Budget bill passes House two months before deadline
After four recesses, three proposed floor amendments, and two and a half months of committee level efforts, the House of Representatives swiftly passed the fiscal year 2018 budget yesterday after a two-hour discussion that mainly focused on the legality of an 80-percent salary hike for elected officials.
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, in his proposed $145-million budget for fiscal year 2018, took into consideration Public Law 19-83, which set a new base salary schedule and increased ceiling for classified civil service employees, including an 80-percent salary hike for elected officials and an appropriation of $2.8 million, or a 5-percent increase, for civil service employee salaries.
The fiscal year 2018 budget bill indicates an annual increase of $30,700 for each House and Senate member while mayors of each senatorial district will get an annual increase of $31,800, effectively bumping legislators’ budgets to $70,000 per annum and $75,000 per annum for mayors.
The budget bill was passed in the form of House Bill 20-105 HD2 and a vote of 17-3.
Reps. Ed Propst (Ind-Saipan), Vinson Sablan (Ind-Saipan), and minority leader Edmund Villagomez (Ind-Saipan) voted against the bill because of the salary hike.
Of three proposed floor amendments, only one was denied: the one introduced by Propst to re-appropriate the 80-percent salary hike intended for elected officials of the 20th Legislature to the Department of Public Safety.
Propst had proposed that, instead of appropriating a total of $1,018,772 for the 80-percent increased salaries of elected officials, the money would be better off being used by DPS. He pointed out that entry-level DPS officers make about $21,600 per annum, while the nationwide median is at $49,000.
“One way to get the best [for DPS] is to increase the salary,” he said, citing the large disparity in salaries.
Propst also pointed out that the 19th Legislature had a pecuniary interest when it acted to approve the bill that authorized the pay increase. He said the body voted for the bill after the 2016 elections. That means those who were re-elected to the 20th Legislature should have either abstained or declined to vote on the measure since they already knew they were going into office, he said.
“In [voting for House Bill 19-03], those who were re-elected in the 20th Legislature should have abstained or should not have voted on the salary increases because if I got elected and I voted for a salary increase, I have an interest in that. I am going to personally benefit from that,” Propst said.
He raised the possibility of taxpayer lawsuits and public scrutiny if the increase is implemented.
Despite Propst’s efforts, his floor amendment was defeated by an outstanding vote, which led House Speaker Ralph Demapan (R-Saipan) to believe a roll-call vote was unnecessary.
House Ways and Means chair Rep. Angel Demapan (R-Saipan) introduced a floor amendment that effectively authorizes the CNMI Scholarship Office to administer $1.95 million in Commonwealth Worker Fee funds, or CW1 funds, as proposed by Torres in the past.
The Northern Marianas Trades Institute, in a letter addressed to Senate President Arnold I. Palacios, had opposed this, while the Torres administration said the call was to “achieve greater transparency” in the handling of the funds.
Rep. Blas “BJ” Jonathan Attao (Ind-Saipan) introduced a floor amendment that required expenditure authorities for each government business unit to submit expenditure reports. The floor amendment, with the assistance of Reps. Ivan A. Blanco (R-Saipan) and Joseph Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan), required the expenditure reports to be submitted to the Legislature 30 days after the end of each quarter.
HB 20-105 HD2 now heads to the Senate. It is expected to be referred to the Fiscal Affairs Committee chaired by Sen. Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) for adoption before the Senate could act on the bill.