As Rep. Donald M. Manglona (Ind-Rota) had expected, the bicameral conference committee’s meeting Friday afternoon did not take long to work out a mutually acceptable budget bill for the CNMI government’s operations in fiscal year 2022, paving the way for the Legislature to approve the $144.84-million spending plan.
All six members of the conference committee cheered and shook hands after completing the meeting in only two hours and 30 minutes. Everyone voted for adoption of the budget legislation, House Bill 22-74 in the form of HD3, SD1, CCS1.
Manglona, who was the House of Representatives chairperson on the conference committee, presided over the meeting. Sen. Victor B. Hocog (R-Rota) was the Senate’s chairperson on the committee. The other House members were Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan) and Rep. Leila Staffler (D-Saipan), with Rep. John Paul Sablan (R-Saipan) as alternative member. The Senate members were Sen. Justo S. Quitugua (R-Saipan) and Sen. Francisco Q. Cruz (R-Tinian), with Sen. Karl R. King-Nabors (R-Tinian) as alternate member.
The full Senate and House are expected to adopt the conference committee’s report and subsequently pass the bill this week before submitting it to the table of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres for his signature before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, 2021. Without a budget for the new fiscal year, the CNMI government will be forced to have a partial shutdown.
The conference committee’s meeting was triggered after the House rejected the Senate version of the spending plan for fiscal year 2022, one reason being the $2.6 million that the Senate had taken from the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.’s subsidy. The House wanted to know where those funds would go, or how can they put some money back into CHCC.
Last year, the conference committee’s meeting lasted over two days.
In an interview shortly after Friday’s meeting, Manglona said he is happy that the meeting was done quickly and smoothly as they had hoped.
Manglona said the Senate was very considerate of the House’s counterproposal. He said the compromise was for the most part to take some of what the Senate had reallocated from CHCC and give it back to CHCC.
“Other allocations that were made were kept. And so that was the compromise. We were happy about it,” Manglona said.
He said they’re happy as they were able to get additional funds for CHCC.
Manglona said they just hope that this will allow CHCC to further revisit their whole bidding process and try to collect some of these uncollected expenses.
Other than that, all the other amendments were made just to ensure that the budget is uniform and everybody still has other budgets that have been proposed, he said.
Hocog said he is happy with the quick and smooth meeting because they cannot be fighting over “a little money.”
“So hopefully that this will work with all the departments,” Hocog said.
As to the question why the meeting went fast compared to previous conference committees, the senator said they discussed the problem and that they understand compromise.
“That’s how we came up with an answer, solution,” he said.
Hocog said he met with CHCC chief executive officer Esther Muña and explained to her about taking the $2.6 million to distribute as what the Senate wants. The senator said he told Muña that that this is all the funding that CHCC is going to be receiving. Hocog said Muña has the funds to operate the hospital smoothly and without financial burden.
Hocog said there were no significant changes other than to restore back or at least a compromise on the CHCC subsidy.
Sablan said all of the conferees from both the House and the Senate came to the table in a spirit of genuine cooperation and wanting to compromise.
Sablan said they actually agreed on most of the items in the Budget Act and that there were just a few sticking points.
She said CHCC’s budget was a big one, that House members wanted to see at least some of the funding that they had tried to allocate to CHCC be restored to CHCC, that their counterparts in the Senate wanted to add more funding to other business units in the government, particularly in the municipalities.
“And so we agreed to meet in the middle today,” said Sablan, adding that as a result, CHCC is getting a little over a million dollars for their subsidy along with the other funds that they’ve been receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act and other federal sources, as well as the funding allocated for medical referral.
She said in addition to that, they want to make sure that they support CHCC as much as they can using CNMI local funds.
Sablan said they agreed to delete the Senate’s language that concurred with the salary adjustments.
“We retained the House language that requires all overtime, extra pay, premium pay, and any other such adjustments in excess of base salaries to comply with federal and CNMI law and regulations,” Sablan said.
“I’m very pleased with the outcome today and grateful to my colleagues, grateful to our chairman, for presiding over a very smooth process,” she added.
From the $144,848,801 total identified budgetary resources for FY 2022, minus debt service, this leaves the government $98,897,301 that’s available for appropriation. Including the $4,487,022 budget for the Department of Public Lands, the grand total revenue available for appropriation is $103,384,323.
On top of that is the $175 million allocated to the CNMI in the American Rescue Plan Act. This means the senators appropriated $278,384.323 in combined general local funds and ARPA funds.