HB 20-36 needs to be vetoed

Dear taxpayer: I write this to bring to your attention a special interest bill that recently passed the Senate, a bill that hasn’t received any media coverage since its passage last Thursday. As a representative, it is my duty to inform you why House Bill 20-36 needs to be vetoed by Gov. Ralph DLG Torres. Please allow me to explain.

H.B. 20-36, a bill which re-establishes the special annuity for governors and lieutenant governors, also amends 1 CMC § 8357, which originally required that a governor or lieutenant governor must serve at least one full term in office to receive the special annuity. If passed into law, H.B. 20-36 will now allow for an elected official (such as a Senate president who becomes the governor or lieutenant governor if either one is removed, resigns, or dies in office) to receive this special annuity for a lifetime, even if s/he only serves a portion or remaining term of office. The “remaining term” is subjective in its timeframe, as it could be a remaining term of one day or three years.

If H.B. 20-36 becomes law, it will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, and it will also continue to increase every time a governor or lieutenant governor leaves office, as s/he is entitled to the special annuity for a lifetime. Some elected officials may receive a huge payout once this bill becomes law because it is retroactive, as pointed out by Attorney General Edward Manibusan. In a letter to Rep. Ivan Blanco, chairman of the House Judicial and Government Operations Committee, Manibusan offered his opinion on H.B. 20-36, stating, “The proposed changes would apply retroactively to those who served in office during and after June 14, 2007. The committee should assess the fiscal impact of the proposed amendment and determine the source of revenue for the anticipated increase for funding the special annuities for governors and lieutenant governors.” Sadly, the AG’s advice has fallen on deaf ears, and no source of revenue has ever been identified to fund H.B. 20-36.

So how much will this special annuity cost taxpayers? Let’s do the math for just one of the elected officials who stands to benefit from this bill. According to H.B. 20-36, a Senate president who ascended into the lieutenant governor position back in 2007 can receive 11 years of retroactive pay. The annuity will give him 65 percent of the $60,000 salary he received as lieutenant governor at that time, which would be approximately $39,000 per year. This elected official could be paid at least $429,000 ($39,000 x 11 years of retroactive pay) and, on top of that, he will continue to receive $39,000 for the rest of his life. Because of H.B. 20-36, he can receive a lifetime special annuity, and he never even had to serve one full term in public office as a lieutenant governor as currently required by law (without the amendment in place). As for the rest of us? We will be lucky if we can retire at 65 years of age, and luckier if we still have an existing retirement pension that hasn’t been squandered away by special interest bills like H.B. 20-36 that enrich the few at the expense of the many.

Please realize that I projected the cost for just one of the elected officials who will amass a fortune from H.B. 20-36, but there are others who will also be enriched by this bill once it is signed into law. We also must acknowledge that the salaries for the positions of governor and lieutenant governor have increased significantly to annual salaries of $120,000 and $100,000, respectively. That means from this day forward, the special annuity for the governor’s position will be $78,000 every year for a lifetime, and the special annuity for the lieutenant governor will be $65,000 for a lifetime, regardless of whether or not they served a full term in office.

For the record, I strongly opposed H.B. 20-36 when it was introduced in the House and I voted against it. I was vocal about the consequences of this bill that only benefitted certain elected officials, yet it still passed the House back in February of this year.

What is even more troubling than all the special interest implications of H.B. 20-36 is how it managed to pass the Senate last week. H.B. 20-36 was not even on the bill calendar or anywhere on Thursday’s Senate agenda. But it was somehow brought in and pushed through. My question is, which senator(s) pushed to see this bill pass so expeditiously and brazenly, without it even appearing on the bill calendar or Senate agenda? If the passage of H.B. 20-36 does not violate the Open Government Act, then it certainly violated the spirit and intent of the Open Government Act.

To make matters even worse, the Senate claims this bill mustered enough votes to pass the Senate, but I strongly disagree. H.B. 20-36 allegedly passed the Senate with 4 voting yes, 2 voting no, and 2 abstaining. The problem is, this goes against our Commonwealth Constitution’s Article II, Section 7d, which states, “Any appropriation bill, or any bill affecting spending authority, government financial management, or organization of the government, enacted in the period between a regular general election and the second Monday of January of the following year shall be void unless enacted by the affirmative vote of three-fourths of the members of each house of the Legislature.” According to the Commonwealth Constitution, the Senate needed three-fourths of their members to pass this bill. Only four of the eight present voted in the affirmative, which means they did not receive the three-fourths as required by the Constitution. Therefore, if the Senate claims H.B. 20-36 passed the Senate, then they are opening themselves up to a lawsuit by the Office of the Attorney General, or a taxpayer lawsuit.

In an effort to avoid litigation and waste precious taxpayer dollars, I ask that you join me in urging Gov. Ralph DLG Torres to veto H.B. 20-36. It is the right thing to do as we face certain financial challenges from the destruction caused by Super Typhoon Yutu and future impending disasters caused by climate change. Let’s put our people’s needs before the wants of politicians. People first.

Edwin K. Propst (Special to the Saipan Tribune) Author

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