A bill that exempts both the Northern Marianas Technical Institute and the Northern Marianas College from the mandatory fees that go to the Office of the Public Auditor might head to conference committee after the House of Representatives turned down the Senate changes to the bill.
With a vote of 6-10, the House voted during Wednesday’s session to reject Senate changes on Rep. Roman Benavente’s (R-Saipan) House Bill 21-40. Among the changes the Senate made on the bill were to remove the sunset provision exempting both educational institutions from paying 1% of their annual operational budgets to the OPA.
The Senate chose to remove the five-year sunset provision of the legislation, effectively exempting NMC and NMTI from paying OPA fees until the law is repealed.
Reps. John Paul Sablan (R-Saipan), Ralph Yumul (R-Saipan), Ivan Blanco (R-Saipan), Antonio Borja (R-Tinian), House Speaker Blas Jonathan “B.J.” Attao (R-Saipan), and author Benavente voted “yes” to the passage of the bill.
Rep. Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan), who voted against it, noted that she was appreciative of the legislation’s intent to free up some funds for NMTI and NMC, but not at the expense of OPA.
“…NMC and NMTI are included in the single audit for the Commonwealth government. The single audit is covered by the OPA and takes up a substantial portion of their budget,” she said. “I worry about the slippery slope this creates. OPA has also expressed concerns about the slippery slope this creates. We already have an issue—problem, actually—that agencies are not remitting funds. This exacerbates the difficulty [OPA is] already having.”
Rep. Donald Manglona (Ind-Rota) pointed out that it was OPA that suggested the addition of a sunset clause. “Now I see [that the Senate] version strikes out what we passed, I do not support this bill,” he added.
Benavente noted that the initial intention of the legislation was to include a sunset provision. He noted that both NMTI and NMC suffered from Super Typhoon Yutu when it hit Saipan and Tinian in late October 2019, and relieving both agencies of the annual OPA fee obligation would temporarily help them.
Rep. Joel Camacho (R-Saipan) also voted against accepting the Senate changes. “I too express my disappointment,” he said. “I agreed to this bill because the intent of this bill was to help NMC during a time of recovery,” he said. “This was in no way, shape, or form supposed to be permanent in nature. For this reason, I would have to put forth my objections on this bill.”
With the House rejecting the Senate changes, the only way to enact legislation similar to the original intent of H.B. 21-40 is either to re-introduce another bill or negotiate with the Senate at the conference committee.
Even then, there is no guarantee that the Senate will select conferees to represent the Senate and discuss the legislation, according to Attao. He added that if the Senate decides not to appoint conferees, then the bill would not gain traction and its enactment will be unlikely.