‘It’s petty politics’
The Torres-Palacios administration will continue to focus on COVID-19 pandemic policy that protects people over politics that drives the community apart, according to press secretary Kevin Bautista yesterday, in reaction to a concern that Rep. Sheila Babauta (D-Saipan) had raised about the CNMI’s year-long state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The CNMI Democratic [Party’s] response a whole year later after protecting our community is questionable and is driven by petty politics,” said Bautista.
At a House session last Friday, Babauta said she finds it “very concerning” that the executive order declaring a state of emergency in the CNMI has been renewed monthly for over a year now, particularly since this grants the Finance secretary unlimited reprogramming authority.
Bautista said the last time they checked, the CNMI and the whole country are in a public health emergency as COVID-19 hasn’t fully disappeared.
Bautista said the reprogramming authority was critical in keeping the CNMI safe from the pandemic by prioritizing funding and resources that are for critical services such as quarantine, testing, and acquiring personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and first responders.
At the same time, he said, the CNMI was able to keep basic public services afloat in order to support the ongoing COVID-19 operation.
“This is proper policy to protect our community,” he said.
At the same House session Friday, Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan) said this renewal of emergency declaration is a serious matter for the Legislature to discuss.
Sablan thanked House Ways and Means chair Rep. Donald Manglona (Ind-Rota) for expediting the review of the continuing state of emergency and state of unlimited reprogramming power.
She said it is important to get the legal research done as to the constitutionality and the options that the Legislature may have in modifying and rejecting the executive order.
Sablan said she would also like that the House’s legal counsel also look into not only the constitutionality but also the possibility of violation of the current fiscal year Budget Act, Public Law 21-25. “Members as you may recall, those of you were here the 21st Legislature, unlimited reprogramming power was granted to the governor in the Budget Act for fiscal year 2021 but solely within the Executive Branch,” she said.
Sablan said the intent of the Legislature was at the time to restrict the ability to access the funds of the Legislature, of the Judiciary, and of the autonomous agencies.
“These continuing orders over a year now appear to violate that limitation that the Legislature explicitly set forth,” she pointed out. “The state of emergency doesn’t mean that we are in a state of dictatorship. We still have separation of powers. We still have three co-equal branches of government.”
Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan) said there is no language in the Constitution that the Finance secretary has reprogramming authority. She said the governor has that authority but there is no language in the Constitution that Torres can delegate that power to anybody.
Torres first declared the state of public health emergency and continued significant emergency in January 2020 in a move to prevent and contain COVID-19 from spreading all over the islands.