ONE MONTH UNTIL GOVT SHUTDOWN
House, PSS disagree with Senate budget
Members of a bicameral committee will meet today to begin settling differences over a draft $145-million budget for fiscal year 2016. House of Representatives lawmakers will call the Senate’s budget unconstitutional, as they believe the $5.6 million that the Senate moved around to give to law enforcement agencies were “made up for” by drawing from constitutionally earmarked funds.
“Our position is it’s illegal,” said Rep. Antonio Sablan (Ind-Saipan) in an interview.
Saipan Tribune tried but was unable yesterday to contact Senate lawmakers who are part of the budget conference committee.
Lawmakers have to agree on a budget by the end of the fiscal year this month to avoid a partial government shutdown.
The Public School System has also expressed its disdain for what they see as an overreach of legislative authority within the Senate budget bill, which PSS believes would “decentralize” spending authority from the Education Commissioner and give this to school principals.
PSS officials are expected to meet with the conference committee today, Saipan Tribune learned.
According to Sablan, the “two primary concerns” the House has with the Senate version relates to PSS concerns and the Senate’s reallocation of “outside resources.”
“Once we resolve those two [issues], the process will be a lot easier,” he said.
According to Sablan, there is concern regarding the reallocation of “outside resources” that are constitutionally earmarked for the Marianas Visitors Authority.
Essentially, the House thinks the Senate’s budget—HB 19-86, HD6, SSI—conflicts with the NMI Constitution on these following provisions:
Section 712. Outside Resources, subsections c and d—in the Senate’s bill— attempts to amend sections of the Constitution by changing the allocations of earmarks provided to a Cancer Fund Special Account and revenues distributed to the Marianas Visitors Authority. The cancer fund account, according to law, is written to be separate from the “general fund” or the money that the Legislature divvies up in a fiscal budget. And the money for MVA, according to law, comes from certain percentages of taxes collected by the CNMI government.
Section 708. Other Programs, subsection—in the Senate bill—directs how funds to the Public School System are to be spent. The House thinks this may create a potential conflict between two provisions of the NMI Constitution. For example, the Legislature, in an appropriation bill, has the authority to direct how appropriated funds will be expended. But Article XV, Section 1(b) also provides that the PSS appropriation will be the responsibility of the superintendant of PSS and the Board of Education, which formulate policy and exercise control over PSS through the superintendent.
Sablan said PSS recently submitted a “position letter” to the Legislature on the Senate’s budget bill.
Under the current arrangement, according to Sablan, PSS has the flexibility to pull resources where needed from different schools if, for example, air-conditioning units break down in one school. Currently, PSS has the ability to shift funds around the system, but PSS believes the Senate budget limits this ability.
BOE chair Herman Guerrero believes the measures outlined in the bill—to decentralize procurement, create new positions, and dictate salaries—are the “first step in administering the PSS from the Legislature.”
Guerrero, in a letter to House Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), said the “desire to control should not be confused with transparency.
An autonomous agency, like PSS, should be held accountable but should not be controlled by the Legislature. Transparency and control should not be confounded; instead an autonomous agency should be allowed to manage its personnel, set salaries, buy goods, and create system-wide plans. This is done under the oversight of the Board of Education who is elected at large, and administered by the Commissioner of Education, as dictated by the Constitution,” Guerrero said.
The letter articulates the board’s and PSS’ joint position on the Senate amendments that include provisions granting the expenditure authority for operations to school principals; $120,000 for a Chamorro and Carolinian bilingual bicultural program; the creation of four full-time equivalents and an administrative officer and administrative assistant; salary adjustments for associate commissioners and doctors, and reprogramming of all vacant positions to each respective school, among others.