The Senate passed on its final reading during Saturday’s special session its version of the government’s budget bill for fiscal year 2021, allocating a total of $96.47 million, which the senators described as “creative, bold, untraditional, and very innovative,” even as Sen. Paul A. Manglona (Ind-Rota) walked out of the session even before the voting started when no one seconded his offer for floor amendments.
Seven senators voted for the passage of House Bill 21-124 in the form of Senate Draft 2, with Manglona and Sen. Francisco Borja (R-Tinian) absent. Borja was excused for medical reasons.
Under the Senate’s version, the proposed budget for the Judicial Branch is $4,849,331; for Legislative Branch $6,724,186; and executive $22,761,403. The proposed budget for Rota is $6,177,805, for Tinian and Aguiguan is $6,126,546; and for Saipan and Northern Islands Mayor offices and Saipan Municipal Council is $2,084,002.
Manglona argued that this bill relinquishes the Legislature’s power as the second branch of the government and gives Gov. Ralph DLG Torres 100% of the Legislature’s power of the purse.
“All we managed to do was make sure the Legislature did not get any funding reduction and ensured that no one can reprogram our legislative money while other government programs and public services were severely cut,” he said.
By passing this budget as is, they are effectively removing the checks and balances of the government, he said. “We may as well rename the legislative branch of the CNMI as the Department of Legislation under the Office of the Governor. In other words, let’s shut down this Legislature right now!” said Manglona as he then walked out of the chamber.
The first amendment that Manglona offered was meant to address the power situation of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. His second amendment was to authorize the Rota mayor to reprogram $250,000 from various accounts under the First Senatorial District (Rota) to interisland medical referral program on Saipan. The third amendment was for the Retirement Fund suspending Public Law 20-10, similar to the intent of H. B. 21-76 to give retirees the $15 million annual casino license fee.
His last amendment proposes that no later than 90 days after the enactment of the budget bill, the Development Plan Advisory Committee established under the Casino License Agreement between the Commonwealth Lottery Commission and Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC shall submit to the House speaker and the Senate president a report on the status of project, issues of concern, and compliance with schedules and license requirements.
The House adopted last week the Senate’s version of a House resolution that proposes $96.47 million in available revenue and resources for appropriation for government activities in fiscal year 2021. The Senate’s version is $13.81 million more than what the House had adopted, which was only $82.65 million.
Last July 1, Torres submitted a revised revenue projection in the amount of $144.41 million. Of this amount, the governor approved $82.65 million for government appropriation.
Last July 29, the House adopted House concurrent resolution 21-2 authored by House Ways and Means chair Rep. Ivan Blanco (R-Saipan). The resolution basically concurs with Torres’ revised budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 in the amount of $82.65 million.
During Saturday’s special session, Sen. Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian), who chairs the Fiscal Affairs Committee, which handled the budget bill, said that “extreme and dire situations call for creative, bold, and never before seen action.” That included identifying alternative revenue sources and tapping into accounts that has never been done before by the legislative body. Hofschneider said these were done under the guidance of Senate President Victor B. Hocog (R-Rota).
Hofscheider said he stands by the product that his committee worked tirelessly to ensure that essential employees remain at 80 hours as they continue to fight COVID-19; that other government employees maintain a work schedule of 64 hours; that the government has the flexibility to bring back furloughed employees once additional funding is available, among other things.
Under the Senate’s version, the governor shall have unlimited authority to reprogram funds for fiscal year 2021 within the Executive Branch, but not including the Legislature, the Judiciary, and autonomous agencies. There will be no salary increases within the Executive Branch without the governor’s approval.
Mondays will be designated as “austerity days” for the CNMI government. Due to the time difference between the CNMI and the U.S. mainland, the senators said it would be more conducive for government employees to work on Fridays instead of Mondays because the federal government is closed on Mondays in the CNMI.
The bill increased the House’s version of the Senate and House Leadership Accounts from $143,722 to $300,000.
The Office of the Attorney General may charge fees for legal services provided to CNMI public corporations, autonomous agencies, the Department of Public Lands, the Division of Revenue and Taxation, the Bureau of Coastal and Environmental Quality, and the Office of Management and Budget; provided that the OAG shall not charge fees for legal services provided to divisions, offices, and line agencies within the Executive Branch.
Of the $4,556,164 appropriated to the Department of Public Lands, $533,865 shall be used to complete the Kastiyu Agricultural Homestead development on Tinian, the Kagman Farm Plots on Saipan, the Dugi & Gampapa Agricultural Homestead developments on Rota, and other agricultural homestead developments in the Northern Islands, including surveying, designing and other expenses related to agricultural homestead developments, and $1 million shall be transferred to the Marianas Public Land Trust.
The Compact Impact Fund in the amount of $750,000 shall go solely to the Northern Marianas College.
Before asking the clerk to make the roll call for the vote, Senate President Victor B. Hocog thanked Hofschneider and his committee members, legal counsel, fiscal analyst Dave Demapan, and all the legislative staff.
“I just hope that our counterpart [in the CNMI House of Representatives] will realize the importance of the Senate work,” Hocog said.