House passes budget bill
The House of Representatives unanimously passed Saturday a budget bill to appropriate $109.7 million out of $150.4 million in total budgetary resources, and $52.6 million from the American Rescue Plan Act funds, for CNMI government operations in Fiscal Year 2023.
With all 16 House members present voted “yes,” House Bill 22-116 in the form of HD2 will be transmitted to the Senate for the latter to either accept, amend, or substitute it. Four representatives were absent but excused from the session.
Before passing the budget bill, House members approved floor amendments to the legislation offered by House Ways and Means chairman Rep. Donald M. Manglona (Ind-Rota) and Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan).
Before tackling the budget bill, the House also unanimously adopted House Concurrent Resolution No. 22-2, SD1, that approved the identified total estimated $150,415,492 in revenues and resources of the CNMI for fiscal year 2023.
Manglona, who is the main author of the budget bill, said the committee concurs with the changes that the Senate made to the House Concurrent Resolution No. 22-2, SD1, and that it is reflected in the budget bill, House Bill 22-116.
“These are just corrections made to clarification what is owed,” Manglona said.
He said the committee proceeded with the budget preparations with the figures in mind.
Manglona offered floor amendment to his bill to correct some figures in the scheduled A, B, and C in the legislation.
Rep. Christina Sablan also offered a floor amendment to the bill to insert language pertaining to the provision on the Medicaid Program.
The House adopted the floor amendments offered by Manglona and Sablan.
Rep. John Paul Sablan (R-Saipan) commended Manglona and members of the committee “for a very thorough work that they have done.”
“I’d like to thank my colleagues here as it is very important that we must pass a product so that our counter colleagues up in the Senate could also review before the end of Sept. 30, 2022,” John Sablan said.
Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan) also commended Manglona for his patience and leadership in guiding them through the budget process.
Babauta said it wasn’t an easy task this budget season given the administration’s decision to zero off the operation for the entire CNMI government.
“We have to look for funding to try and put it in general revenues to try to restore that to the departments,” she said.
Minority leader Rep. Angel A. Demapan (R-Saipan) asked some clarification regarding the Medical Referral.
Demapan said the Medical Referral is structurally transferred from the Governor’s Office to the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.
“So we don’t have any funding in this budget for Medical Referral according to this schedule. Are we leaving all of that to CHCC revenues to support the Medial Referral Program?” Demapan said.
Manglona said he was going to go over the work that the committee did and it should address how they plan to fund CHCC Medical Referral.
Manglona said the committee worked tirelessly in trying to present this balanced budget as they try to address every departments and agencies after they conducted hearings on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.
He said some of the key areas that the committee has focused on in addressing the budget is the retirees 25% pension benefits, the operations of the government, healthcare, education, as well as public safety.
In addressing the retirees’ 25% pension, Manglona said the committee wanted to ensure that there was a source of funding that was identified.
“In the past we had the community disaster loan that funded the 25% [pension], however, because it was not identified in the governor’s budget submission, the committee took it upon themselves to secure and identify these funds,” he said.
Manglona said the next thing they focused on, were the vacant full-time employees, removing all vacant FTEs, as this reduced the funds that were needed for other allocations.
He said the committee identified available resources to ensure that those that are current employees are fully funded, as well as provide some operational fundings to all departments and agencies.
Manglona said initially, when they had the budget hearing with Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig, the latter mentioned prior to the revised budget submission, that would take care of the operational needs and it will be presented in the revised budget submission.
“But when we received that on July 2, it wasn’t addressed. So, the committee worked hard in trying to secure some funds to address agencies and other branches operational needs,” Manglona said.
He said the committee had decided to add two provisions that would increase taxes just for the fiscal year to address the funding shortfall for healthcare particularly the medical referral.
Manglona said the committee proposed to increase taxes on tobacco and sugar sweetened beverages for the fiscal year. He said the tobacco tax increase basically mirrored House Bill 22-54 which passed the House and is now in the Senate.
He said the current tax restructure will go directly to CHCC while still maintaining the projected revenue for this excise taxes to fund the government operations.
Lastly, Manglona said, due to the limited resources and ensuring continuity of services they maintain the 25% of available resources for appropriation to the Public School System.
“I do want to note, however, that this amount was actually increased from the initial budget proposal due to the increase in available resources from the $3million that was later identified from the overpayment to the Settlement Fund,” he said.
Christina Sablan expressed appreciation to Manglona for his
“diligence and ever calm temperament” throughout this budget process in going extra miles to make sure that key priorities in this budget for education, for healthcare, including Medicaid. CHCC, the retirees pension and of course government operations.
“There were as he noted some major challenges particularly the lack of funding for retiree pension, for operations and so forth,” Sablan said.