Rep. Edwin K. Propst (D-Saipan) accused last week the Torres administration of lavish spending, including buying new cars for everybody at the Department of Public Safety in what he described as “too many that he can’t count all of them.”
House of Representatives vice speaker Rep. Blas Jonathan T. Attao (R-Saipan), on the other hand, last week also expressed confidence that the Legislature can eventually pass a balanced budget by the deadline because Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Sen. Victor B. Hocog (R-Rota) is a veteran in the budget process.
Torres has until Oct. 1, 2022 to enact a new budget bill into law or risk a potential shutdown of government operations during an election year.
Last Aug. 27, the House passed a 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 CNMI government operations in Fiscal Year 2023. Today, Friday, the Senate will hold a session on Tinian and the House budget version is included in the bill calendar.
At a press conference by the House majority members in the House chamber last Friday, Propst said the Torres administration is not implementing cost-cutting measures, but engaging in lavish spending of huge salary increases.
“We’re looking at the lavish spending, crazy money being spent. Salary increases, factual. The numbers don’t lie. Those documents don’t lie. Those are all real,” Propst said.
Torres earlier dared House majority members to name Cabinet members who received a salary increase.
Propst said everybody gets a new car.
“How many new cars does the DPS have? So many that we can’t even count them all,” the lawmaker said.
He said they hear time and time again the governor asking the Legislature to pass revenue-generating bills and that this is part of the lawmakers’ duty.
“Okay governor, give us an example of what you exactly would like a bill. Raise taxes?” Propst said.
He said it is absurd to put everything to the House to somehow come up with budget shortfalls.
“There is no funding for the retirees. So guess what? House members, Senate, you guys have to think of some way to come up with $15 million. Okay. Well how about we get [casino licensee] IPI [Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC] to pay what they owe? For starters,” the lawmaker said.
Propst is chairman of the House Gaming Committee.
He said they don’t want to pass bills raising fees to generate revenues as this is going to hurt the people.
“We try to ensure that our people who are barely surviving, get the help that they need right now. That’s what we’ve all been advocating for this whole time,” Propst said.
He said what’s so frustrating is seeing little few cents and dollars that the administration is throwing at the constituents such as Commonwealth Utilities Corp. $300 voucher.
“This is gonna take you to where? Until November? Until the election? Then what?” Propst asked.
The lawmaker said coming up with a revenue-generating bill is not so easy.
He said before they take a jump and try to go so quickly with some crazy legislation to generate revenues, the administration should show fiscal responsibility.
“Let’s see fiscal conservatism. Let’s see leaders saying you know what, we’re spending too much. I’m not going to get a salary increase because it’s not fair to everyone else who is not getting it,” he said.
Propst noted that everyone in the private sector has never received one single penny on premium pay.
He said he gets frustrated when he hears this time and time again from the governor, telling lawmakers to come up with revenue generating bills.
Propst said as Torres, being the executive, the chief executive officer, the chief in charge, leads the CNMI.
“What is your vision? Don’t throw everything at the House. That’s unfair, that’s wrong,” said Propst, adding that Torres misleads the public into thinking that lawmakers’ whole job is to generate revenue.
Attao at the same press conference said the media were at the Legislature during the last budget process of the 21st Legislature, and witnessed how they worked and finished the budget bill within less than 15 hours.
Attao said both houses passed the budget at about 11:59pm. and the administration signed the budget bill at about 4am or 5am just to meet the deadline of opening of the business hours of Oct. 1.
“So I think we’re able to do that,” he said.
The vice speaker said by looking at this Fiscal Year 2023 budget, there is only a $33 million difference between what the administration is saying and what the House’s version is.
“It’s just removing the $33 million from the local side and distributing it out for operations for all the entities within the government outside of the Executive Branch,” Attao said.
He said the House addressed the $20-million shortfall for Medicaid and took care of the $13 million plus for the government retirees’ 25% pension benefits.
Attao said essentially what the administration is arguing is that the Legislature has no authority over ARPA funding.
“If there’s only an argument that they would want here is 100% reprogramming authority,” he said.
The vice speaker said Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chair Sen. Hocog is a veteran in this game and understands the budget process.
Attao said Hocog and other senators are very well aware of the government’s financial situation.
“So 24 hours [to pass the budget bill], I believe we can address the 24 hours. Like I said, there’s only a difference of $33 million and 100% reprogramming authority,” he added.