Although the weather is clearing from the dark skies, there is no light in the forecast for the political atmosphere.
The CNMI is facing a looming disaster--the shutdown of the government.
How did this happen?
Last November 2009, the voters passed an initiative HLI 16-11 to amend the Constitution. You can read some information about the original initiative at the MLSC Day In Court Blog. The pros and cons that were provided for voter education at the time are here.
But the best information is to read the actual HLI 16-11initiative that was approved by the voters. This shows the relevant language that was adopted into our Constitution, the language that is now the governing law of the CNMI.
This amendment requires a balanced budget by October 1 and, in its absence, prohibits funding government operations by continuing resolution. Rather, only "essential services" are to be funded until a balanced budget is passed. Those "essential services" are to be determined "by law." And the most telling provision is that the Legislators' salaries are to be suspended starting October 1 until they pass a balanced budget.
Who is responsible for this fiasco?
The initiative to amend the CNMI Constitution was introduced by Congressmen Diego T. Benavente, Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, Edward T. Salas, and Ray Yumul.
I don't know who in the House voted for it, but it was passed by the House.
I don't know who in the Senate voted for it, but it was passed by the Senate.
And then it went to the people for a vote in the general election.
I don't know who voted for it among the general population; I only know I didn't vote for it. But it passed.
Why didn't our Legislators pass a balanced budget?
This of course is the big question.
The Legislative highlights on the Senate page was last updated 4/16/2010 (as of this writing) and it shows that Senator Pete Reyes had, by then, introduced a resolution SR 17-12 asking the Governor to convene an economic summit to avoid a government shut-down come October. I have no idea what happened to that resolution.
Other action at the time included a resolution to honor Bishop Tomas Camacho and opposing a proposed casino in Saipan.
The House website hasn't been updated since March 26, 2010 (as of this writing). Nothing on it even mentions budget concerns. There was, however, a standing committee report on a bill to amend the CNMI law about immigration. The report was adopted by the House.
On August 18, the House finally passed a budget bill--one that increased their discretionary spending while dishing out a 16 hour/payday cut to most other government workers. HB 17-96.
There was an instant uproar and silent protests. House Speaker Froilan Tenorio told the Senate it would be okay to change the budget if they increased his leadership account. He also urged them to pass the casino legislation.
On September 6, the Senate voted a budget that amended the House version--cutting discretionary spending and restoring 8 hours of the regular workday to government employees.
On September 14, the House rejected the Senate's amendments of the budget bill.
The House and Senate picked their respective teams for a conference committee, with just 10 days left to resolve the budget crisis. But the Senate walked out of the conference committee efforts because the House negotiating team is insisting on using the need for a budget to get the Senate to approve the casino legislation. They Senate is willing to reconvene, with 5 days left before October 1, provided the House returns in good faith, takes casino legislation off the table, and agrees to open the sessions to the public.
From all of this, I conclude:
1. The House delayed passing a bill until it was very late. The fact that the budget bill is the 96th bill introduced, instead of the first, shows that the House does not have its priorities in order.
2. The House leadership is pushing for casinos in Saipan. They don't care about a balanced budget. They don't care if the people suffer. Someone wants to get some graft and kickback into their pocket. Even the provision to up their discretionary funds and the demand to increase the leadership account are plain abuse of fiscal responsibility. It's all about corruption and greed.
3. The Senate is trying to do the right thing. They have been paying attention, even though appropriation bills must originate in the House. But they can't do it alone.
We're not going to have a budget anytime soon.
So what happens now?
The government operations can only pay for "essential services" as those have been determined by law. Although the Governor wants to be "the law" it seems that the Constitution actually calls for law in the usual sense. So the bill passed by the Senate defining what is "essential services" is another step in the right direction. A House bill has also been introduced, but no action taken on it. Given how irresponsible the House has been in the budget process, it doesn't seem likely it will be be enacted. The Speaker Lang Tenorio is noncommital on the proposals about "essential services", meaning nothing is going to happen.
Another thing about the effect of the constitution, neither the House nor the Senate members should get any salary at all after October 1 until a budget is passed. The Constitution suspends payment to them. Even if they declare themselves "essential services" they can't override the Constitution. It is clear:
"...if the Legislature does not pass a balanced budget by October 1st, the Legislators' salaries shall be suspended until such time that a balanced budget is passed by the Legislature."
This is small comfort to all of the people who will be out of work and without pay. The House and Senate members deserve the lack of payment; no one else does.
What can we do?
It's not too late for the people to do something. We can't write and pass the budget ourselves, but we can demand that our representatives do their jobs.
It is far more responsible to have only 8 hour cuts for workers and reduced discretionary funds for the Legislators than to have 16 hour cuts for workers and an INCREASE in discretionary funds for these politicians.
So: Tell your House members to come to their senses and agree to the Senate amendments. Call them at work; call them at home; visit them personally. Put the pressure on.
Or else, come October 1, it will be a difficult start to FY 2012 for all of us.