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Sen. Manglona: Shut down Legislature

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THE Senate’s  lone minority member and the CNMI’s most senior lawmaker, Paul A. Manglona  slammed the Senate leadership for giving Gov. Ralph DLG Torres “unlimited” reprogramming power in the Senate version of House Bill 21-124 or the Appropriations and Budget Authority Act of 2021.

“By passing this budget as is, we are effectively removing the checks and balances of our government,” he said.

“We may as well rename the legislative branch of the CNMI as the Department of Legislation …under the Office of the Governor. In other words, let’s shut down this Legislature right now.”

By a vote of 7 to 0, the Senate passed its version of H.B. 21-124, which raised the funding level to $96.4 million from $82.6 million by suspending more earmarked funds. Sen. Francisco Borja was excused for health reasons while Manglona walked out of the chamber before the roll-call vote.

The bill will suspend the $1,993,242 excise tax earmark for Solid Waste; $6,003,955 in tobacco excise tax for Group Health and Life Insurance; $260,310 Customs, Immigration and Quarantine for airport overtime; $4,743,865 hotel revenue tax for the Marianas Visitors Authority; and the $817,869 loan interest to pay the Marianas Public Lands Trust.

The Senate also proposes to tap the $7.5 million in Customs, Immigration and Quarantine monies that the CNMI government projected to collect and/or earned in the current fiscal year.

Sen. Paul A. Manglona reads one of his proposed floor amendments to the Senate version of the fiscal year 2021 budget measure during the Senate session on Saturday. Photo by Emmanuel T. Erediano

 

The Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee chairman, Senate Vice President Jude U. Hofschneider, left, speaks as he presents the Senate version of House Bill 21-124 or the fiscal year 2021 appropriation bill during Saturday’s Senate session. Photo by Emmanuel T. Erediano

The Senate likewise allowed departments and agencies to use their respective revolving funds so that some of the monies in the general fund can be appropriated for other items that needed more funding.

The Senate appropriated the biggest portion of the $13.8 million derived from suspending the earmarked funds for the municipalities of Tinian and Rota, the Public School System and CNMI Medicaid. 

Of the FY 2020’s $7.5 million Customs, Immigration and Quarantine funds, which are now in the government bank account, the Senate  appropriated $1.8 million for Tinian and $1.3 million for Rota; $65,000 goes to Saipan, and the remaining $3.2 million becomes s revolving fund that the Finance secretary is authorized to use for its personnel and operations expenses.

House reaction

House Ways and Means Chairman Ivan Blanco finds the proposed increase in Tinian and Rota budgets “significant,” adding that “we feel bad that the possibility of a government shutdown exists.”

The new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1, 2020. If there is no new and balanced budget before that date, government agencies considered “nonessential” will be shut down.

Useless

For Senator Manglona, the Senate Fiscal Affairs’ “hard work” in drafting the Senate version of the budget will be useless because of the ‘unlimited’ authority it gives to the governor in reprogramming  public funds.

Section 501 of the bill states, “The Governor shall have unlimited authority to reprogram funds for fiscal year 2021 solely within the executive branch, but not including the legislative branch, the judicial branch, the instrumentalities and autonomous agencies.”

He offered four floor amendments that, he said, (1) will address the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.’s problem with utility bills; (2) secure funding for inter-island medical referrals for Rota patients and students enrolled at Northern Marianas College; (3) give the Legislature the authority to review the status of the casino project, issues of concern, and compliance with rules; and (4) ensure that retirees will receive 25% of their pension by taking a portion of future casino license fee in the event that the casino revenue tax becomes insufficient.

Manglona proposed the following:

 1) The governor “reprogram funds in the amount of three million dollars…for Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. utility payments from within the executive branch.”

2) $250,000 from Rota’s operations funds will be allotted for the  inter-island medical referral lodging accommodation, medical subsistence, and stipend for Rota patients and escorts on Saipan and $50,000 for housing stipends for Rota students attending Northern Marianas College on Saipan “shall be allocated by the [Rota] Mayor.”

3) “Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Development Plan Advisory Committee  established under the Casino License Agreement between the Commonwealth Lottery Commission and Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC  shall submit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate a report on the status of project, issues of concern, and compliance with respective schedules and license requirements.”

4) “Notwithstanding Public Law 20-10 or any other law to the contrary, should the special Casino Revenue Tax account be insufficient to cover the payment of 25% of class members' full benefits, the moneys collected for the application of an exclusive license pursuant to 4 CMC subsection 2306 shall be proportionally reduced from the earmarks for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Senatorial Districts to ensure that the retirees get their additional 25% benefits.” 

No one among his fellow senators seconded Manglona’s proposed floor amendments.

“In less than five days,” he said, “if we do not pass a budget bill our government will be shutting down. Yes, we are passing a Senate version today, but is this really a product that we can truly say is the best that we can come up with for our government under the current dire financial situation we are facing?”

“As we can see,” Manglona said, “our financial challenges ahead of us are great and daunting. However, we can overcome them if only we can have reliable, factual information in front of us to work with and at the same time, we are willing to sit down and take on the difficult task of passing a truly balanced budget.”

Unfortunately, he said, “we have chosen to relinquish our authority to pass a Commonwealth budget plan. We have relinquished the power to authorize the governor’s budget proposals. We pretty much gave up!”

He added, “With this document in front of us, we are relinquishing our power as the second branch of government and giving the governor 100% of the Legislature’s power of the purse. All we managed to do was make sure the Legislature did not get any funding reduction and ensured that no one can reprogram our legislative money while other government programs and public services were severely cut.”

After saying that they might as well shut down the Legislature, Manglona  walked out of the chamber.

In defense of the bill

The Fiscal Affairs chairman, Senate Vice President Jude Hofschneider, said: “I stand by the product that my committee worked on tirelessly.”

He said in collaboration with the Department of Finance and other departments and agencies, the Fiscal Affairs committee “took an unfamiliar journey in identifying funding sources to aid our government.”

He was referring to the additional suspension of earmarks, the use of revolving funds, and the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine reimbursement funds.

He said these will ensure that essential government employees can work 80 hours, furloughed employees can get back to work, CNMI Medicaid and the Public School System are funded adequately, and more funding will be provided to the government workers on Tinian and Rota who, he added, “were unfairly cut” in the recent “proportional” budget reduction.

Sen. Vinnie Sablan said he appreciates the Fiscal Affairs’ “creative and innovative approach” in identifying financial resources to ensure critical services in these times of crisis. He described Senator Manglona’s remarks as “very unfair” to the committee members and the senatorial staffers who spend their time and efforts.

He  said Manglona’s concerns were already addressed in the budget measure.

For his part, Sen. Sixto Igisomar said he appreciates the floor amendments that Manglona proposed, adding that the Rota lawmakers’ concerns “were noted.”

The CNMI economy, he said is on a downward slope right now and the Senate version of H.B. 21-124 will prevent the Commonwealth from rolling further down slope. “We need to get together and help the Commonwealth move up,” he added.

The Senate version of the budget removed the controversial provision proposed by the House that would have imposed significant pay cuts on executive branch officials.

 

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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