White elephant 

THE judicial branch continues to function even though Guma’ Hustisia, the judicial building, was shut down about 31 months ago.  Meanwhile, the local economy has cratered and the government’s revenue base has shrunk and may continue to shrink in the next several months. 

Yet it appears that no one on Capital Hill is having second thoughts about the imprudent plan to spend an additional $7 million on a building that the CNMI, clearly, cannot afford to maintain. It seems that no one among today’s elected officials can say no to the judicial branch’s “request” to fritter away more public funds — that may eventually include new and/or higher court fees.

Then and now, in any case, complaints about government financial mismanagement are mostly selective — and politically motivated. It is bad politics to criticize the judiciary whose officials and personnel are registered voters related to other registered voters.

Fine. But in renovating Guma’ Hustisia, the judiciary should, at the very least, ensure that it is a building suitable for a small tropical island where typhoons, power outages and budget shortfalls are to be expected.

It could be that the lesson of history is that no one learns

ON the one the one hand, politicians (and voters) say: government should spend public funds responsibly; on the other, they say: let’s give PSS, CHCC, NMC, NMTI, scholarships, DPS, the judiciary, etc., etc., what they need. And while we’re at it, let’s  bring back (from the dead) an overly generous government retirement system even though we’re still paying (over $700 million) for the previous one that we nearly bankrupted. 

Then and now, some say that the government should “save excess money for the rainy days.” But every day is a “rainy day” for government. It has many obligations and they are seemingly never ending.

However, who can possibly be against setting aside public funds for future emergencies? And so in July 2017, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to create a “rainy day fund.”  It proposed the creation of a special Casino Gross Revenue Tax Account separate from the general funds. The measure also tasked the secretary of Finance to deposit into this account 5% of the tax revenue collected from the casino license holder. “In order to maximize the value of the fund,” the bill stated,  “no  money  from the fund may be  expended or appropriated until fiscal year 2028 and thereafter, [three-fourths of  the  members of  each house of  the Legislature may] appropriate from the fund solely for enhancing education and  workforce development; economic development and diversification; infrastructure improvements; medical and health care facilities; to  provide essential services in  the  event of a revenue shortfall and tax  relief measures for  the  benefit of  the  citizens and businesses of the  Commonwealth.” Introduced by then-Speaker Ralph S. Demapan, the bill was signed by the governor into law (P.L.  20-82) almost two years ago. Since then we had also experienced Mangkhut, Yutu, Covid-19 followed by an ongoing global and local economic meltdown.

Right now, for the CNMI’s sake, more elected officials and more candidates for office should come up with specific measures that could help revive the local economy and allow the Commonwealth government to meet at least its most pressing obligations.

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