Budget bill now with governor

THE House and Senate passed a compromise version of the fiscal year 2018 budget bill over the weekend.

With 12 days left in FY 2017, the measure finally made it to the governor’s office which submitted its proposal to the Legislature on March 31, 2017.

The House on Friday passed House Bill 20-105 unanimously, 20-0, while the Senate on Saturday passed it by an 8-1 vote.

Sen. Paul A. Manglona was the lone member who objected to the bill because, he said, the Public School System did not get what it was entitled to under the CNMI Constitution — 25 percent of the commonwealth’s annual general revenues.

Manglona delivered a four-page speech on Saturday expressing his sentiments and “disappointments.”

He said the government has already received a total of $58 million in additional revenue from the Saipan casino Business Gross Revenue Tax funds, adding that PSS is entitled to 25 percent of that amount or $14.5 million in addition to the $36 million it will get under the FY 2018 budget.

“So far, we have not given PSS a single dollar yet we have passed several casino GRT piecemeal appropriations totaling more than $28 million,” he added.

“In doing so, our action today in excluding more than $46 million from what is considered the general fund which could mean approximately $11 million shortfall for PSS this coming fiscal year alone. What about fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017…? Not only are we depriving PSS students of this critical funding, we will all be putting ourselves in a very difficult financial dilemma in the near future if we are compelled by the courts to make good on the 25 percent calculation,” he added.

Manglona said for fiscal year 2018, the government owes PSS $11 million and the Settlement Fund, $16 million.

He added that government leaders should take the lead in having accurate verification of additional resources.

Senate President Arnold Palacios asked Senate Fiscal Affairs Chairman Jude Hofschneider if the senator from Rota is a member of the committee which reviewed the budget bill. Hofschneider said yes.

Sen. Justo Quitugua, committee vice chairman, said during the budget deliberation, no one argued about giving PSS or the hospital more funding.

“I just wish that during the budget deliberation, the members spoke on behalf of PSS and other agencies. It is my opinion that each of us here in the Senate should be honest and let’s tell the public what we did during the Fiscal Affairs Committee meetings — who were trying to fund each agency and municipality and who kept quiet. I always speak on behalf of the kids. I even advocated that of the next GRT collections, 5 percent of it should go to PSS. Let us thank the members of the [bicameral conference committee] for working very hard to get the budget done so we can prevent a government shutdown. I am a retiree and I don’t get a salary from the Legislature, but I don’t want a government shutdown,” Quitugua said.

Sen. Sixto Igisomar said he understands if Manglona felt that nobody is listening to him, and that no one is taking his concerns seriously.

But Igisomar said Manglona’s concerns are shared by all lawmakers. “We are not ignoring those concerns. We are also concerned [about PSS], and we are also passionate about those issues. In fact, we discussed them in the budget process. Thank you for raising this up but we also discussed these things and figured out how we can address them in the next appropriation.”

As for the Settlement Fund issue, “we all failed in this — I was the chairman of the [Retirement Fund board] when I came here [to the Legislature] to ask the government to pay its contributions or else the ship would sink — and it did. We are in this situation because we all failed in securing the funds for our retirees,” Igisomar said, referring to island’s then-declining economy that significantly reduced government revenue.

Manglona, who was the Senate president at that time, was allowed by Palacios to speak again for two minutes.

Manglona said he is again reminding government leaders to fulfill their obligations. Palacios then told the Rota senator that he was already “out of order.”

Manglona responded by saying, “we are both out of order Mr. President as I still have the floor.” When Manglona was finished, Palacios reminded the senator that he was already afforded enough time to say his piece and that the issues he was raising were not even part of the budget bill.

In an interview, Palacios said there was no need for “grandstanding” because he and the rest of the members know that PSS must receive 25 percent of the CNMI’s annual general revenues.

Palacios at the same time thanked the House and Senate conferees for their hard work in ensuring that a compromise bill was passed to prevent a government shutdown.

Sen. Jude Hofschneider also thanked the members for their support and the House conferees for agreeing to most of the Senate’s requests, particularly the provision that will fund the hazardous payments for solid waste division employees.

Senate Floor Leader Frank Borja believes they just passed a good budget bill, which they should be proud of.

Sen. Frank Cruz thanked Senator Hofschneider for defending the interests of Tinian and Rota and for including provisions that will benefit the two islands.

Senate Vice President Steve Mesngon commended the House and the Senate conferees for a job well done while Sen. Teresita Santos, who voted “yes with reservation,” said there is no perfect budget but what they just passed is “doable and workable for all departments.”

She noted, however, that “the controversial and ludicrous salary increases for legislators were included in the budget” and will be implemented if the high court finds the pay-hike constitutional.

The $145.2 million budget includes $8.1 million for Rota and $8.4 million for Tinian.

The Senate also proposed to take $1 million from the Marianas Visitors Authority’s budget, but the compromise version “returned” $550,000 to MVA.

Asked why it took the House over four months to pass the budget bill, Speaker Ralph Demapan said the House Committee on Ways and Means had to talk to various agencies to assess their needs and priorities.

“The budget process is not an easy task. It’s a very complicated one and we really had to look into it and not just give agencies funds — we also had to ensure that those funds were requested based on needs.”

Rep. Angel Demapan, the chair of Ways and Means, said “several big compromises” had to be made.

“For example, the MVA budget reduction. It was important for the House that we minimize the impact on MVA because we believe its funds are best used toward promotions.”

Demapan said this year’s budget process was different compared to the other budgets in the past.

“This is the first time that I chaired this committee so it’s a new experience for me. Another difference this time is that we have more resources that’s available to us and it really came down to how we slice the pie. In the past, we didn’t have enough resources and that resulted in a shutdown [in 2010]. This time, I had more confidence in this process and it took us just three days to resolve our differences [with the Senate]. I don’t think it ever happened before that a budget dispute was resolved in just three days. Normally it would go like two weeks so I thank the conferees for committing our time and energy to make sure we resolve these differences.”

Demapan said the increase in the funding levels for Rota and Tinian contributed to the conferees’ quick resolution of their differences.

In a statement on Sunday, Gov. Ralph D.L.G. Torres said:

“I want to thank the members and the conferees of both the House and Senate for their work these last several months debating over our commonwealth’s priorities and for meeting with my administration’s heads to discuss the critical needs of each department and agency in our government. My administration and I have about two weeks left to review this budget, but our priority remains the same. Last March, I submitted a budget that builds on our progress started last year. It makes critical investments in key areas such as infrastructure, healthcare, public safety, law enforcement, and education, while also ensuring that the government’s longstanding obligations like land compensation and judgments continue to be addressed. As I review this budget, it is my administration’s priority to have a budget that supports the needs of our growing and thriving community, while providing more resources for more economic opportunities for every person who call these islands home.”

Source: Marianas Variety :

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