A bill that adjusts the language of a recently enacted law that allows the CNMI government to obtain a loan from the Marianas Public Land Trust Fund passed the House of Representatives last Friday with some opposition lawmakers questioning its constitutionality.
House Speaker Blas Jonathan “BJ” Attao’s (R-Saipan) House Bill 21-71 passed the House on first and final reading at a House session on Capital Hill.
The bill, according to Attao, tweaks the language of the MPLT loan to comply with the suggestions of Attorney General Edward Manibusan.
“The [bill] amends Public Law 21-3…[because] the attorney general has requested that a portion of the findings and purposes should be put in the enactment so that it’s clearer for [the Office of the Attorney General],” Attao said in an interview.
The original bill that authorized the government to obtain an MPLT loan was enacted with the understanding that the House would introduce legislation to tweak the new law according to the attorney general’s preferences, according to Attao.
“The attorney general wants to be more comfortable with the MPLT loan because, at the end of the day, it will be the attorney general himself, along with the Department of Finance, who will sign their names on the [loan] agreement,” Attao said, adding that the attorney general might not sign off on the loan contract if he is not comfortable with the language.
The bill passed the House with a vote of 14-3.
Reps. Donald Manglona (Ind-Tinian), Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan), and Ed Propst (Ind-Saipan) voted against the passage of the bill.
“…For legislation of this magnitude—we are talking public debt of $15 million from our public lands trust—it is significant enough that we should have a well-established record in support of this legislation,” Sablan said during discussions.
Sablan pointed out that H.B. 21-71 was placed on the bill calendar without public comments, public hearings, and a committee report.
“I want to also note that we are borrowing from our children, our public lands trust…not for any long-term investment, but to pay today’s bills and to be in debt for years to come. Under the terms of the proposed legislation, it is not just a five-year term loan, it could potentially be much longer,” she added.
Sablan brought up these points during discussions on P.L. 21-3 at the House. She also questioned the legality of the loan itself and its specified purposes—to help pay for some of the CNMI government’s expenses during Super Typhoon Yutu recovery.
“The CNMI Constitution prohibits public debt for the operating expenses of the Commonwealth government. …Everyone agrees this is public debt…but the question is whether the proposed expenditures constitute operating expenses,” she noted.
Citing the Office of the Attorney General opinion that, if it’s specific to the Yutu disaster, then it is constitutional.
“But it is worth noting that MPLT’s own legal counsel said [otherwise] and it is worth noting that the CNMI Constitution does not grant any exception. The analysis is also quite clear that there is no exception in our Constitution for emergency operating expenses,” she said. “I am not convinced that this legislation fixes that constitutional problem.”
She pointed out that MPLT’s own legal counsel warned against proceeding with the authorization of this debt unless there is language inserted to protect MPLT from liability in the event of a taxpayer lawsuit.
“He further recommends there be a certified question to really resolve this issue on whether what we are contemplating [H.B. 21-71] and what we already passed as a body [P.L. 21-3] is constitutional. I think it will be premature for us to act and move any further into this public debt because of that reason,” she said.
Nobody else commented on the bill.