Rep. Celina Babauta calls Senate a rubber stamp
Lawmaker says House does due diligence
Saying that members of the House of Representatives do their due diligence, Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan) called Friday the Senate as a rubber stamp of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres.
Speaking at a press conference in the House chamber, Babauta said for Torres to contend that the Legislature does not have any authority over American Rescue Plan Act funds, is simply untrue.
She said they tried to do it with House Bill 22-33 offered by Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Donald M. Manglona (Ind-Rota), but it has been sitting in the Senate since last year because senators refused to act on it.
Manglona’s legislation seeks to require legislative oversight over approximately $515 million in ARPA that would be allocated for the CNMI for government operations.
“And my message today is we are not the Senate. We do not rubber stamp anything the governor says. We do our due diligence,” Babauta said.
Babauta is running for a Senate seat under the NMI Democratic Party in the Nov. 8 general elections. She chairs the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee.
Senate President Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian) refused to comment yesterday about Babauta’s statements.
Torres recently slammed the House majority leadership during a KKMP radio press briefing over their version of the Fiscal Year 2023 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.
Gilbert Birnbrich, the legal counsel for the Office of the Governor, at the same press briefing said the biggest issue from a legal standpoint in the House’s version of the budget bill is the fact that the House was trying to appropriate the ARPA funds for various uses, which he believes is simply inappropriate and illegal.
Department of Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig, who also joined the press briefing, said the House version of the budget bill has the biggest red flags across the board.
In the House majority’s press conference Friday to address the concerns raised by Torres, Birnbrich, and Atalig, Babauta said data backed by the Conference of State Legislatures, in a survey conducted last year, found that eight states have executive decision rights over ARPA allocations, six states have total legislative authority over ARPA funds, and 34 states have joint legislative authority.
As to the $20 million in ARPA funds that was returned from Medicaid, Babauta said what Torres did was allocate ARPA funds to Medicaid for the $20 million in local matching.
“The U.S. Treasury said you can’t do that, you can’t use federal funds to pay for your debts. And that is why the $20 million is being returned,” she said.
Babauta said $20 million was identified this current fiscal year by the governor so that money is in place for the House to allocate.
“He simply wants whatever he wants with and says no, you can’t touch that,” she said, referring to Torres.
Babauta said if there was a genuine understanding of the statute, anything identified by the governor as a resource is fair play for the Legislature and the House to allocate.
With respect to government retirees, Babauta said the governor says that retirees are his priority. She noted, however, that in his budget submission for the next fiscal year, Torres did not identify any funds for them.
“We were left to make those serious decisions on who to cut and who to take money away from in order to make the retirees whole. We committed to it. We don’t just say, we do it,” Babauta pointed out.
At last week’s review hearing in federal court, NMI Settlement Fund Trustee Joyce C. H. Tang and U.S. District Court for the NMI designated Judge Frances M. Tydingco-Gatewood commended Torres and his administration for diligently making payments to the Settlement Fund and prioritizing the retirees despite the economic hardships caused by super typhoons Soudelor and Yutu, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Tang also thanked the Legislature for their commitment to the retirees and funding the Settlement Fund.