THE American Rescue Plan Act funding that the CNMI received will help the Commonwealth recover from the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig said.
In an interview after the presentation of the administration's ARPA spending plan, Atalig said it was a great day to finally share to the people the priorities and goals of the administration and how federal funds will “help us recover from this pandemic, and allow us to bring back a lot of [government] employees who were furloughed as we lift the austerity measures so the government can provide better programs and give the best services to the community.”
Of the $481.8 million ARPA funds that the CNMI received, the administration allocated $75 million for the current fiscal year and $175 million for FY 2022.
The CNMI government’s local budget for the current fiscal year is $98 million.
Atalig said the administration will submit an updated budget to the Legislature in July.
In April, the governor submitted to the Legislature his initial plan for ARPA funds.
But Atalig said, “Now that we have more information and U.S. Treasury guidance, we know what we can and can't do, and that is why we will update our budget submission.”
Rep. Edwin K. Propst, for his part, said he will ask Speaker Edmund S. Villagomez to formally invite the governor to the House to answer questions.
Another member of the House leadership, Rep. Celina Babauta, said the Senate has yet to act on House Bill 22-33, which seeks “accountability and transparency” in spending the ARPA funds.
She said, “It does not look promising that it will pass in the Senate,” which has referred the bill to its Fiscal Affairs Committee chaired by Sen. Victor B. Hocog.
Despite a 10-10 vote on the bill, the House leadership declared that it was passed after the speaker invoked a House rule that allows him to vote twice.
The attorney general, however, has questioned the constitutionality of the House rule.
Babauta said it is the constitutional duty of the House of Representatives to appropriate funds.
“If there is one job we have to comply with under the Constitution, it is to approve a balanced budget no later than Oct. 1 of every year. It is our raison d'être. We have heard excuses that the legislature cannot appropriate federal funds. There are no statutes that speak to these untruthful and baseless excuses so what is the basis of their misinformed statements? I have asked these same questions of the senate. Their response has been similarly unsatisfactory, to say the least,” she said.
“The House Standing Committee on Ways & Means has been conducting budget hearings since the first week of May to hear directly from the department heads. It is my observation that department heads are being kept in the dark about ARPA funds. There are many discrepancies between what we are hearing from them and what is being presented. Please help us help you; call your senators to pass H.B. 22-33 today.”
No public hearings were conducted and no committee report was attached to the bill before the House leadership acted on it.
The AG’s office earlier informed the House that there was no need for the bill, and that federal law includes restrictions and other rules that the CNMI must follow in the expenditure of ARPA funds.
As for the Office of the Public Auditor, it questioned the bill’s provision that would saddle OPA with an “unrealistic mandate” and affect its independence.