Regarding the judiciary’s proposed FY 2022 budget

LIKE many other government entities not getting a chunky serving of the federal relief monies that will be ladled to the CNMI, the judiciary wants more funding from the Commonwealth government…which has so many other obligations. Like many other government entities, moreover, the judiciary considers itself a vital government entity. However, it’s also true that the list of government entities that do not consider themselves vital is a pretty short one (if it exists at all). And with local revenue plummeting because of a pandemic-induced economic downturn, more local funding for any CNMI government entity will mean much less for another.

In the previous fiscal year, the judiciary requested an $11.57 million budget, but received $4.74 million only. For FY 2022, the administration said the local revenue projection will remain at the FY 2021 level. After stating that they are “cognizant that we are facing unprecedented economic and public health challenge,” the chief justice and the presiding judge then informed lawmakers that the judiciary is asking for an $11.83 million budget — a bit higher than its request in FY 2021.

Good luck with that.

What many concerned citizens would want to know, however, is the judiciary’s plan for its white elephant, the Guma Hustisia, whose mold and A/C “issues” will cost CNMI taxpayers about $7 million — way more than the judiciary’s current budget. When the judicial building is finally fixed and fully operational again, what is the new policy for maintaining it? What “lessons” were learned and will be applied?

The judiciary has a building maintenance team, but according to a judicial official in 2018, additional funding was required for proper maintenance. In other words, it’s the central government’s “fault” for not fully funding the upkeep of a building that, we believe, is ill-suited for a tropical island that has to deal with typhoons, power outages and a, more often than not, cash-strapped government.

More not-so fun facts:

• The judiciary took out a controversial loan from the Retirement Fund to pay for the  construction of the judicial building which became the trial court’s new home in 1999.

• The  building’s construction cost  was estimated, in 1994, to be about $15 million  (equivalent to over $26 million today).

• The judiciary raised fees and fines so it can pay for that loan.

• Since it shut down its building over three years ago, the judiciary has conducted hearings in much older buildings (the former Nauru building opened in 1978), but are privately owned and maintained.

In the upcoming FY 2022 budget deliberations, we expect the Legislature to ask judicial officials how they intend to maintain their newly repaired building knowing that there is no assurance that the CNMI government can always provide them the funding they say they need to maintain it. We’re quite sure that $7 million is a more significant amount than the cost ($170) of the bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label bought by the governor’s office.

Something worth considering

THE Guam Daily Post reported recently that the island’s mayors are considering paying $100,000 a year to hold their monthly meetings in a conference room that is compliant with the Covid-19 safety protocols — or meet online instead.

In the private sector, to be sure, this thorny dilemma would be depicted as a choice between 1) spending $100,000  and 2) we don’t need to. In other words, a no-brainer.

The global pandemic, in any case, has forced many businesses and even government agencies to switch to online platforms when conducting meetings, conferences, etc.  Participation is more convenient for everyone involved. Moreover, the discussions can be recorded which allows participants to later review what was said, who said it and how.

We can’t say, however, that they will also result in government “savings” because there are no such things. With the government, what is not spent on one item will be spent on another. Which is the real definition of “government budget.”

Editor

Zaldy Dandan is the recipient of the Best Editorial Writer Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the CNMI Humanities Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism. His three books are available on amazon.com

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