The Board of Education has given Education Commissioner Glenn Muña the authority to work with the CNMI Legislature on a bill that would mandate the Executive branch to stick to the constitutionally mandated minimum annual appropriation for the Public School System.
In an emergency meeting last Tuesday, the BOE approved board member Phillip Mendiola-Long’s recommendation to direct Muña to work with the Legislature in drafting legislation that will require the Finance secretary to transfer 25 percent of all “general revenue” into a BOE account and require that such funds be transferred every 30 days or, in a declared emergency, every biweekly payday.
“The issue is to ensure that we have a good idea of what the 25 percent is and to require the secretary of Finance to immediately impound 25 percent of the funds so that we have a daily tracking of what that account balance is,” Mendiola-Long said, explaining the rationale behind his motion.
The 25 percent he is referring to is the constitutionally-mandated appropriation for PSS that it should get at least 25 percent of the CNMI’s “general revenue.”
A certified question has already been submitted to the CNMI Supreme Court to clarify whether “general revenue” refers to all government revenue before setting aside annual earmarks.
Mendiola-Long noted that he proposed this motion to give Muña the flexibility to adjust based on the funds available in the new PSS account, as well as require the drawdown within two weeks.
“…At this point we are not protected by law and we are also not protected because of the vagueness in which the [CNMI] Constitution dictates when we receive those funds,” he said. “Because we aren’t the only kid on the block asking for money at this point, I want to ask the Legislature to protect the education system by crafting legislation.”
The BOE lawyer opined that the legislation, as Mendiola-Long wants it worded, is “hard to draft in a way that would work” because it tracks the language of the CNMI Constitution, which is unclear. However, by having the Legislature ultimately decide to identify from what pool of money PSS gets the 25 percent—whether before or after annual earmarks—it could also give the Legislature leeway to appropriate funding for specific PSS programs.
“…At this point, I would much rather put [the Legislature] on notice of what we need and tell us what they can afford,” he added.
The motion ultimately obtained unanimous support. The legislation has yet to be written as the BOE adjourned Tuesday afternoon.
“I don’t mean to pass the buck to the Legislature. I am just trying to put the roles and responsibilities where it belongs,” Mendiola-Long said, adding that the BOE does not have the power of the purse to appropriate money. “If I had the power to do it, I would have no problem doing it… If this board is asked to do something difficult, we do it. At this point, I am saying we have no more tools.”
On the chance that the Legislature refuses to act on the bill or fill it with amendments, Mendiola-Long noted that it would be the Legislature that would be accountable to the public.
“Our hands are tied and we are pushed against the wall. What are we going to do?” added BOE Saipan representative Andrew Orsini during discussions. “…I wish we could control [funds] but that is beyond our authority.”
“I agree with Orsini. We need to make it more convincing. We have to have more findings in [the bill],” BOE Saipan representative Marylou Ada said. “[We need more findings] to allow the Legislature to remit and separate funds.”