Off-island travel for government officials and employees will be restricted this fiscal year, not only due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also because of the CNMI’s smaller budget, according to Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig.
Speaking at last Friday’s radio news briefing, Atalig said off-island travel will be restricted this fiscal year and will be limited only to those travels that are deemed necessary and required by a federal agency or someone for that department to attend.
“But, as we all know with this COVID-19 situation, a lot of conferences and a lot of meetings are being done via Zoom,” he said. “And I believe that will continue into the new fiscal year so we will minimize travel.”
For himself, Atalig said he does not have any official travel plans. He has just returned from the U.S. mainland but he clarified that this was a personal trip as he had to take care of some personal business. Atalig came back last Thursday and went through the whole protocol of the COVID-19 testing. That day, Friday, he was onhis second day of quarantine.
“So I just want to also kind of give a shoutout to all the wonderful staff we have at the airport, and all the front-liners. I experienced it firsthand how well they are treating our incoming arrival passengers and operating very professionally, including at the quarantine sites. I just wanted to give that shoutout to our front-liners. Great job!” Atalig said.
Last August, the Office of the Public Auditor’s audit of the government’s travel policy found out that a uniform government travel policy by regulation has not been adopted to date and that travel policies and practices differ throughout the CNMI government, and that statutory restrictions on first and business class airfare have been violated.
Public Auditor Michael Pai recommended to the Legislature to review current travel laws and address any conflicts over official government travel.
Pai recommended to Finance to adopt a uniform travel policy by regulation and restrict the purchase of first class, business class, or any other premium class tickets, and provide training and guidance on per diem calculation.
The public auditor said the implementation of these recommendations will address the report’s findings to comply with the law.
In September 2017, the Legislature passed Public Law 15-86 mandating a uniform government travel policy made applicable to all branches, departments, divisions, agencies, and autonomous agencies. Yet the OPA audit found out that Finance has failed to do this.
Atalig agreed with OPA’s findings and stated that Finance is working diligently to adopt a uniform policy by Oct. 1, 2020.
Finance has also notified the Travel Section employees and department heads regarding the current restrictions on the purchase of first class travel.
Another OPA report—the CNMI Report on the Audit of Financial Statements for fiscal years 2015 and 2018—states that travel expenditures increased by about 27% for autonomous agencies and about 152% for the CNMI Executive Branch.
In fiscal year 2018, the report saids, the overall total travel expense for the CNMI reached $17.2 million, a 93% increase from the overall total in fiscal year 2015.