Senate President Victor Hocog (R-Rota) said it perfectly when he told the media that “greed” caused the budget impasse between the Senate and the House of Representatives, although he’s pointing in the wrong direction.

The two chambers eventually reached a compromise, professing that dealing with a problematic budget—one wherein lawmakers shamelessly gave themselves more money while earmarks for the CNMI’s prime industry of tourism was, essentially, reduced by $2.5 million—is much better than having a partial government shutdown.

The 5-percent salary increase for law enforcement officers is perfect cover for a Senate-hatched increase in legislative leadership account, additional funding and hiring on Rota and Tinian, and salary increases for other government personnel.

Each senator alone gets to spend whichever way they want nearly $150,000 in one year. That includes the (thankfully) constitutionally capped $39,300 in annual salary for each lawmaker, $33,000 in leadership fund assuming that each of the nine senators equally benefits from the padded $300,000 leadership account for each chamber, and $74,822 in discretionary fund for each lawmaker (which is used to hire their own personnel or buy office equipment).

This is the same Senate under Hocog’s leadership that erroneously passed their own budget bill version even before adopting a resolution concurring with the governor’s spending cap of $145 million for fiscal year 2016, and one that proposes a constitutional change so that revenue-generating bills can also originate from the Senate.

The Senate seemed to have played well the House of Representatives—and the public—on the 2016 budget bill. Kudos to Reps. Edmund Villagomez (Ind-Saipan) and Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan) for not blindly accepting the budget bill that was eventually sent to Gov. Eloy S. Inos, who turned 66 on Sept. 26. While other members expressed apprehension about the budget bill, they voted “yes” anyway, to help prevent a shutdown.

Here’s to hoping that the governor would at least line-item veto parts of the budget bill that are deemed unconstitutional, problematic, unjustified or reeking of “greed.”

The governor may also suggest, in his transmittal letter, separate legislation that could address problematic parts of the budget bill, including standalone bills for salary increases of law enforcement officers and the purchase of x-ray machines for the Customs Services Division as well as the salary raises for other government personnel.

After all, it’s time that the current Legislature pass revenue generation and cost-reduction bills and other sensible measures.

In the first nine months of the year, the 19th House and Senate managed to pass only seven bills that merited the governor’s signature. Other good bills are gathering dust in committees. Of the seven that became law, five originated from the nine-member Senate and two from the 20-member House. The first one was about setting the time for the Legislature’s organizational sessions, followed by naming Saipan as the CNMI’s official capital.

This Legislature amended the price freeze law to further deter price gouging in times of disasters and later amended the excise tax law to exempt generators and household appliances from excise tax for the duration of disaster declaration. Both were passed and signed into law in the wake of Typhoon Soudelor’s devastation.

The fifth one makes it unlawful for anyone under the influence of alcohol to operate a vessel on CNMI waters, while the sixth one amends insurance law for motorist coverage. And lastly, a law now mandates the election of a public school teacher representative as a non-voting teacher representative on the Board of Education.

As the governor’s office stated this weekend, the governor “did encourage the Legislature to continue on track to work on revenue generating bills.”

There are also sensible bills that have already been introduced but yet to pass the House and Senate, including criminalizing the resale of items originally bought from the troops store, clarifying the Marianas Visitors Authority’s licensing process and providing the Department of Finance the authority to revoke the business license of any person or business that fails to comply with tour guide and tour operator licensing laws, using lapsed funds to partially pay the hospital’s utility debts, and allowing Customs to retain the fines it collected from ports of entry so it can buy its x-ray machines, train its people and cover its other operational and personnel costs, among others.

But then again, there are pending bills in both the House and Senate that shouldn’t see the light of day. In a way, having seven laws in nine months—out of 161 introduced so far—may be a blessing in disguise.

By HAIDEE V. EUGENIO, Special to the Saipan Tribune

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