ones because this time, the government had “resources available.”
“It really came down to how we slice this pie,” he said, adding that the previous government shutdown occurred due to the lack of resources to run the government.
“This time, I am particularly proud of this process because it took the conference committee three days to conclude deliberations,” he said. Conference committee deliberations usually last at least two weeks.
“I am very thankful to the House conferees and Senate conferees chairman Sen. Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) for committing our time and energy in resolving our differences this quickly and in the spirit of [not subjecting] our people to a shutdown in government services,” said Demapan.
Hofschneider noted that it was “highly commendable” for the legislators to retire a handful of public debts, referring to a wage increase for civil service employees that takes effect on Oct. 1, 2017.
“Since 2015 when we assumed office, there was an unprecedented action of government leaders for providing salary adjustments by way of increasing salary of public agency employees,” he said.
Hofschneider added that the salary increases is the “third or fourth time in as many years.”
“This is an indication of a healthier economy and a harmonious working relationship among the decision makers from both the executive branch and the Legislature,” he said.
The Senate also added an amendment to the budget bill that included Solid Waste employees from all senatorial districts to be paid a hazardous work differential.
Torres is now in the process of reviewing the budget bill, officially called House Bill 20-105, HD2, SD3, CCS1.