Gov. Ralph DLG Torres signed two House bills last week, one that would authorize the CNMI government to enter into a loan agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program.
Rep. Antonio P. Sablan (Ind-Saipan) introduced HB 19-126, which is now Public Law 19-67, while Senate vice president Arnold I. Palacios (R-Saipan) authored Senate Bill 19-107 that would establish designated fire lanes in the CNMI.
PL 19-67 authorizes the CNMI government to loan from the USDA a sum that would not exceed $15 million, to pay off about $4.5 million on the Guma Hustisia mortgage with the Retirement Settlement Fund. The loan has already matured but they have not yet fully paid the amount.
The CNMI government, under the current terms of the mortgage, should pay $120,000 per month. The Judiciary collects court fees and fines amounting from $50,000 to $60,000 a month, which partially pays their debt to the Settlement Fund.
“In order to account for the difference between the amount due and the Judiciary’s collections, however, the mortgage provides that any shortfall be paid from the General Fund, which places a significant burden on the Commonwealth’s limited resources,” according to PL 19-67.
Torres said the money would be divided among the Judiciary, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Office of the Public Defender.
“The loan agreement with the USDA would help in the repayment of the Settlement Fund. It would also provide the necessary funding for the renovation of the courts with the portion also going to the AG and the Public Defender,” said Torres.
“It is important that all agencies under the Judiciary will have their facilities renovated. We’ll meet the needs of the departments as we grow and alleviate the pending settlement of $4.5 million. It would write that off from settlement fund as liability,” Torres added.
Chief Justice Alexandro Castro said the USDA money would be used by CNMI courts not just to pay off the Settlement Fund. “We’re also going to renovate the courthouses on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.”
“This is only the second time that all three branches of government have been together. The first one was during the signing of the drug court bill [PL 19-14]. We may agree to disagree, but if we work together we can accomplish a lot,” added Castro.
Speaker Rafael S. Demapan (R-Saipan) said the House has been the Judiciary’s top ally. “On behalf of the House of Representatives, thank you, governor, for expediting this bill introduced by Rep. Tony Sablan. I would like to say to the chief justice that the House is your friend in the Legislature.”
Senate floor leader Steve K. Mesngon (R-Rota) lauded Associate Judge Theresa Kim-Tenorio’s presentation to the USDA members when they were trying to find available funds. “On behalf of the [Senate] President and all the members, the Legislature supports the chief justice’s plans.”
Kim-Tenorio, associate justices John Manglona and Perry Inos, Presiding Judge Robert A. Naraja, Attorney General Edward Manibusan, CNMI Chief Public Defender Douglas Hartig, Sens. Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian) and Francisco Q. Cruz (R-Tinian), and Reps. Edwin P. Aldan (Ind-Tinian), BJ Attao (Ind-Saipan), John Paul Sablan (R-Saipan), and Edmund S. Villagomez (Ind-Saipan) also witnessed the signing.
Fire lanes in the CNMI
Torres also signed Palacios’ Fire Lanes bill that became PL 19-69. It was signed last Wednesday coinciding with the signing of the budget bill and three proclamations at the Pedro P. Tenorio Multipurpose Center.
PL 19-69 aims to have vehicles, ambulances and fire trucks have unobstructed access to buildings and other facilities in times of emergency. “Any obstruction can delay or even prevent adequate emergency operations from proceeding,” wrote Palacios in his bill.
“The delay could cost someone’s life. Fire equipment and other emergency vehicles may be required to pass one another when a fire engine is parked or hooked up to a fire hydrant. This may be to respond to the scene at hand or exit the site to respond to another emergency.”