House sets ‘reasonable allowance’ for lawmakers
The House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that grants the Legislature a reasonable allowance, defines what a “reasonable “amount is, sets that amount, and certifies it as a public purpose.
All 17 House members present voted yes to the passage of House Bill 22-30 in the form of House Draft 1. Before the voting, the full House adopted the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee report that recommended the passage of the legislation. Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan) is the principal author of the bill.
After the adoption of the bill, Sablan said the JGO Committee received very useful recommendations, especially from the Office of the Public Auditor and the Office of the Attorney General for how they could improve accountability for the allowance, which is authorized by the Constitution.
It was floor leader Ralph N. Yumul (D-Saipan) who moved to pass the bill.
Although Article 2, Section 10 of the NMI Constitution provides that members of the Legislature may receive a reasonable allowance for expenses as provided by law, Sablan said the definition for what is reasonable has never been addressed until now. Sablan said this legislation is long overdue.
“This bill provides that definition and it relies on the guidance from the audit report and the legal guidance that we received from OPA, as well as legal opinion from AG,” Sablan said.
In drafting this legislation, she said they also looked at other state legislatures as well as the congressional rules that govern representational allowances “just to see the landscape of what best practices could apply here in the case of our allowances.”
With this legislation, Sablan said, they have the opportunity to remedy these issues of public trust and set the standards for accountability in the CNMI law.
The amendments to the bill include to establish travel restrictions; prohibit double compensation in regards to reimbursements and travel per diems/stipends; and for the maintenance of records of transactions when a member draws an allowance.
In his legal opinion dated Nov. 1, 2021, Attorney General Edward Manibusan said that House Rule of Procedure 13, Section 10 appears to authorize payments of allowance that would violate the Constitution.
Manibusan said that, based on their review, the allowance of $60,000 per year ($5,000 per month) would be considered unreasonable under the Constitution. He said an allowance of about $30,000 would be reasonable under a contemporary analysis, which takes into account adjustments for inflation.
OPA’s Aug. 6, 2003 report, which was issued by then-Public Auditor Michael Sablan, noted that their review of the NMI Constitution, statutes, regulations, legislative resolutions and rules, current quoted air fares, and applicable per diem show that the monthly travel expenses for Rota and Tinian senators are likely to be considerably less than the $5,000 monthly subsistence allowance provided to them when traveling to Saipan, resulting in an unjustified personal benefit to the senators in violation of public purpose.