The administration of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres believes that increasing the salaries of CNMI elected officials would attract more qualified people to run for office. Others have cried foul, saying the House of Representatives violated the CNMI Constitution when it passed a measure to increase the salaries of elected officials.
The measure, House Bill 19-3, passed the House last Tuesday on a 15-5 vote. It was introduced by House Speaker Rafael S. Demapan (R-Saipan) based on the recommendation of a 2016 report by an Advisory Commission on Elected Official Compensation. The commission submitted its report to the House speaker’s office last Nov. 10.
Torres said that, according to the commission’s study, people who seek positions for public office do not run because of a certain salary. “The guiding principle for the commission’s recommendations was to attract a diverse array of individuals with outstanding and necessary ability to address the prevailing issues facing the CNMI now and for the future.”
The advisory commission, Torres said, looked at several compensation options and connected them with national and regional data.
He said the commission compared the salaries of all elected officials in the CNMI to those in the other jurisdictions of the United States and the region. “Although duties and responsibilities of state and territorial positions are similar, problems, issues, and priorities encountered by elected officials can significantly vary.”
“The commission noted that in researching the salaries of officials throughout the U.S. and its territories and commonwealths, there was a clear wage range pursued by other jurisdictions.”
He said the salary needed to be consistent with the value of the monetary unit to maintain a wage commensurate with their respective offices. “Under the U.S. Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, the U.S. dollar is intentionally placed in a devaluating schedule to promote reasonable inflation targets, spending, and to avert deflationary pressures on consumers and suppliers.”
“The calculation of the value of the USD is provided monthly and annually and presented as the Consumer Price Index.”
Torres said the governor’s salary in the territories and commonwealths range from a low of $70,000 (CNMI) to a high of $150,000 (U.S. Virgin Islands). CNMI legislators also have the lowest salary at $39,300 compared to Guam at $85,000. The national average salary of lawmakers in the U.S. is $69,448.
The commission also used smaller surveys that showed that $62,000 is the average salary of a mayor and used that figure as a reference for the proposed $75,000 increase from $43,200.
The growing complexity of problems facing the CNMI government, a comparison of compensation with similar positions around the U.S and with positions of similar responsibility in the public and private sectors, the financial condition of the CNMI, the outlook for its economy, and the current cost of living are the criteria used by the commission.
House Bill 19-3 would give elected officials in the Commonwealth an 80-percent salary increase.
Local activist Glenn D. Hunter said the House’s move had many constitutional violations, including the Open Government Act.
“Members of the public were unable to review or comment on the version of bill that was passed. [Those] who were re-elected should not have been able to vote on the measure,” said Hunter, who is among the members of the community that opposed the bill’s passage.
Independent Reps. B.J. Attao, Edwin K. Propst, Vinnie F. Sablan, Edmund S. Villagomez, and Ralph N. Yumul of the minority bloc voted against the passing of HB 19-3. They questioned the bill’s constitutionality, since Article II Section 5-b of the CNMI Constitution states “a bill shall be confined to one subject except for bills for appropriations or bills for the codification, revision or rearrangement of existing laws.”
Hunter also cited Section 15: Conduct of Members where “a member of the legislature who has a financial or personal interest in a bill before the legislature shall disclose that interest and may not debate on or vote on the bill.”
“The constitution mandates that any raise must not be greater than the [consumer price index] change since the last salary adjustment in 1991. My best analysis shows about a 40-percent change in CPI since 1991 to present. It would have been needed by the commission to arrive at the 80-percent increase suggested.”
He added that House members who voted to pass the measure “attempted to evade the OGA by amending the 5 percent civil service bill to include their 80-percent increase. That is extremely disturbing. The public didn’t get a chance to see, discuss or opine on such a drastic personal increase.”
Hunter said the Constitution was specific in terms of CPI: “No change in the salary may be made that exceeds the percentage change in an accepted composite price index for the period since the last change.”
“And there is no way that any re-elected representative that will receive the 80-percent raise can sidestep Section 15.”
The CNMI Constitution sets the governor’s compensation at $20,000 and sets $18,000 for the lieutenant governor and legislators at $8,000 when it was ratified in 1977. The compensation could be changed only once every four years.
The First Commonwealth Legislature established the salaries of the mayors at $12,000, the chief judge at $44,000, and associate judge at $38,000. Their salaries increased for the first time in 1985 when PL 4-32 was enacted.
The salaries of the governor ($50,000), lieutenant governor ($40,000), legislators ($30,000), mayors ($21,000), chief judge ($50,000), and associate judges ($44,000) were set by Public Law 4-32 that was signed into law by then-governor Pedro Tenorio on April 1, 1985.
On June 19, 1991, through PL 7-31, the salaries of elected officials increased for the last time. The governor’s salary increased to $70,000, lieutenant governor to $60,000, legislators to $39,300, mayors to $43,200, chief justice to $82,200, associate justices to $79,000, presiding judge to $76,600, and associated judges to $72,400 per annum.
PL 8-15 raised the salaries of the judiciary: $130,000 for chief justice, $126,000 for associate justices, $123,000 for the presiding judge, and $120,000 for associate judges.
HB 19-3, as recommended by the Advisory Commission, would raise the governor’s salary to $120,000 while the lieutenant governor’s would go up to $100,000 and mayors at $75,000. Legislators would get an annual compensation of $70,000.