Around this date last year, the governor’s office sent out an invitation to the media to witness Gov. Eloy S. Inos’ Sept. 16 signing not only of the fiscal year 2015 budget but also two revenue-generating bills. One increased the cigarette tax, the other a tax amnesty.
That was more than two weeks before the annual Oct. 1 deadline to come up with a new budget, or there would be a shutdown of non-essential government offices.
Fast forward. It’s now Sept. 14, 2015, yet the bicameral committee tasked to hash out the differences between the House and Senate’s fiscal 2016 budget bill versions is still nowhere near a compromise bill.
Last year, lawmakers were able to pass a compromise spending package by Sept. 5—a record for a budget bill. It wasn’t a perfect budget bill but it was a workable one. That gave the governor ample time to review the budget bill and point out his reservations so lawmakers can address them in future legislation, before signing the measure into law.
As provided for in the NMI Constitution’s Article II Section 7(b), the governor shall have 20 days in which to consider appropriation bills.
This present Legislature’s failure to pass a budget bill by today will impact the governor’s ability to improve upon their submission. Even if a budget bill were to pass both houses today, which is very unlikely, the governor’s 20-day review window has already been diminished.
By today, lawmakers have already had nearly six months from the time they received the governor’s budget submission in late March to review and pass a budget bill.
Once again, the last thing that the CNMI needs now after the devastation caused by Typhoon Soudelor in August and a telecommunications outage in July is another potential disaster. This time a man-made one, if the government has to partially shut down because the Legislature fails to pass a budget on or before the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.
In 2010, a budget deadlock between the House and Senate and the resulting partial government shutdown affected the livelihood of over 1,000 government employees and their families.
Lawmakers won’t get paid until a budget law is in place. Government employees who won’t have to work during a government shutdown will not get paid and will not get back pay once the budget bill is finally enacted into law. This was at least the opinion of the administration right around the 2010 partial government shutdown.
After Typhoon Soudelor hit Saipan, people have been without power and water for several weeks now and life is still not back to the way they were, pre-typhoon. People need not endure additional hardship that lawmakers themselves can potentially create.
People have already suffered so much and many lost their homes and property to the typhoon. They should not have to suffer any further because of lawmakers’ inaction.
It would be understandable if the bone of contention in this year’s budget process is about cushioning the impact of recent disasters on the government budget, among other things.
But no—it’s about the Senate’s insistence that it is constitutional and within their legislative authority to use $2.5 million in “earmarked” funds set aside for the Marianas Visitors Authority. Perhaps the very definition of the word “earmark” in the budgeting process has escaped senators.
If it’s within legislative authority and allowed in the NMI Constitution, does anyone think that previous lawmakers would have already pulled off this stunt a long time ago? But as one lawmaker said this weekend, “You always got to try new things.” This is no time for irresponsible, reckless, and trial-and-error budgeting.
Moreover, Attorney General Edward Manibusan already made it clear he will not provide a legal opinion on whether earmarked funds could be used for other purposes as the Senate proposes, so lawmakers have to move on.
For the Senate to take this road may not be surprising though. After all, this is the same set of senators who passed their own version of a 2016 budget bill without first adopting a resolution that essentially concurs with the governor’s spending ceiling.
Rep. Angel Demapan (R-Saipan) raised the issue of the Senate’s lack of a resolution concurring with the governor’s budget cap during the bicameral conference committee’s initial meeting. Two days later, the Senate held an emergency session to adopt the budget resolution.
The problem, as Demapan pointed out, is that senators concur—by adopting a resolution—with the amounts that the governor identified for earmarks and those available for appropriation. Yet they are making moves contrary to what they concurred to, he said.
“Bottom line is this: The concurrent resolution dictates the budget bill. The budget bill should not dictate the concurrent resolution,” Demapan said this weekend. Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Ind-Saipan), for his part, said, “How the Senate moved forward with the budget bill without passing a concurrent resolution first is beyond me.”
If it’s any consolation, the Senate at least acknowledged its own oversight in skipping the need to formally accept the governor’s $145-million figure first before moving forward as required by law. When ordinary people break the law, there are consequences.
In the end, the House and Senate need to compromise.
These are just scenarios: The Senate (six of nine senators are from Rota and Tinian) will agree with the House that using earmarked funds for their Christmas wish list other than their intended purpose is not allowed so they can move forward and prevent a partial government shutdown.
But, in exchange, the Senate will insist that the House agree to increasing Rota and Tinian’s budget by more than $500,000 and $600,000, respectively; allow more hiring on Rota and Tinian including those of administrative assistants with an annual salary of up to $20,000; increase the leadership accounts of the House and Senate by 67 percent to $300,000 (compared to the House proposal of $179,387); increase the Legislature’s overall budget by over $340,000 (again compared to the House version); buy up to seven new vehicles for Rota and Tinian; and raise the salaries of Rota and Tinian’s resident department heads and resident deputy commissioners to $45,000, among other things.
And perhaps raise the salaries of the Public School System’s associate commissioners to $70,000-$80,000 and again, one of those covered is the Senate Education Committee chair Justo Quitugua’s wife, whose current annual pay is $65,000.
Now let’s wait for lawmakers’ own budget scenarios. We could only hope they have the entire CNMI’s best interest at heart. (Haidee V. Eugenio)