Lawmakers are incensed about allegedly conflicting reports from the Finance Department on the funding status of a “slush account” that they had tapped to fund several appropriation bills this year.
Reps. Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan) and Edwin K. Propst (Ind-Saipan) want bills they say have been “collecting dust” at the committee level to move, but were informed during a Monday session by House Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Antonio Sablan (R-Saipan) that Finance had reported that these funds had been zeroed out.
Yumul’s House bills 19-35, and 19-36, and Propst’s 19-048 appropriated funds from an “alien deportation account” signed into law in late 1990s. They claim that Finance had told them funds are available. This account expired sometime after the mid-2000s, according to the lawmakers.
The lawmakers’ angst about their inactive bills prompted them to raise the issue during discussion of another bill—from the majority bloc of the House—that was set for first and final reading and eventually passed on Monday.
Yumul and Propst are minority lawmakers.
“I appreciate Rep. [Angel] Demapan’s bill,” Propst said, “but let’s not play politics here. Let’s get some other bills moving.”
Sablan took issue with this, stating that “people are getting on Facebook and saying that the chairman of Ways and Means isn’t doing his job”—a thinly veiled barb against Propst, an avid Facebook user.
“Let me just make it straight for everybody this afternoon,” Sablan said. “The bills that representatives Propst and Yumul are talking about are trying to tap an account that has nothing in it. And that’s coming directly from the secretary of Finance. And so I allow it to gather dust, like they claim. If they think otherwise, then they can bring up the issue with the secretary of Finance. Because I am not going to waste the committee’s time on legislation or appropriation bills that have nothing in their account.
“…Let’s stop this thing about the chairman not working or doing his job,” Sablan went on to say. “I just hope that when you guys put together an appropriation bill, then you verify the fund status before you claim we are not working on it. We can all play this social media game but I take my job seriously.”
After further discussion, Sablan said he report these bills out from the committee.
In an interview after the session, Propst said he found it “insulting” that Sablan did not inform them of the status of the account.
“If there were truly zero dollars in that account,” he said, “why didn’t he have the common courtesy as a chairman to explain that to us, so he can say that there is no money, so we can question Finance as to why there was $800,000 and then now there is zero dollars. We would like to know where that money went for the deportation fund.
“The point of the matter we were trying to make today was not just Ralph’s bill or my bill. It is the fact that the minority bills are so often sitting, collecting dust and not moving, while they are doing first and final reading for their own bills. How is that fair? These guys have taken $300,000 for their leadership funds—I don’t care what they say about it but that’s fact—and the minority gets zero dollars. We are not asking for the money but why aren’t they sharing at the very least? Or why not give that back and refuse that 67 percent increase. We just got slammed by a typhoon and they’re getting 67-percent increases. [House] Speaker Joe Guerrero has said that’s because the Senate made that amendment and we have to stick to it. The speaker is under no obligation to take that money. He and the leadership have the right to change that and reduce it to what they were getting last year. That’s an insult to everybody not getting a pay raise.”
According to Yumul, his bills tap into Public Law 10-1, which sets up the alien deportation fund. Yumul bills move funds to help agencies like the Department of Public Safety, for example.
“All have been verified,” Yumul said. “I verified with Finance, unless Finance is lying to me and not giving me the correct figure. Even with my research with the auditor’s report, there is funding every year after those funds.”
“Finance has to basically come to this chamber and explain to us what they have been doing with the money. We are not putting the chairman on the spot, but like what my colleague said, if there’s money then let [Finance Secretary Larrisa Larson] explain,” Yumul said.
“It’s basically a slush account. I am not making it up. There are balances ever year. I am not blowing air.”
“She is very non-responsive to telephone calls, even to email,” Rep. Joseph “Leepan” Guerrero said of Larson. “We are the lawmakers appropriating funding, and she is not even supportive to even provide us fund status. She’s kind of useless to me, because I can’t work, because she is holding us hostage by not providing us information.”
“…For her to deny us the privilege to receive funding status is uncalled for. I’ve been sending her emails after emails, she doesn’t respond. I call her up, she doesn’t respond,” Guerrero said.
“I hope the chairman of Ways and Means will invite… If she doesn’t show up, then we subpoena her,” he added.
In a statement near press time yesterday, Larson said: “I want to provide clarification on this issue which has caused an understandable level of concern in the CNMI Legislature and with members of our community. This issue has been discussed with the legislators extensively, and I had believed the matter was resolved several months ago. Any and all use of these funds happened prior to my term as secretary of Finance, but as it remains a pressing issue for certain members of the Legislature, I will take the necessary steps to derive the specific details of these expenditures for future concerns.
“On a larger issue, I completely understand that it is important to have the right information and data to inform our elected representatives, but it does a disservice to the very people who elected them to have this be a distraction from the pressing matters of the present. The reality is that our Legislature needs to actively pursue innovative ideas and policies that will increase the total size of our financial resources and not just pull from outdated funds or treasure hunt in far corners of the general fund balance sheets for resources to fund essential services of the government. It is not my place to wade into the politics of the CNMI Legislature, but for the good of our people, these interpersonal issues in the Legislature should be solved where they start—between the legislators. I have been called and testified many times in front of the Legislature, and I will continue to do so in the future. I am available to respond to formal requests if and when they are made. We are at a critical stage in our goal of economic recovery in the CNMI. It is critical that we continue to work together toward our common goals of finding new sources of revenue to enhance the existing revenue and serve the people of our Commonwealth.”