The House of Representatives passed a bill yesterday that would allow several CNMI government officials to realign their funds, with a sunset provision that their reprogramming authority would last only until the end of the 2019 fiscal year, which is Sept. 30.
House Bill 21-56, which would give governor, chief justice, Legislative Bureau director, mayors, and the municipal council limited reprogramming authority, passed the lower chamber on a vote of 14-4.
The measure, which Rep. Ralph N. Yumul (R-Saipan) introduced, will cease to exist once a new CNMI budget is enacted for fiscal year 2020, which starts on Oct. 1, 2019.
H.B. 21-56 hopes to avoid further fiscal crisis and deficit spending, while also assisting all branches of the government to prioritize needs until the new budget passes.
Reps. Sheila Babauta (Ind-Saipan), Richard Lizama (Ind-Saipan), Donald Manglona (Ind-Rota), and Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan) voted no to the bill.
Minority leader Rep. Edwin K. Propst (Ind-Saipan) and his fellow Saipan independent representatives, Joseph Flores and Edmund Villagomez, joined the majority in supporting the bill. Reps. Antonio Borja (R-Tinian) and Marco Peter (R-Saipan) were absent.
Yumul said he knows H.B. 21-56, which also passed with amendments, would be unpopular but said that this is one way of addressing the current financial situation of the Commonwealth.
Propst introduced a floor amendment that protects certain agencies from having their budgets reprogrammed. That protection extends to the Legislature and Judiciary, municipal mayors and councils, autonomous or semi-autonomous agencies and public corporations, the Public School System, the Northern Marianas College, the Public Auditor’s Office, the Office of the Attorney General, the Commonwealth Health Care Corp., and the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.
The bill now goes to the Senate and there might also be amendments there.
“[H.B. 21-56] is something that we offered right now with the administration. We saw this as necessary due to our current financial situation. And the bill would only last until Sept. 30,” said Yumul.
He added the Ways and Means Committee is just being proactive. “Ways and Means members had not gotten any notice in regards to meetings with the [Torres] administration, Finance Department, and the Office of Management and Budget. I just want to let the other members know that we are being more proactive in light of what’s going on.”
“Our agreement is that one of us [Ways and Means member] must always be present in that meeting so we know exactly what’s going on, so we can convey things to each agency. Now, Ways and Means is trying to fill the gap, by sending one of us to attend budget meetings with the administration.
Sablan said she was torn over H.B. 21-56 but pointed out that the CNMI government is in this position “because this administration failed to timely and accurately notify [everyone] of our true state of our resources, to advise them [agencies and departments] as to exactly how much each would expect for the rest of the year. You heard it today, in the public comments, [the Public School System] does not know how much they have for the rest of the year, and this is true across our government.”
She accused the Torres administration of financial mismanagement, irresponsibility, and lack of transparency.
During the public comments, Selina Babauta said the significance of reprogramming cannot be overlooked. “This bill as it is written can be perceived as virtually taking substantial powers of government under a single office, the Governor’s Office.
“This bill as it is written opens up the propensity to divert funds other than what it was originally designated for,” she said.
She added Gov. Ralph DLG Torres has become elusive and untruthful. “We are all hearing of cut backs, talks of possible layoffs, Senate shutdown, and austerity measures happening before our eyes and yet, we have not seen the administration come out, not even in the media, to explain what is going on.”
“Not only is he [Torres] ignoring the requests of the Legislature for complete and open financial information about where we are in terms of our revenues, he doesn’t seem to owe the Legislature or the people to explain what is going on.
“Rome is burning and Nero is out globetrotting the world, playing his fiddle.”
Propst said he too was torn over the measure. “I do feel that it is partial victory. It is better to have something versus nothing. The leadership has the numbers and they respectfully call for flexibility, whether the governor needs it or not is something that we can continue to deliberate and debate.”
“But, I look at the good that came out; that is safeguarding and insuring in providing complete clarity on the amendment that we passed. To ensure autonomous and semi-autonomous agencies and corporations are protected. To ensure the governor does not overreach into these agencies.”
Rep. John Paul Sablan (R-Saipan) said the legislation will give flexibility to the three branches of government. “So, that we can avoid further cuts. We try our best here as a body to find solutions. We repeatedly hear the Finance secretary, during the Ways and Means Committee meeting, that cash flow is not there. That’s the reality.”
“This legislation will [provide] flexibility. This has never been popular but, at this financial crisis that we are experiencing now, we owe it to our people that we don’t want further cuts. If cash flow does not come in as expected, we expect another eight-hour cut; our reduction already hurts.”