Rep. Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan) wants the Legislature to have a clearer picture of the financial state of the CNMI government. To that end, she wishes the Torres administration would give out more concrete information about the CNMI’s fiscal state.
She also has a list of questions that she has for the administration once the House Ways and Means Committee, of which she is a member, begins going over the administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020.
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres has identified $233.22 million in gross budgetary resources that the government expects to collect next fiscal year—a 9.7- percent drop from the $258.14 million budget last fiscal year.
“We’re looking to start the budget hearings in May. Committee chair Blanco has asked the members to closely study the budget proposal, and start documenting and taking notes. I’m listing some of the questions that I have for the administration. So, we’re ready as soon as the hearing starts,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune in an interview. Blanco refers to committee chair Rep. Ivan A. Blanco (R-Saipan).
Sablan is one of the minority members of the committee, which helps shape the CNMI government’s budget every fiscal year.
Two highly destructive storms—Typhoon Mangkhut and Super Typhoon Yutu—hit the CNMI in a one-month span last year, gravely affecting economic activity on the islands, especially on Saipan where tourism was at a standstill for almost two months.
Sablan said Blanco had asked committee members to go over the budget plan with a fine-toothed comb.
She said the Finance Department has yet to update the committee on the financial state of affairs of the government in general. “Specifically, for the special casino gross revenue tax account. That’s one of the questions that the committee submitted to Finance over a month ago. As of Friday, we had not received any update on the current status of that account.”
Sablan used House Bill 21-37, which would re-appropriate $1.2 million from Public Law 20-62 Section 2(c)(2) to fund the salaries of municipal employees on Tinian, as an example. “Last year, the money was available and appropriated for a Tinian road project. But a lot of things had happened since then. We know money has been moving around between accounts, so I wanted to see some verification in writing that those funds are still there for Tinian’s proposal.”
“To me, it wasn’t reassuring that all we have are verbal assurances that it is there. It should be there because Tinian has not touched the money yet for the road project. We know that, even in the Legislature, funds had disappeared from our own accounts. So, I think we need some timely, accurate, and truthful reports from Finance on the state of our financial affairs.”
She added that the Legislature needs concrete proof to back up the government’s optimism that the local economy would rebound. “I have to say that there are members, like myself, that have questions about that optimism. That collections will improve in the remainder of this fiscal year. But if you talk to members of the business community, particularly in the tourism industry, they don’t express that same kind of optimism.”
“I think that, if we’re looking at bigger cuts and looking at a bigger shortfall, we need some of that information as soon as possible. We need the administration to be honest about that. If there’s real basis for the optimism they express, we need to see a much clearer justification and the real plan for how we will operate the government for the next six months. What does this mean for the next [fiscal year 2020] budget?
The problem with the Legislature not getting timely and accurate information has always been a problem, Sablan said.
“That’s the perennial frustration of the Legislature. …This is an ongoing frustration dating back many years. Our lack of access to timely and accurate information about our government’s finances makes it really difficult for us [lawmakers] to do our job.”
“We’re supposed to be controlling the government’s purse. But how can we do that if we don’t have any information about what’s actually in that purse? We hope Finance answered all of our questions that Rep. Ralph Yumul, in his capacity as acting Ways and Means chair, sent. And I’m looking forward to seeing it.”