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OPINION | Regarding the FY 2021 budget law

Editorials & Columns
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ON behalf  of the Senate Committee of Fiscal  Affairs, I would like to thank the members of the CNMI Legislature  for their tireless  efforts to pass the annual  budget for fiscal  year  2021.   

The  bicameral   conference  committee  worked  collaboratively   to  reach  an agreement on the provisions  of the budget bill,  which was signed into law as Public Law 21-35.  I applaud  Gov. Ralph  DLG  Torres  and  his  team  for burning  the  midnight  oil  to  avert  a government shutdown.

Nearly  every legislative   resource  at the Senate's  disposal was  poured  into this  budget. Starting in early August, the Senate Fiscal  Affairs Committee sat down with numerous government entities to discuss budgetary needs for fiscal  year 2021. The committee  also consulted  heavily with the secretary of Finance to obtain a true picture of our government's  finances. These lengthy conversations  gave  the committee  valuable  insight s on how  to  adequately  support  our  entire government in light of economic  hardship.

Armed with this information, the committee convened daily in the final weeks of the fiscal year to develop a budget that sufficiently funded all  our government functions.  It was during  this time that the committee  discovered  previously  untapped resources and policy  mechanisms  that could  maximize   each  government   dollar.   The  committee  was  especially  proud  to  include provisions  that accomplished  the following:

  • Exceeding the constitutionally mandated 25% funding  requirement  for the Public  School System;
  • Enabling our government to fulfill the local match requirement  for Medicaid,  which will allow  the CNMI to avail itself of $60 million   in Medicaid funding for our healthcare  providers and our people;  and
  • Securing the return of most of our furloughed public employees for fiscal year 2021.

The committee  further  determined  that the budget  needed another  provision  to ensure funding needs are met: giving the governor  100%  reprogramming  authority  over the executive branch.  This authority  is usually  reserved  for responding  to emergency  situations  such as the current Covid-19 pandemic. However,  the Committee found it necessary to extend this authority into fiscal year 2021, with or without an emergency declaration.  It is critical that the governor has the flexibility   to move monies within  the executive branch to address any unanticipated funding needs in a timely  manner.  The committee places  our confidence in Governor Torres to use this flexibility  in the best interest of our Commonwealth.

As  a  check  on  the  governor's   reprogramming   authority,  the  Senate  also  included provisions calling  for increased financial reporting requirements  for government spending. Understandably,  most of these provisions  were line-item vetoed. Respectfully, the committee  is concerned that these line  item vetoes may jeopardize  our government's  financial accountability  to the people.  We look  ahead  to seeing  the  governor's   reasoning   for these  vetoed  items,  and then we'll   go from there.

On another  note,  the committee  recognizes  that this budget  is far from perfect.   However, we believe   that this  is the best product  possible  considering   that  our budgetary  resources  fell  by $100  million   in the span of less than a year.  In the face of these  challenges   we are proud  to have avoided   a government   shutdown   while  still  catering  to the  needs  of our  students,  our  indigent patients,  and our employees.

I also  understand  that there are members  of the Legislature   who have reservations  about this year's   budget.    I  would   like   to  suggest   that  instead   of  ruminating   over  the  budget   bill's imperfections      we   as  policymakers     spend   the   remainder    of  the  21st    Legislature   passing revenue-generating   legislation.   I call   on all  members  to  spend the  final  months  of this  term finding  ways  to  improve  revenue  projections  and  truly  committing  ourselves   to  economic recovery.  We at the Senate Fiscal Affairs Committee  stand ready to work with you to achieve this goal.

The author chairs the Senate Committee of Fiscal  Affairs.

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