House Ways and Means chairman stands by budget work of committee
Saying that he stands by the work that the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee did with respect to the House’s budget version of the government’s operations for Fiscal Year 2023, Rep. Donald M. Manglona (Ind-Rota) also appealed Friday to Gov. Ralph DLG Torres to respect the budget process in the Legislature.
At a press conference in the House chamber, Manglona, who authored the budget bill, said they are ready to address any concerns that the Senate may have in regards to the work that the committee did and the reasons behind their decisions.
“The budget is not complete. The Legislature has not passed a balanced budget. I ask that the governor respect the budget process in the Legislature,” the chairman said.
Last Aug. 7, 16 House members present at a session unanimously passed the House’s budget bill to appropriate $109.7 million out of $150.4 million in total budgetary resources, and $52.6 million from the American Rescue Plan Act funds, for the CNMI government operations in fiscal year 2023.
Torres recently slammed the House majority leadership over the budget bill that he described as “irresponsible, negligent, and illegal,” by first reducing the funding for the departments and agencies, yet giving themselves an additional $1.2 million of House allocations.
Manglona said Friday that Torres had three months since the initial budget submission to address the issues that are being brought up today.
“That was not done. And so we took upon ourselves to make those tough decisions,” Manglona said.
He said they are respecting the process and that as the Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee is now undertaking the budget, they stand ready with them in getting a balanced budget passed before the deadline.
Torres has until Oct. 1 to enact a new budget bill into law or risk a potential shutdown of government operations during an election year.
Manglona said they are making a responsible approach in making sure that the next legislature, as well as the next administration whoever that will be, works with the budget that is transparent, responsible and takes into account the preparation for the fiscal cliff and that when ARPA money will run out.
Rep. Richard T. Lizama (D-Saipan) said he is a retired Army veteran, and that Rep. Vicente Camacho (D-Saipan) is also a veteran, while Rep. Celina R. Babauta’s (D-Saipan) husband is a veteran too.
“We are here to defend the veterans,” Lizama said.
He said Torres’ proposal was $286,838 for the veterans and the House passed $297,000.
“Do you know how to do the math?” Lizama said.
Rep. Denita K. Yangetmai (D-Saipan) said for the Carolinian Affairs Office, the governor stated that the House removed $94,000.
Yangetmai said the actuality is that Torres’ proposal was $162,731 and the House proposed$168,104, or an increase of $5,373.
She said for the Indigenous Affairs Office, Torres actually slashed the Indigenous Affairs Budget from $310,001 to $151,367.
“That’s almost half of their budget,” she said.
Floor leader Rep. Ralph N. Yumul (R-Saipan) said with regards to the vacant unfilled position, the House took upon themselves as with any previous Ways and Means Committee.
Yumul said it is not uncommon for a House to zero any vacant, unfilled position and reallocate to various agencies.
“Now if we were to miss a position that any agencies need, the proper way is to go to the Senate and ask for the position and then the House will sit down with the conference committee,” he said.
“So it is not uncommon for the House to move those positions and reallocate into different agencies,” the floor leader said.
Yumul said it’s always been his position as a member of Ways and Means Committee to reduce positions as much as possible to try to conserve and address the agencies’ requests.
Rep. Sheila J. Babauta (D-Saipan) said she just wanted to reiterate and emphasize that the budget process is long and it has taken this committee months to hold hearings, meet with agencies and departments, receive the revised budget, and deliberate, and so forth.
“So it would be inappropriate and irresponsible to share only certain parts of the budget. And that’s what’s happening very publicly,” Babauta said.
She said the pieces that this administration or the governor chooses to share, has really caused a lot of division, has caused the community to be very emotional and upset about the budget with just pieces of information.
“The community needs to understand and see the entire picture of the budget,” Babauta said.
She said for example, the governor did not choose to share that in his budget proposal, he wanted to increase the salaries for Cabinet members and for appointed officials for the second time.
She said that’s something that the House did remove from the budget and it was over $880,000.
Babauta said that kind of information is really crucial to identify the kind of leadership that the CNMI is under.
Rep. Celina Babauta said she wanted to talk about the governor’s untruthfulness on saying how the House gave themselves $1.2 million.
Babauta said unlike the Executive Branch, the Legislature and the Judiciary do not have access to ARPA funds even though data backed by the National Conference of State Legislatures prove that the legislature can allocate ARPA funds.
Babauta said it is apparent that the governor either did not read the budget and he simply relies on what he is being told.
She said that the current budget law, Public Law 22-08, allocates a little over $9 million for the entire Legislature.
Babauta said they actually took a $345,000 cut in this upcoming fiscal year 2023.
Under House Bill 22-116 (budget bill), she said, they reduced every single member of the Legislature, including the Senate, their office allocations by $5,000 and other cuts were made as well to the Legislature.
Babauta said the governor in his FY 2023 proposal did not allocate ARPA funds for the Legislature, so all is coming from the local revenues.
She said they were trying to match their current level for this upcoming fiscal year, but they knew they needed to make sacrifices at the Legislature.
“So we did. We were responsible and we took a $5,000 cut and we all agreed to that, including the minority members,” she said.