Fighting against the pull of history


In 10 years—from fiscal years 2001 to 2010—the CNMI government managed to pass only two budget acts; most of the time, it went into continuing resolution, a constitutional escape clause that allowed the government to continue operating based on the last enacted budget act.

That’s not very good batting averages, especially when looking at the possible fate of the new budget bill that the House Ways and Means Committee just came out with last week.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Angel Demapan (R-Saipan), is, according to the Saipan Tribune Capital Hill reporter, optimistic about the bill’s fate.

With 62 days left before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, 2017 (a little over two months on the calendar), the chairman reportedly believes the Legislature has enough time to act on the $145.2-million spending plan, come up with a version that’s acceptable to both legislative chambers, and have it on the desk of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, who is then given a constitutionally mandated 20 days to review the draft plan.

It would absolutely be grand if that comes to pass, but the Legislature is working against historical precedence—the CNMI Legislature has not been very good with the budget deadline, to put it mildly. Close calls with the fiscal year deadline were a repeated thing in the 2000s, as the Legislature and governor failed to pass a budget by the Sept. 30 deadline for fiscal years 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006.

But Demapan does have the odds on his side. From 2001 to 2010, the CNMI government enacted an average of one budget every four years—usually at the beginning of a governor’s term. This being Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ first term since being elected to office, maybe Demapan is on to something.

It must be noted, though, that in the years that no appropriation was passed, the government continued to operate under the last enacted budget. With the government’s dwindling resources, the “continuing resolution” practice has proven problematic. Because the previous fiscal year’s revenue collection is almost always higher than that of the current fiscal year, deficits have accumulated.

The 16th Legislature amended the NMI Constitution to prohibit the withdrawal of funds from the general fund without an appropriation by law. That effectively removed the ability of the government to go into continuing resolution. It allowed for the shutdown of government offices except for essential health, safety, and welfare services.

The first government shutdown rocked the CNMI during Gov. Benigno R. Fitial’s time in 2010. Some 1,464 non-essential employees did not get paid when the government shutdown was in effect. With about 4,000 employees at that time, including federally funded positions, the government only paid for its most essential services. Those who didn’t get paid included the governor, legislators, and employees deemed non-critical or non-essential. They continued to be unpaid until the Legislature passed a budget bill and it was enacted into law. Employees who were forced to stop working weren’t paid for the days they didn’t report for work.

Most of the time, what stymies a budget is disagreement between the Senate and House of Representatives on how to divvy up the funds. Despite the millions of dollars being bandied about, the CNMI government does not have a bottomless pocket and has to live within its means; hence the need for a budget plan. That’s where the tug-of-war between the Senate and House has slowed the passage of the bill to a crawl. The House must approve any changes the Senate will make on the bill. Similarly, the Senate has to adopt any changes the House makes on the measure. That could get the bill stuck in the legislative chambers, jumping from chamber to chamber in a virtual ping-pong that gets everyone nowhere.

That’s where the bicameral conference committee comes in, when leaders of both Senate and House will separately appoint members to the committee, who will then be given a set time to hammer out a budget version that’s acceptable to both.

The Torres administration submitted last April 1 a budget proposal of $145 million, narrowly beating its constitutional mandate to submit a budget to the Legislature by April 1. Since then, the House Ways and Means Committee has been calling in the different departments and agencies into budget hearings that were supposed to give the committee a broad idea of the government’s priorities. Last week, it finalized a budget measure that will be the centerpiece of the Legislature’s next sessions and play a central role in what will surely be an interesting fight on Capital Hill. Oh, I do hope they get to finally pass a budget and prove this cynic wrong but history is against our current crop of lawmakers and we will probably revisit this issue before the end of September.

Jayvee Vallejera Vallejera
Jayvee Vallejera is a 21-year journalism veteran and has been with Saipan Tribune for 14 years.

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