Measure now seeks $15M MPLT loan for ‘extraordinary expenses’
The House of Representatives finally passed a bill paving the way for the Marianas Public Land Trust to loan the CNMI government up to $15 million, with tweaks to reflect that it would now be used for “extraordinary expenses made under extraordinary circumstances.”
House Speaker Blas Jonathan “BJ” Attao’s (R-Saipan) House Bill 20-44, which originally intends to assist the CNMI government to meet its bond obligations and fund payment to the NMI Settlement Fund, was tweaked to “ensure that there are adequate funds at the disposal of the Department of Finance for purposes of paying [for] expenses as a result of [Super] Typhoon Yutu.”
The new intention of the bill came in the form of a substitute as offered by floor leader Rep. John Paul Sablan (R-Saipan) during the House’s session last Friday afternoon.
Rep. Sheila Babauta (Ind-Saipan) had questioned the changes in the intent and purpose of the bill and Attao explained that it was made at the recommendation of the Office of the Attorney General.
He noted that the terms “bond obligations and fund payment to the NMI Settlement Fund” originated from the OAG as well.
“They defined ‘extraordinary expenses under extraordinary circumstances’ as beyond operational costs that is appropriated by the general fund and, in their legal point of view, they said payments to the NMI Settlement Fund and bond interests are technically operational costs and, in order to be able to utilize these funds, they said they would have to recommend that the language be changed,” Attao said.
He said the OAG recommended that the language be changed to respect the definition of operational costs, which does not cover typhoon recovery.
“…It is useless for this body to pass this legislation and get it onto the governor’s desk knowing the fact that the negotiating terms are on different conditions. [If that happens,] we would have to come back and introduce a brand-new legislation,” he added.
In a later statement from Babauta, she noted that she voted in support of the bill because of the current situation of the CNMI economy post- Yutu.
“I voted in support of this bill because I understand the reality of cash flow issues we are facing right now. Recovery takes time. Businesses were affected, flights halted, our economy was not moving and projected revenue collections reduced. Collections are now improving, but we are still struggling to fund our government and pay vendors owed for disaster expenses. We must remember that our vendors are a part of our economy. They employ our community, provide services to our government, and pay taxes,” Babauta said.
Commenting on the bill’s change of intent, Attao noted that after discussing the matter with the OAG and MPLT, the language had to be amended in order to prevent unconstitutionality in the language of the intent of the bill—the financial relief of the CNMI government.
The bill needed the support of at least a simple majority, or more than half of the total number of representatives present. Altogether, the bill garnered a vote of 14-2, with Reps. Donald Manglona (Ind-Rota) and Edwin K. Propst (Ind-Saipan) voting against it. The four members absent were Reps. Richard Lizama (Ind-Saipan), Marco Peter (R-Saipan), Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan), and Ralph Yumul (R-Saipan).
Manglona voted against the measure because he noted that the bill only entertained the post-disaster needs of Saipan. He offered an amendment to have at least 5% each of the loan go to recovery efforts for Tinian and Rota as well, which were both battered by Yutu and Typhoon Mangkhut, respectively. His amendment was defeated with a vote of 7-10.
Propst did not support the measure because he believed that there are other options. He cited examples where the CNMI government could pull out money, including the annual Community Benefit Fund that Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC provides.
He further added that he wants the bill amended to have at least some financial limitations set in order to control where the MPLT loan money goes to, which Rep. Joel Camacho (R-Saipan) agreed to. However, no further amendments were made to the bill.
“…I wanted to support the bill—and I do support it—but I have concerns,” Propst explained during discussions. Ultimately, he said he supported the intent but not the bill during roll call.
The bill now goes to the Senate for action.