With just four days to go before the 21st Legislature is installed on Monday, the 20th Legislature is scrambling to pass a measure that would establish of salary level for its members. If not, that would lower the lawmakers’ salaries to just $8,000 per annum.
This came about after Gov. Ralph DLG Torres vetoed House Bill 20-195 last Tuesday. If that bill had been enacted, that would have raised the salaries of lawmakers in the 21st Legislature to $32,000.
The salary measure has gone back and forth from the Legislature to the Executive branch in a span of close to two months, soon after the CNMI Supreme Court ruled that Public Law 19-83, which would have set the compensation of lawmakers at $70,000, was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court also ruled that previous salary laws—P.L. 4-32 and P.L. 7-31—were unconstitutional.
The CNMI Superior Court, in September last year, ordered the 20th Legislature to address the issue before the inauguration of the 21st Legislature on Jan. 14 or else the salary of all incoming members will go down to $8,000.
Rep. Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) then introduced H.B. 20-194, setting the salary at $39,300 (which lawmakers were already getting), but then-acting governor Victor Hocog vetoed this last Dec. 31 after the CNMI Office of the Attorney General advised that the Advisory Commission developed its own composite price index, thus going against the CNMI Constitution, which states that they need to choose and use an accepted CPI.
Deleon Guerrero re-introduced the same legislation—H.B. 20-195—but this time settled for a $32,000 amount that was also included in the Advisory Commission’s recommendation, which went as high as $47,555.47 per annum based on the locally accepted CPI. The House and Senate both passed the bill despite two conflicting legal opinions by their in-house counsels.
The House, when they acted on H.B. 20-195 in their session last December, passed the bill with only seven of the 17 members present as 10 recused themselves since they are returning in the 21st Legislature, based on the advice of House legal counsel John Cool, who cited Article II, Section 15 of the CNMI Constitution: Current members of the legislature that has financial or personal interest in a bill may not debate or vote on the legislation.
When the Senate acted on the same bill last week, Senate legal counsel Jose Bermudes said there was also a provision in the CNMI Constitution that a three-fourth vote is needed in a lame duck Legislature. A three-fourth vote in the Senate means seven members must agree to pass the legislation in order to meet the threshold.
And that required number of votes was the reason that Torres cited when he vetoed H.B. 20-195.
“While I commend the Legislature for taking the necessary steps to adhere to the three-prong test requirement held by the Supreme Court in Manibusan v. Larson, the [AG] has informed me that H.B. 20-195 has failed to pass the House with the supermajority of votes mandated for the passage of a bill affecting spending authority,” said Torres in his letter to House Speaker Rafael S. Demapan (R-Saipan) and Senate President Arnold I. Palacios (R-Saipan).
“Because H.B. 20-195 did not succeed in attaining the required [number] of votes in the House for approval, the bill is legally insufficient. Accordingly, I must respectfully exercise my constitutional authority to veto this bill and recommend that the Legislature re-introduce this legislation after it has garnered the appropriate number of votes required.”
Torres cited Article II Section 7 (d) of the CNMI Constitution, which states that any legislation that would affect the spending authority or financial management of the government enacted between the election and the second Monday of January of the succeeding year must garner a three-fourth vote from the members of the House and Senate.
Rep. Rafael Demapan (R-Saipan) then introduced yesterday H.B. 20-197 with the same intent on what Deleon Guerrero authored the last time. He called for an emergency session at 10am today in order for the House to act on the bill and transmit it to the Senate, which is set to hold its sine die session tomorrow.
“I had to re-introduce it in order to address the issue and to ensure that the 21st Legislature would get the $32,000 compensation,” said Demapan.
Palacios, in an interview with the Saipan Tribune, said that he was not surprised by the decision of Torres to use his veto powers. “We can see that this would happen. That’s why we, at the Senate, insisted to have seven votes as per the advice of our legal counsel.”
“If there were no three-fourth votes, the bill will be dead. The House insisted that there would be conflict of interest but we have different opinions. We’ll see what happens to their [House] session. We can also discuss it during our sine die once the bill gets transmitted to us at the Senate.”