NMI Supreme Court answers certified questions on PSS budget

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(CNMI Supreme Court) — The NMI Constitution permits elected and/or public officials to request the local Supreme Court to answer legal questions touching upon the exercise of their respective responsibilities.

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and then-Board of Education Chairperson Marylou S. Ada submitted three certified questions, all related to their duties and responsibilities under Article XV, Section 1(e) of the Constitution of the Northern Mariana Islands, which reads as follows:

“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.”

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.

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

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