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Lawmakers, administration, AG still reviewing high court’s ‘answers’ to certified questions

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THE local Supreme Court was supposed to provide clarity to legal questions involving the Public School System’s budget, but the court’s 20-page slip opinion issued on Tuesday is apparently not so clear itself.

Asked to comment about the high court’s answers to the certified questions submitted by the governor and the Board of Education, Attorney General Edward Manibusan on Wednesday said: “It is the [court’s] decision,” and the government “needs to implement the decision, but we are [still] reviewing that decision.”

In a separate statement, the Torres-Palacios administration said it “commends the Board of Education and PSS leadership in joining with the governor in resolving this issue through a certified question that seeks to resolve an important policy issue. Through legal counsel, we continue to review the opinion and analyze its implications on future budget processes. Our goal is to ensure that we establish a proper budget process that is in line with the Supreme Court’s decision ahead of the governor’s budget proposal to the Legislature in April.”

Also on Wednesday, the House leadership met to discuss the CNMI Supreme Court’s answers to the certified questions.

Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao said the FY 2020 government appropriation measure, which allotted $37.7 million for PSS was based on the AG’s opinion.

“We’re already into the second month of the second quarter of the fiscal year so if we are going to change it [based on the high court’s opinion] we will have to cut everybody’s spending levels.”

But he said they are still reviewing the Supreme Court’s slip opinion.

Rep. Ray N. Yumul said unless the CNMI Supreme Court instructs the Legislature to make changes to the PSS budget, “we will have to go with the current budget.”

He said the slip opinion is “a big decision” that could affect everything in the FY 2020 budget, including the appropriation for bond payments and the government’s obligation to its retirees.

House Floor Leader John Paul Sablan said the court’s slip opinion aims to clarify what constitutes 25 percent of the government’s general revenues.

Under the Constitution, PSS is “guaranteed an annual budget of not less than 25 percent of the general revenues of the Commonwealth through an annual appropriation.”

BOE/PSS and the administration disagree over the meaning of “general revenues.”

“So I guess what we are going to do moving forward is to base ourselves on the decision of the Supreme Court,” Sablan said.

In its slip opinion, the high court stated: “It is undisputed that the relative share (in terms of percentage) is clearly specified in the text, by use of the phrase ‘not less than twenty-five percent.’ NMI CONST. art. XV, § 1(e). What is left somewhat ambiguous in the text, however, is the object of that percentage — i.e., to what quantity that percentage is relative to. The first and second certified questions address two pivotal issues in calculating that quantity: (1) how to determine what ‘the general revenues of the Commonwealth’ encompasses; and (2) what actions can add to, or take away from, what it encompasses? The third question, meanwhile, asks when PSS is entitled to receive its full share of guaranteed funds?”

According to the court: “The petitioners present diametrically opposed arguments. The Board proposes a broad and expansive definition of ‘general revenue’ such that PSS is guaranteed twenty-five percent of all revenue. Although acknowledging the sparse drafting history on defining the contours of ‘general revenue,’ the Board suggests historical records and practices support its interpretation. The Governor argues the Board’s interpretation of general revenue is unsubstantiated and not based on any legal authority or authenticated documents. He submits a broad and expansive definition of ‘special revenue’ such that the legislature may effectively categorize any revenue as special as long as there is some articulated purpose for it. Asserting the terms’ plain meaning, he proffers the following definition of special revenue: ‘(1) income from a specific constitutionally or statutorily identified source, (2) deposited into an account kept separate from the General Fund, and (3) used for a particular constitutionally or statutorily defined purpose.’ … Critically, according to the Governor, the ‘particular constitutionally or statutorily defined purpose’ need not be related to the revenue’s source… Thus, any revenue — including general revenue — may be appropriated as special revenue by articulating any purpose.”

The court concludes “that general and special revenue are subcategories of the broader category of revenue. PSS is entitled to general revenue, not special revenue. The legislature has the authority to suspend an earmark in an appropriations bill, and in doing so, those revenues transform into general revenue, in which PSS is entitled a percentage. Finally, when the CNMI government passes supplemental budgets in the event of a revenue surplus, PSS is constitutionally entitled to supplemental revenues commensurate with its twenty-five percent share of total general revenue. However, when there is a revenue shortfall, the legislature may reduce PSS’s budget proportionately so long as the constitutionally mandated twenty-five percent share is preserved.”

The high court’s full opinion is available at http://cnmilaw.org/supreme20.html.

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