Despite the conflicting opinions of the lawyers of the Senate and House of Representatives, the Senate passed yesterday a bill that would set a new salary for members of the Legislature.
This was the second time that they passed a legislation on the lawmakers’ compensation after also acting on a similar measure, House Bill 20-194, in November last year.
All seven Senate members present—Senate President Arnold I. Palacios (R-Saipan), Senate vice president Steve K. Mesngon (R-Rota), floor leader Francisco M. Borja (R-Tinian), legislative secretary Justo S. Quitugua (Ind-Saipan), and Sen. Francisco Q. Cruz (R-Tinian), Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian), and Sixto K. Igisomar (R-Saipan)—voted yes.
Palacios and Quitugua later said in jest that they hope the bill won’t return to the Legislature again. If it does, Palacios said he is giving up on the matter; Quitugua said he would not support another legislation on the salary bill.
Rep. Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) again introduced the salary legislation, House 20-195, and it will once more go to the desk of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres for signing.
H.B. 20-195 sets the annual salary of incoming members of the 21st CNMI Legislature at $32,000.
Torres needs to act on the bill before the Jan. 14 inauguration. Otherwise, the salary of lawmakers would go down to $8,000, based on the ruling of the CNMI Supreme Court that Public Law 19-83 was unconstitutional. P.L. 19-83 raised the salaries of legislators to $70,000, an 80-percent increase.
The Supreme Court, in September last year, stated in Manibusan v. Larson that P.L. 19-83 and the two previous salary increases—P.L. 4-32 and P.L. 7-31—violate Article II Section X of the CNMI Constitution.
Deleon Guerrero introduced H.B. 20-194 that both legislative bodies passed last year, but then-acting governor Victor B. Hocog vetoed it as he believes the $39,300 recommendation made by the Advisory Commission on Compensation of Commonwealth Executive, Legislative, and Judicial officers did not follow the Supreme Court’s proposal.
Quitugua asked during deliberations yesterday if his vote on the bill constitutes a conflict of interest since he would return as a member of the 21st Legislature.
If that were the case, then no CNMI budget would be passed, Hofschneider said. “Every year we vote on a CNMI budget and if the Constitution would be our basis, does that make us in conflict since we are voting for our salaries too that’s also established in the bill?”
Senate legal counsel Josde Bermudes sided with Hofschneider. “If we follow Sen. Hofschneider’s argument on the bills that have an effect on the financial interest of the legislators and fiscal budget that includes salaries of [legislators], then everybody is conflicted. We can’t pass the budget.”
He, however, had a different opinion when it comes to the three-fourth vote needed when the House passed the bill in their last session on Dec. 10. Only seven of the 17 House members present voted after the other 10 recused themselves due to conflict of interest since they would be returning to the 21st Legislature.
The 10 returning members of the House recused themselves at the recommendation of House legal counsel John Cool. Vice speaker Janet U. Maratita (R-Saipan), and Reps. Alice S. Igitol and Donald C. Barcinas were absent.
House Speaker Rafael S. Demapan (R-Saipan), floor leader Glenn L. Maratita (R-Rota), and Reps. Francisco C. Aguon (R-Saipan), Edwin P. Aldan (R-Tinian), Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan), Angel A. Demapan (R-Saipan), and Gregorio M. Sablan Jr. (R-Saipan) were the only ones allowed to vote.
Minority leader Edmund S. Villagomez (Ind-Saipan) along with Reps. Blas Jonathan Attao (Ind-Saipan), Ivan A. Blanco (R-Saipan), Francisco S. Dela Cruz (R-Saipan), Lorenzo I. Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), Joseph Leepan T. Guerrero (R-Saipan), Jose I. Itibus (R-Saipan), Edwin K. Propst (Ind-Saipan), John Paul P. Sablan (R-Saipan), Vinnie Vinson F. Sablan (Ind-Saipan) recused themselves in the voting.
CNMI Attorney General Edward Manibusan, in a letter to Hofschneider, said the bill is legally sufficient “because it ostensibly satisfied the three-pronged test in Manibusan v. Larson 2018.”
Manibusan said the proposed salary in H.B. 20-195 is based on the consumer price index that was published by the U.S. Department of Commerce and it is within the percentage change of the accepted CPI from January 1978 to September 2018, the most recent CPI referred to by the commission. The $32,000 proposed salary also does not exceed the commission’s recommendation.