FY 2017 budget signed into law

Torres vetoes cut in MVA budget
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, left, signs House Bill 19-196 or the CNMI General Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2017 while Lt. Gov. Victor B. Hocog looks on in yesterday’s ceremony that was held simultaneously with separate signings of three proclamations at the Pedro P. Tenorio Multipurpose Center. (Jon Perez)

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, left, signs House Bill 19-196 or the CNMI General Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2017 while Lt. Gov. Victor B. Hocog looks on in yesterday’s ceremony that was held simultaneously with separate signings of three proclamations at the Pedro P. Tenorio Multipurpose Center. (Jon Perez)

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres signed the $142.2-million CNMI General Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2017, but not before vetoing sections on the bill to address critical areas in the Commonwealth. The Legislature—House and Senate—passed House Bill 19-196, SS1, CCS1 last Saturday and is now Public Law 19-68.

The budgetary cuts made by the Legislature on the Marianas Visitors Authority’s funds were among those that Torres vetoed along with the 100-percent reprogramming authority given to Rota and Tinian.

Torres line-item vetoed Section 301 (i) allowing MVA to keep its budget that would fund its daily operations. He said, in a letter addressed to House Speaker Rafael S. Demapan (R-Saipan) and Senate President Francisco M. Borja (Ind-Tinian), that the section reflects the redirection of MVA’s funds.

“I will continue to caution the Legislature against repeated actions that may negatively impact the operations and activities of MVA. Tourism is one of our key sources of revenues and although the redirected funds would fund beautification projects, it would also impede MVA’s strategic plan to completely promote the CNMI,” Torres said in the letter.

Torres, in yesterday’s signing at the Pedro P. Tenorio Multipurpose Center, said his office has been working closely with the Legislature to make sure a balanced budget would be passed before the end FY 2016 ends on Friday.

“I want everyone to know at this stage, we have been working hand-in-hand with the Legislature. We have a good working relationship, but this budget shows that we both agree and disagree on a lot of things. Still, in good spirit we moved forward,” said Torres.

He said that despite vetoing some sections this budget was the best collaborative effort made by his office and the Legislature. He then thanked the bicameral conference committee members, House Ways and Means committee chair Rep. Antonio P. Sablan (Ind-Saipan), and Senate Fiscal Affairs chair Sen. Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian).

Other highlights

Salary adjustments and increases for all law enforcement officers and for all government employees were also given with Torres saying the revenue the CNMI government collected gave them the opportunity for a wage hike.

“The revenue that we have gives us the opportunity to have pay raises. We are acknowledging all government employees since we don’t have this in the past. This is the product the government have for all employees and their families,” said Torres.

The budget will be funding 5-percent salary adjustments for all law enforcers and another 5-percent increase for salaries of all classified employees. “I now encourage all government employees to continue their great work and commitment in serving the community that needs you out there. The pay raise is just the beginning and we are going to continue taking care of you as you take care of us.”

He also vetoed the salary of more than 40 identified positions since everyone in the government has had or would get a raise. “I don’t want to see a double dipping while someone else is not. I don’t think that’s the intention of the Legislature but there are conflicts in some of the positions in their salaries.”

“To be fair, I vetoed it and made it across the board. That does not necessarily say that not all employees will get a raise but saying that all will get a raise accordingly,” he added.

Rota and Tinian’s reprogramming authority for utilities was also vetoed. “I removed that because utility is very critical we can’t allow funds to be reprogrammed other than its purpose.”

Hiring of new employees or FTEs will still move forward, according to the Civil Service Act, and will have a different salary schedule while making minor changes for retirees’ funds. Torres increased the funding of the retirees under the Group Health and Life Insurance “to ensure that repayment is made for their years of public service.”

The Public School System will be given 34 percent after Torres increased the constitutionally mandated 25 percent. “As a strengthened commitment to the education of our children. More [funds] will come as we continue to grow.”

The CNMI Drug Court, which is under the CNMI Judiciary, will have an initial allocation of $362,266 as the government’s commitment “to offer a creative blend of treatment and sanction alternatives to effectively address offender behavior, rehabilitation, and the safety of the community.”

The Substance Abuse and Recovery Program under the Governor’s Office will be fully funded with an initial allocation of $1 million, while the Commonwealth Advocates for Recovery Efforts will be receiving $303,000 as assistance in rebuilding and repairing of homes that were damaged by Typhoon Soudelor last year.

Torres has also increased the financial assistance awarded to CNMI students that are studying in accredited colleges or universities, while $1 million is allocated to pay government liabilities that include judgments and settlement agreements.

Some reactions

Lt. Gov. Victor B. Hocog, who also attended yesterday’s signing, said the budget reflects the conferees addressing all the concerns of the entire CNMI. “There’s been a concern on the appointment from Rota being not on the first day.”

“Whether Rota or Tinian wasn’t represented in the conference committee, we want you to know the Legislature planted the seed of having one Commonwealth. Whether Saipan or Tinian conferees, they made sure all municipalities’ concerns would be properly addressed including all critical issues.”

MVA managing director Chris Concepcion, on the other hand, thanked Torres for protecting their funds for the coming fiscal year. “This sends a very strong message to our partners in the tourism industry, here in the CNMI and abroad, that this administration recognizes the key role that tourism plays in our society.”

He added that the MVA would need all necessary funding since tourism is a very competitive industry. “Tourism is what drives our economy and it is a hyper-competitive industry to be in so we need all the funding we can get to compete effectively against regional heavyweights.”

“The MVA has great plans coming up for the CNMI, and with our funding source intact, we aim to carry out our mission of promoting the CNMI to the world.”

Jon Perez | Reporter
Jon Perez began his writing career as a sports reporter in the Philippines where he has covered local and international events. He became a news writer when he joined media network ABS-CBN. He joined the weekly DAWN, University of the East’s student newspaper, while in college.

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