Whenever it is adopted, a fiscal year 2016 budget bill will arrive on Gov. Eloy S. Inos’ desk with 5-percent salary increase for law enforcement personnel and a budget cut worth $2.5 million from the Marianas Visitors Authority’s programs, as lawmakers broke a weeks-long impasse yesterday over the use of these MVA earmarks.
“We have come to a consensus to allow this budget process to go through,” said Sen. Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian), budget conference chairman, at the beginning of yesterday’s budget session.
That meeting was packed with over 50 personnel from the departments of Corrections and Public Safety. Law enforcement personnel filled the Senate chamber’s gallery and lined up seats in the Senate lobby room, forming a unified presence as lawmakers announced the results of the weekend’s negotiations.
“I think we set a record of conference committee attendance this morning,” remarked Rep. Antonio Sablan (Ind-Saipan), House budget chair.
Sablan said the question on everyone’s minds yesterday morning was if the 5-percent salary adjustments were in the compromise proposal that morning.
“The answer is yes,” Sablan said.
When it is adopted, the Senate and House representatives will present a budget to Inos that directs MVA to modify its budget programs to the tune of $2.5 million. These program cuts—from Inos-directed earmarks—will make up for the shortfall of funds left after Senate provisions move appropriated money to fund salary increases and adjustments, among other provisions.
Inos earlier called these proposed directives an “invasion” of MVA programs, but it’s wait-and-see if he will line-item veto these provisions in the final budget.
If Inos does, House representatives will still have gotten their way in protecting a Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. utility subsidy that the Senate first proposed to move to fund their provisions. The Senate had argued the utility money would be still there “bottom-line” after directing MVA earmarks to fund the shortfall.
But as the House maintained that this money could not be touched, the Senate and House presented yesterday a compromise proposal restoring the $2 million utility subsidy back into the general appropriations bill.
The compromise proposal, according to an Excel worksheet provided to reporters after the meeting, restores $2 million in CHC funds taken out in the Senate provisions and restores $75,759 in Northern Marianas Sports Association funds taken out by the Senate.
To make up for this $2 million, the worksheet identifies “over-allocations” that were trimmed or zeroed out from appropriations. These are:
– $286,000 from “various business units”;
– $89,385 for salary increases that lawmakers deemed unnecessary;
– $58,197 from the Department of Agriculture-Saipan;
– $477,969 for 20 new full time positions for DPS;
– $534,557 for street lights remaining in the budget;
– $444,437 in “over-allocation” to the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.; and
– $200,000 from the Saipan Mayor’s Office
But the compromise proposal directs MVA to fund $200,000 for the Saipan Mayor Office’s “tourist-related activities” to the tune of $200,000, essentially making up this budget cut.
In total, the MVA programs’ budget of $12 million from hotel tax earmarks would be deducted $200,000 for the Saipan mayor; $1.8 million for public streetlights; $200,000 Saipan airport x-ray machines; $225,000 for Saipan seaport x-ray machine; and $75,000 for seaport scanners.
It’s unclear right now how these cuts will affect MVA’s programs throughout fiscal year 2016, or if MVA will be forced to halt any of their events. The MVA promotes the CNMI’s only industry, tourism, through events like the Taste of Marianas.
When the budget conferees formally adopted the compromise “worksheet” and recessed their morning session, the crowd of law enforcement personnel applauded.
As this developed, Inos and Lt. Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres gave Cabinet members marching orders to prepare for a potential government shutdown some eight days away.
Press secretary Ivan Blanco said Inos informed his department heads to “define what positions are essential and what are not” in preparing for the shutdown.
Administration officials said yesterday that Inos has concerns about what the Legislature means by “law enforcement,” saying the government shutdown would be more imminent without these clarifications in administrative positions.
“I know that there seems to be some degree of controversy why some of the lawmakers [were pushing] for [the law enforcers’] pay raises now,” said DPS Commissioner James Deleon Guerrero after the budget session. “The reality of the situation is, that was not the highlight of our request, even though it was initially included. There are number of requests the department submitted. It is really a priority…of the Legislature after hearing our justifications that salary should be made their priority as opposed to the other things we were requesting.”
“We are nonetheless grateful. It is a step in the right direction. I think every law enforcement officer in the CNMI will feel a little better that they are getting” pay increases since 2001, he said.
“If you look at the salaries of police officers, and look at the employees of salaries in autonomous agencies or the degree of the disparity—I think it’s time we start looking, not just at law enforcement but other professionals out there and public servants that will require salary adjustments as we move forward.”