Budget talks hang fire as brinkmanship continues


The bicameral conference committee tasked to get a balanced budget ready for Gov. Eloy S. Inos’ signature remained in recess yesterday, with no scheduled meeting for today or in coming days as of press time.

House representatives and senators last met on Wednesday, but after a split vote over a provision to direct the Marianas Visitors Authority to move program money to other agencies, they went on recess after a morning meeting.

The lawmakers did not resume that afternoon. This recess continued yesterday and appears to continue today.

Senators have said that “enforcement” is a top priority in their version of the budget bill, noting the increased presence of casino operators and drug-related crime, when pressed by House representatives on their “priorities” during budget discussion.

According to their version of the fiscal year 2016 budget bill, senators want to give a 5-percent salary increase to qualified law enforcers.

Sen. Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian), Senate budget conference chair and fiscal committee chair, told Saipan Tribune that such provisions inform their “true intent” in their budget version.

“Furthermore, the Senate gave the Mayor of Saipan an additional $300,000 for operations,” Hofschneider said yesterday.

According to the Senate version, an amendment provides $150,000 to fund a new “drug court” in the CNMI that senators say will help combat the prevalent use of illegal drugs in the CNMI.

Sen. Arnold Palacios (R-Saipan) described crystal meth use as a “monstrosity in the community” during discussion this week, noting that funding will go “to help the community get out this situation.”

House lawmakers, though, have disagreed with the source of the funding, as the amount of $150,000 comes from the Judiciary Administrative Office.

Rep. Antonio Sablan (Ind-Saipan) told senators this week that Superior Court Associate Judge David Wiseman has communicated to him that funding for the drug court does not impact their current allotment. According to Sablan, the courts believe that the seed money for the drug court would be “additional money coming in.”

Other Senate provisions include increasing the salaries for department heads on Rota and Tinian from $36,000 to $45,000; increasing Rota and Tinian budgets from $500,000 to $600,000; boosting the leadership accounts of the House and Senate from the originally proposed $179,387; raising the annual salary of Tinian and Rota deputy commissioners to $45,000 per annum; increasing the $54,000 salary of the special assistant for management and budget/CIP administrator to “not less than $62,000; and increasing from $70,000 to $80,000 the salaries of Public School System associate commissioners.

The House disagrees with the source of funding for these Senate amendments, which will move some $2 million from the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.

Rep. Joseph “Leepan” Guerrero (R-Saipan), who is not part of the six-member budget committee, urged his fellow lawmakers to pass a budget in time.

“The community is going to blame the entire 29 elected officials [that] we are very irresponsible. It is difficult to accept that. As one of the 29, I really want this to be resolved so the governor can either line item veto it, or veto it entirely.

“We are playing with the livelihood of the government employees. I don’t like it. I want the committee to resolve this immediately. We need to move on. We have pressing issues that we need to address,” he said, noting recovery efforts due to Typhoon Soudelor.

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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