Marianas Variety

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    Tuesday, May 21, 2019-5:41:23A.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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House amends proposed allowance rule

THE House minority bloc on Wednesday prevented the immediate adoption of House Resolution 21-4, which proposes, among other things, to allow House members to allocate up to $5,000 in monthly allowance from their discretionary funds.

A lengthy discussion resulted in the adoption of a floor amendment offered by Rep. Ivan Blanco, providing for accountability for spending the proposed allowance.

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House Floor Leader John Paul P. Sablan, right,  confers with House Minority Leader Edwin Propst, left, Reps. Ivan Blanco and Edmund Villagomez during a break from the House session Wednesday.  Photo by Emmanuel T. Erediano

House Minority Leader Edwin Propst, who said he will not draw down a single cent from the proposed allowance, told Variety that it is up to other members to take the money provided there is transparency and accountability.

Blanco’s floor amendment requires each member “to maintain a record of all transactions and corresponding public purpose justifications related to the allowance.”

The amendment was adopted by a 17-1 vote with Rep. Leepan Guerrero voting no. Rep. Jose I. Itibus was absent.

But before Blanco’s floor amendment was adopted, House members argued over three other floor amendments proposed by the minority bloc.

Rep. Edmund S. Villagomez wants to require members to issue publicly available reports detailing expenditures made from the allowance.

Rep. Sheila Babauta proposes to impose penalties for failure to timely file reports or report public purpose justifications.

Rep. Richard Lizama said the new rules should clarify that expenditures from the allowance “shall only be for public purposes as defined by CNMI laws, rules, and regulations.”

The floor amendments offered by Villagomez and Lizama were rejected while Babauta withdrew hers after House legal counsel John Cool pointed out that the House speaker has no authority to freeze a House member’s allocation as proposed by Babauta.

House Floor Leader John Paul P. Sablan, who chairs the ad hoc committee that drafted the proposed new rules, said Blanco’s proposal is sufficient to ensure transparency and accountability.

Vice Speaker Lorenzo I. Deleon Guerrero also expressed support for Blanco’s floor amendment.

For her part, Rep. Tina Sablan said she and the other minority bloc members appreciate Blanco’s proposed amendment.

Because it was amended, H.R. 21-4 must remain on the legislative calendar for at least one more day before House members can vote to adopt it.

During the miscellaneous part of the session, Rep. Tina Sablan notified  other members of the minority bloc’s request to the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the Public Auditor to provide guidance and a legal opinion on the proposed allowance.

She said they are asking the following questions:

  • • Whether the House has the authority to grant such allowances to its members, drawing from each member’s individual office allotment;
  • • Whether the proposed allowance for defraying the costs of food, lodging and other incidental expenses related to legislative business, satisfies public purpose requirements;
  • • Whether the proposed allowance amount is reasonable;
  • • Whether the secretary of Finance has the authority to issue lump sum payments for allowances to individual members for deposits into personal bank accounts or to cash outright;
  • • Whether the public auditor has the authority to audit the receipt, possession, and disbursement of allowances, as well as the personal bank accounts into which allowances would be deposited;
  • • Whether the Open Government Act would apply to records documenting transactions from these allowances;
  • • Whether any minimum reporting or other accountability requirements would apply to the use of allowances; and
  • • What measures, if any, the House might consider adopting to enhance transparency and accountability for these public funds.

Public Law 20-67, the government’s fiscal year 2019 budget, provides each lawmaker with a $90,000 discretionary fund which is used for office and other related expenses.  Lawmakers also receive an annual salary which used to be $39,300 but was reduced to $32,000 after a previous 70 percent pay-hike measure was declared unconstitutional by the CNMI Supreme Court.