SAIPAN, 01 AUGUST 2017 (MARIANAS VARIETY) — The House of Representatives on Monday passed a fiscal year budget bill amounting to US$150 million which includes US$4 million for the Department of Public Lands and a salary increase for lawmakers and the mayors of Saipan, Tinian, Rota and the Northern Islands.
Under House Bill 20-105, each mayor’s annual salary will be increased to US$75,000 from US$43,000; and a lawmaker to US$70,000 from US$39,300. [restrict]
The budget bill, which now goes to the Senate, likewise proposes US$1 million for land compensation and US$2.8 million for the new pay scale for civil service employees whose minimum wage will now start at US$7.25 per hour.
The bill was passed by a vote of 17 to 3 with House Minority Leader Edmund Villagomez, Reps. Vinnie Sablan and Edwin Propst voting no.
The three cited the legal issues involved in the implementation of the salary increase for elected officials that will take effect on Oct. 1, 2017, the start of fiscal year 2018.
They said a lawsuit has been filed by the Attorney General’s Office to prevent the Department of Finance from implementing the salary increase as mandated by Public Law 19-83.
Before the budget bill was passed, Rep. Edwin Propst offered a floor amendment to remove the pay hikes for lawmakers and mayors.
Propst said the funding for the salary increase should instead be given to the Department of Public Safety for the additional staff it needs.
He noted that the administration did not propose a pay hike for the governor and lt. governor whose annual salaries will remain US$70,000 and US$60,000.
Propst said lawmakers should follow the governor’s example. But Propst’s amendment was rejected.
He reminded his colleagues that according to the AG, the pay-hike law is unconstitutional as the Advisory Commission on the Compensation for Elected Officials, which proposed the pay hikes, did not meet the specified timeframe when it submitted its recommendations to the Legislature.
Rep. Vinnie Sablan commended the Ways and Means Committee and its chairman, Rep Angel Demapan, for doing a good job in coming up with a balanced budget bill and for taking time to listen to all the agencies’ requests.
However, he said he voted no because of concerns regarding the salary increase including the way the advisory commission calculated the pay hikes.
Like Propst and Sablan, House Minority Leader Edmund Villagomez said he voted no because of legal issues regarding the pay hike.
Villagomez said he respects the decision of each member, but he is bound to uphold the laws and regulations of the CNMI, and that’s why he could not support the budget bill.
He believes implementing a salary increase for elected officials, as proposed in the bill, is unconstitutional.
Rep. Angel Demapan, in an interview, he said he respects the three minority members’ decisions, adding that he hopes that the Legislature can address their concerns.
At the same time, he said he appreciates the 17 members, including two minority members, who supported the passage of the budget bill.
He said the goal is to give the Senate ample time to review the House version so that if the Senate comes up with its own version, there will be enough time for a bicameral conference committee to draft a measure acceptable to both chambers.
This will allow lawmakers to submit the budget bill to the governor on time to prevent a partial government shutdown, Demapan said.
Without a new, balanced budget on or before Oct. 1, 2017, “non-essential” government offices will have to shut down.
Demapan said the salary increase for elected officials was mandated by Public Law 19-83, but it was unfunded so it was not implemented. He said it can now be implemented because the budget bill has identified US$1.8 million to fund the pay raises.
In Feb. 2017, House Minority Leader Edmund Villagomez and Rep. Ed Propst introduced House Bill 20-39 which proposes to scrap the salary increases for elected officials.
H.B. 20-39 is still pending in the Judiciary & Governmental Operations Committee chaired by Rep. Ivan Blanco.
According to the bill, the Advisory Commission on the Compensation for Elected Officials, which was established by Public Law 19-51, was tasked with the job of submitting a report of its recommendations regarding salary adjustments for elected officials to the Legislature within 60 days.
The bill states that the commission exceeded the 60-day limit and failed to submit its report to the Legislature within the specified time-frame.
It adds that the commission did not meet until Oct. 2016, which was one month or 30 days over the time-frame specified in Section 5 (d) of Public Law 19-51.
Therefore, the bill states, the increase in salaries for elected officials as recommended by the commission are null and void.
Villagomez and Propst also noted that while civil service employees will get just a 5-percent pay hike, legislators will get an 80 percent increase.
The two lawmakers said this is not right and very unfair, adding that the proposed increase in the salary of the elected officials will cost taxpayers over US$1 million a year.
“As public servants, we must ensure that we are being fiscally conservative and that taxpayer dollars are prioritised to pay down our obligations and debt which is approximately US$470 million or to better fund critical agencies such as the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. and the Department of Public Safety,” the bill stated.
The members of the Advisory Commission on the Compensation for Elected Officials were Alex Sablan of Tan Holdings, Sen. Jude U. Hofschneider, Sen. Sixto K. Igisomar, Rep. Leepan Guerrero, former Rep. Antonio P. Sablan, former Senate President Pete P. Reyes and Office of the Governor special assistant for management and budget Virginia C. Villagomez…PACNEWS [/restrict]