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BOE member: High court’s answers to certified questions favor PSS

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BOARD of Education member MaryLou S. Ada believes that the CNMI Supreme Court’s slip opinion on the certified questions regarding the budget of the Public School System is favorable to PSS, but she said the BOE should focus on getting the funding allotments for PSS mandated by the government’s fiscal year 2020 budget law.

MaryLou S. Ada

She said the central government must timely remit funds to PSS so it can proceed with school repairs, purchase of books, and fuel for school buses “and everything else to get the schools running.”

Ada said the board will not immediately “bill” the central government for what it owes PSS based on the high court’s answers to the certified questions.

But “later on, after everything has died down and we have fixed [what needed to be fixed], then we can go back to the negotiating table and look at the figures that they owe us,” Ada said, referring to the central government. “To immediately ask the government [to pay what] they owe us would [result in the] collapse of the government because right now they still do not have the money to pay.”

On Thursday, the BOE held a special emergency meeting to discuss the court’s slip opinion.

BOE member Andrew Orsini said the board and the central government could work on a “payment plan.”

BOE member Philip Mendiola-Long agreed, saying that the board should seek to apply the ruling to the current fiscal year and determine the sum “owed” to PSS.

This could solve the cash flow problems of the school system, he added.

“If we can get the Department of Finance to provide an additional $1 million to $2 million per month — that would give us the breathing room that we need,” Mendiola-Long said.

For Ada, however, the BOE should plan strategically and focus on immediate needs of the school system while seeking a “workable solution” with the CNMI government.

“The [House] speaker said that if we…try to [get more funding], they would have to reduce [the allotments of] all the [other] agencies, and we really don’t want to do that because they don’t have the money,” she said.

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and then-BOE Chair MaryLou S. Ada submitted three certified questions to the local high court regarding Article XV, Section 1(e) of the Constitution of the Northern Mariana Islands, which reads:

“The public elementary and secondary education system shall be guaranteed an annual budget of not less than twenty-five percent of the general revenues of the Commonwealth through an annual appropriation. The budgetary appropriation may not be reprogrammed for other purposes, and any unencumbered fund balance at the end of a fiscal year shall be available by reappropriation.”

On Tuesday, the high court issued the following statement:

“Answering the first question on what revenues comprise ‘general revenues’ within the meaning of Article XV, Section 1(e), the high court held that ‘general revenue’ is a subset of the Commonwealth’s revenue, distinct from special revenue. To qualify as special revenue, there must be a relationship between the revenue’s source and the revenue’s purpose. If there is no relationship, those revenues are general revenues, of which PSS is entitled to a percentage.

“On the second question concerning the Legislature’s authority to suspend earmarks in appropriations bills, the board and the governor concede the Legislature does have the authority to suspend earmarks, transforming those revenues into general revenue, which are subject to PSS’s guarantee.

“Finally, the high court also held that PSS is entitled to a portion of supplemental budgets passed when the CNMI experiences a revenue surplus. That is, PSS’s guarantee is not restricted to a single annual appropriations bill. However, when there is a revenue shortfall, the Legislature may proportionately reduce PSS’s share, so long as PSS’s 25 percent share is preserved.”

In a 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.”

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

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