Budget twist and shout


With a little over a week to go before the Oct. 1 start of fiscal year 2016, the bicameral committee tasked to break a budget deadlock between the House of Representatives and Senate may have already reached a compromise, though there’s no guarantee that integrity isn’t compromised as well.

A conference committee meeting is set for today, while the House will have a session on Wednesday and Senate later this week to pass a compromise budget bill.

Talks of a House leadership change (with Rota and Tinian members helping to tip the scale) much earlier than initially anticipated may well be the latest twist or trick to agree on a spending package that will be sent to the governor. To avert a shutdown, of course.

The three Senate budget conferees were voted into office just last year so they won’t be up for re-election next year. The House leadership, on the other hand, seems to be on shaky ground once again. This comes four months before a supposed “turnover” of the House speakership from Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) to Ralph Demapan (R-Saipan).

What was initially argued as unconstitutional may pave the way, after all, for salary increases, additional hiring, vehicle purchases, increased Senate and House leadership accounts, and increased Rota and Tinian budget, among other things, at a time when the CNMI is still reeling from Typhoon Soudelor.

The Senate wants a $300,000 leadership account for the Senate and House. That’s a 67-percent increase from the House proposal of $179,387.

Assuming that each of the nine senators equally benefits from the Senate-proposed leadership account, that’s the equivalent of $33,333 for each senator or $15,000 for each House member if all 20 members get an equal share.

These are in addition to lawmakers’ constitutionally protected annual salary of $39,300 each, and still separate from the so-called discretionary fund of each lawmaker, now at $74,822, based on the Senate and House budget versions.

“Irresponsible” isn’t a word strong enough to describe what’s happening with the legislative budget process as the public watches in shock and awe. Members of the public—many of them still without power, still living in typhoon-damaged houses, or yet to go back to work—are bracing for yet another disaster, a man-made one.

It’s within the Legislature’s power to pass a responsible, balanced budget on time.

If lawmakers so believe that law enforcement officers need a salary increase at this time (hopefully, based on merit and not automatic, across-the-board), lawmakers might as well chip off some of the funds they want to give themselves such as their leadership account, discretionary funds and even monthly subsistence allowance instead of further cutting into other departments’ budgets or risking a constitutional violation.

But yet again, a lot of things can still happen between now and Sept. 30.

Gov. Eloy S. Inos may as well sign off on a “preparatory” government shutdown memo—a standard precautionary measure—identifying exempted “essential” positions. The earlier, the better.

Because not everyone would make the exempt list, that would leave some 1,500 “other” employees temporarily unemployed in case of a partial government shutdown. They must be given time to prepare themselves and their families.

When the House and Senate pass a budget bill in the nick of time, the governor with his back to the wall will have a small window to review and spell out the problematic provisions of the compromise—or compromised—spending bill.

The Constitution requires a government shutdown if no new budget is in place by the beginning of each fiscal year, which is Oct. 1. Only those positions delivering essential services related to health, safety, and welfare will remain functioning. These include doctors, nurses, police officers, corrections officers, firefighters, and utility crews, among others.

One can’t help but look back at the events of the previous weeks. Back when the House was still deliberating on the original budget bill, proposals from some members to address police and Customs issues were struck down. Now the Senate is forcing it on the House, along with other items on their Christmas wish list.

Also earlier this year, Rep. Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan), along with four other lawmakers, introduced a bill to appropriate $4.2 million in lapsed funds from a business unit referred to as the alien deportation fund, to help the hospital pay its utility bills.

That alien deportation fund was meant to assist in the investigation, apprehension, detention and deportation of illegal aliens, but was never heard from for years, even after the federal government took over local immigration. Yumul described it as a “slush fund” for different administrations. The bill won’t see the light of day.

No one even said a word about the government not appropriating—for the third year in a row—a $200,000 annual lease payment on the now ghost town called La Fiesta. Instead of a $200,000 appropriation, it’s a $1 appropriation so that reprogramming money would be easy just in case there’s leftover government money.

In just a few years, what started out as a $200,000 unpaid obligation becomes $1 million. Yet there are investors looking for locations to develop and they seem to skip the government’s La Fiesta.

Jamaican Grill on Saipan
On a much lighter note, Jamaican Grill president and co-owner Frank Kenney said they have been looking at opening a branch on Saipan. Jamaican Grill, which has taken unique island flavors from Jamaica, Guam, and the Philippines and advertises itself as “Serious Food,” now has three branches in Guam—in Tamuning, the Chamorro Village in Hagatna, and in Dededo. (Haidee V. Eugenio)

Haidee V. Eugenio

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