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    Friday, September 20, 2019-5:00:34P.M.






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Senate passes its version of FY 2020 budget

THE Senate on Thursday passed its version of the fiscal year 2020 appropriation measure that increases allocations for each lawmaker as well as Rota and Tinian.

House Bill 21-64 now returns to the House of Representatives.

If the House rejects the Senate version, a bicameral conference committee would convene to draft a bill acceptable to both chambers.

Without a new budget before Oct. 1, 2019, there would be a partial government shutdown.

Some members of the House Ways and Means Committee met with the Senate leadership prior to the passage of the Senate version of House Bill 21-64, which proposes a $148.8 million budget for FY 2020.

“We worked with the Senate before they acted on the budget bill,” House Floor Leader John Paul Sablan said.

He added that the House would review it before acting on the measure.

In the Senate, the budget bill was passed by a 6 to 1 vote.

Sen. Paul A. Manglona was the only one who voted no.

Sen. Frank Q. Cruz was absent while Senate President Victor Hocog had to be in the governor’s office to serve as acting governor because both Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios were off-island on official business.

Acting Senate President Jude Hofschneider, background, presides over a session on Thursday.  Photo Emmanuel T. EredianoActing Senate President Jude Hofschneider, background, presides over a session on Thursday. Photo Emmanuel T. Erediano

Senator Manglona offered floor amendments to guarantee that retirees get their fair share of the $15 million annual casino license fee, and that $100,000 would be allotted for the Rota patients’ lodging accommodations on Saipan.

No one, however, seconded Manglona’s motion.

He asked the Senate leadership if the FY 2020 budget would end the government’s austerity measures.

Sen. Sixto Igisomar replied that the austerity measures were implemented because of a funding shortfall. But he believes that the FY 2020 budget is balanced so he doesn’t anticipate the continuation of the austerity measures in the new fiscal year.

The Senate version of the FY 2020 budget bill would increase each lawmaker’s allocation from $90,000 to $105,000; and increase Tinian’s budget by $329,309 and Rota’s budget by $192,961.

The senators reduced Northern Marianas College’s budget by $110,681 but raised the Public School System’s by $335,177.

The Senate also added a new section that appropriates funds from outside sources.

These include:

  • • $325,000 in tobacco settlement funds that will provide more funding for the Division of Public Health, the Public School System, the Youth Affairs Office, the Coalition of Private Schools, the Rota Mayor’s Office and the Tinian Mayor’s Office;
  • • $2.3 million in Compact Impact funds for the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., the Division of Youth Services, the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Corrections, Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services, the Public Defender’s Office, NMC, PSS, Karidat and the judiciary;
  • • $2.5 million in Commonwealth Worker Funds. Of this amount, the Northern Marianas Technical Institute stands to get $1.3 million, provided that it offers classes on Tinian and Rota; PSS, an additional $600,000 for its career and technical education program; NMC an additional $500,000 for its nursing program; and the Department of Commerce, $100,000 for the Central Statistics Division’s prevailing wage survey.

After the session, Senator Manglona told Variety he did not support the Senate version of the budget bill because his concerns regarding the retirees and Rota’s ailing residents were not addressed.

“To add to that, I was not given ample time to review the fifty-page bill as I only received a copy of it minutes before the session today,” he added.

“I offered a floor amendment which would have guaranteed the 25 percent of the class members’ full retiree benefits by suspending Public Law 20-10 should the special casino revenue tax account be insufficient to cover it. If passed, the amendment would have allowed the use of the money collected for the application of an exclusive casino license ($15 million each year) for this 25 percent benefit,” Manglona said.

“I believe this is not an unreasonable amendment request as we have heard from Secretary of Finance David Atalig that the casino revenue tax collections are not too promising. But my amendment was not entertained by the Senate, and was thus defeated,” Manglona added.

His other proposed amendment that would have provided “urgently and desperately needed $100,000 for inter-island medical referral patients traveling from Rota to Saipan,” was also rejected.

Manglona said he was expecting support from Sen. Teresita Santos, who is also from Rota. But she did not comment after the floor amendment was defeated, he added.

“The amendment would have restored a similar appropriation language included in last year’s budget law,” said Manglona, who also brought up the issue of the $15 million loan from the Marianas Public Land Trust.

He said the $15 million is a potential revenue source that can fund the repair of typhoon-damaged school buildings.

“All we needed was a language in the budget bill to state that in the event that FEMA reimburses funds that were spent for Super Typhoon Yutu recovery, the $15 million from the MPLT loan shall be re-appropriated to PSS, alternative payment to the NMI Settlement Fund obligation or DPS for police officers’ overtime pay.”

But his colleagues also rejected this proposal.