On the one hand, on the other

THE alternative to not passing the FY 2021 budget bill was a partial government shutdown that would have inflicted immediate and additional hardship on government employees considered “non-essential.” 

For a lawmaker, there ought to be another way to address whatever concerns one may have regarding the budget bill without causing harm to the people you were elected to serve. Not surprisingly, the House, which has six minority members, voted 18-2 in favor of the budget’s passage. In the Senate, whose lone minority member was the most vocal in his opposition to some of its provisions, the bill was passed unanimously.

Again we should remind ourselves that the annual budget figures are based on revenue projections. For FY 2021, many of these estimates were made early this year amid a global pandemic which continues to rage. There is absolutely no guarantee that the CNMI government can collect what it hopes to collect in this new fiscal year. But whatever that actual amount is, the government cannot avoid paying the Settlement Fund, medical referrals, PSS, public safety, emergency response, government payroll, CUC, among many other things.

This fiscal uncertainty caused and/or compounded by a worldwide state of public health emergency (that could be aggravated by this year’s typhoon season) is the backdrop of the 100% reprogramming authority granted to the governor, but only for the executive branch. Moreover, the new budget law requires him to report “all reprogramming” to the Legislature’s presiding officers and chairs of the House Ways and Means and Senate Fiscal Affairs committees “within 30 days after the end of each quarter of the fiscal year.” The governor’s reports “shall include a description of each item reprogrammed, the reason for each reprogramming, the change in the approved budget caused by the reprogramming, the cumulative amount of all reprogramming during the fiscal year, and such other information as may be requested by the Chairpersons.” In addition, the governor “shall submit to the Presiding Officers and Chairpersons an annual summary of all reprogramming activity within 60 days after the end of a fiscal year.”

Some are of the opinion that the 25% reprogramming authority granted to the governor by law should be enough. Sure. But that is an opinion. There is another, and it is also based on a fact: the law can be amended. By an overwhelming vote of both houses of the Legislature, including five of the seven minority members, the law was amended for FY 2021.

But perhaps more important, the governor and his political party remain accountable to voters.

The Senate vice president is right

AND so is the Senate’s lone minority member. Citing the recent CNMI Fiscal Summit report “and countless other reports,” Sen. Paul Manglona says our leaders should face the islands’ “great and daunting fiscal challenges.”

Senate Vice President Jude Hofschneider, for his part, noted that the government’s “budgetary resources fell by $100 million in the span of less than a year.” Instead of “ruminating over the budget   bill's imperfections,” he added, “we as policymakers [should] 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 want to add just one more thing: revenue-generating legislation must actually raise revenue, and not just make it more expensive for businesses to do business in the CNMI. In which case these businesses may further downsize or shut down…which will result in an even smaller revenue base for the government.

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