It is graduation season in the CNMI; at the same time, the government is undergoing austerity measures.
That was the picture eight years ago, just as current press secretary Kevin Bautista was putting on a toga and mortarboard to close out his high school life. It feels like history is repeating itself these days—“graduating from high school in 2011 and being part of the first austerity measures.”
Bautista joined the CNMI government in 2015.
Speaking in an interview soon after last week’s Saipan Chamber of Commerce meeting where he mentioned his experience with government austerity as a fresh high school graduate then, Bautista readily concedes that the Torres administration’s decision to implement the austerity measures was difficult, knowing full well that it was not going to be a popular decision. “It is not the best or fun thing to do but it is the most painless option that we have to do over a series of scenarios,” he said.
As it is right now—a 72-hour work week— “ensures that we still have a payday Friday on the second week of the pay period,” he added.
He describes it as a pro-active approach when looking at the government’s revenue collection: “ensuring that we didn’t have to lay off anyone.”
One important element, Bautista said, was that the government did not have to resort to furloughs.
“We did not want to resort to a decision of a furlough and that was the [the] most important thing,” he said.
Had the CNMI government opted to keep the 80-hour workweek and maintained that until the end of the fiscal year under the current budget authority, that would have resulted in 500 employees in the government being let go, he said.
“In the U.S. mainland, budget cuts are so severe that the decision in Congress leads to a thousand employees being cut [just] like that in a certain department across the board,” he said.
Bautista describes the experience as both emotional and frustrating. “You graduate from high school with this goal of wanting to provide real progress. …We ran on that platform because it was important for us to articulate that everyone deserves to feel progress.”
“This economic challenge is not going to get solved overnight. …We are managing a different and pro-active approach by looking at collection and ensuring that we didn’t have to lay off anyone,” he added.
Prioritizing full-on economic recovery by working with the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, encouraging small businesses and tourism partners to revitalize the tourism industry, and diversifying the economy are on the lists of getting out of this mire, according to Bautista.
“We really need to come together as a community during this time. …We are hopeful that the austerity measure will only be for the current fiscal year as it is early to say at this stage if it will continue in [fiscal year] 2020,” he said.
“Eight years ago, I didn’t thought I’d be in this position…but…we can’t shy away from this challenge and let it define our future,” he added.