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PSS, Ada sue Torres, Finance chief

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The Public School System and Education Commissioner Dr. Alfred Ada are suing Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres and Finance Secretary David Atalig in a move that seeks to guarantee for PSS an annual budget of not less than 25% of the Commonwealth’s general revenue.

In their lawsuit last Thursday before the Superior Court, Ada and PSS, through counsel Tiberius Mocanu, are suing Torres and Atalig for violation of the NMI Constitution.

Associate Judge Teresa Kim-Tenorio recused herself from handling the case last Friday, saying she is close family friends with the teacher representative on the Board of Education. Presiding Judge Roberto C. Naraja has yet to reassign the case to another judge.

Mocanu said that Article 15 section 1(e) of the NMI Constitution provides that “the PSS shall be guaranteed an annual budget of not less than 15% of the general revenues of the Commonwealth through an annual appropriation.”

Mocanu said Article 15 Section 1(e) was further amended by House Legislative Initiative 18-12, and ratified by the voters of the CNMI, to increase PSS’ guaranteed funding to 25% of the “general revenues” of the Commonwealth.

The lawyer said Public Law 21-08, which set the Commonwealth government budget for fiscal year 2020, appropriated $37,718,904 to PSS, which he said is only about 16% of the budget. Mocanu did not specify the amount that PSS believes it should should receive.

Mocanu said Torres is in violation of the NMI Constitution because he is carrying out payments and collections under P.L. 21-08. Atalig, meanwhile, is in violation of the NMI Constitution because every allotment and disbursement made pursuant to P.L. 21-08 is unconstitutional, Mocanu said.

PSS and Ada asked the court to declare P.L. 21-08 to be unconstitutional. Both asked the court to issue a preliminary and permanent injunction to stop Torres and Atalig from issuing any payments or disbursements that do not comply with the Constitution.

Mocanu said that P.L. 21-08 identified total budgetary resources of $233.22 million. After several allocations for earmarks, P.L. 21-08 provided $148.89 million as available for appropriation. He said the subtotal of $84,331,519, which is the total revenue diverted as earmarks, is excluded from the money available for appropriation to other entities such as PSS.

Yet last Jan. 14, the CNMI Supreme Court issued its opinion in a certified question petition in which it defined the terms “general revenue” and “special revenue.”

Mocanu said the Supreme Court’s ruling, which became controlling law in the NMI when it was issued, controls this current year’s budget, P.L. 21-08.

On Feb. 7, 2020, Mocanu said, Torres sent a special message to the Legislature, revising the projected revenues for fiscal year 2020 and mandating a 28.3% cut in allotments to all agencies and branches of the government. The Legislature did not modify the governor’s uniform and proportional reduction in allotments.

Mocanu said Atalig is currently making allotments to all agencies based on the governor’s revised budget. He said the governor’s proposed reduction consists of a proportional reduction of the amount appropriated under P.L. 21-08 to each agency.

Consequently, the lawyer said, under the governor’s proposed budget revision, PSS will receive 28.3% less than was appropriated under P.L. 21-08.

However, he said, Torres’ calculation of PSS’ budget does not adhere to the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the definition of general and special revenues.

Instead, he said, the reduction maintains the allocations under P.L. 21-08 which only appropriated PSS 16% of the general revenue of the Commonwealth.

Mocanu said the House of Representatives took no action and allowed Torres’ proposed cuts to go into effect without modification.

He said since the implementation of the governor’s reduction of projected revenue and accompanying cuts, Atalig has made allotments and payments to PSS that violate the Constitution.

These reduced payments, he said, do not comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding what constitutes general and special revenue.

Consequently, the lawyer pointed, PSS has not received, and will not receive its constitutionally guaranteed share of the general revenues if Atalig is permitted to continue to make payments as prescribed under the revised budget for fiscal year 2020.

Thus, Mocanu said, P.L. 21-08 as modified by the governor is unconstitutional and payments made pursuant to it are unconstitutional as well.

“PSS is entitled to 25% of all general revenue,” he pointed out.

PSS, he said, did not receive its 25% share of the revenue contained in the earmarks in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020.

Mocanu said pursuant to Torres’ special message and accompanying budget reduction, PSS’ budget will be reduced by 28.3%.

Thus, if allowed, the lawyer said, PSS will receive a 28.3% reduction from an already invalid budget that failed to include the revenue.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com

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