Cutting the Pie

August 19, 2010

One book my children loved when they were young was Gator Pie by Louise Matthews. Two alligators find a marshmallow chocolate pie on a picnic table and they decide to divide it in half to share.  As more and more alligators come to the table, the pieces get smaller and smaller as the slices are divided fairly to include all.  Finally, while the other gators are fighting over which piece is bigger, the two gators sneak the pie into the swamp and eat it all by themselves.

The book reminds me of the CNMI House's budget that passed this week.  The decision-makers seem to have taken a greater piece of the already small pie to the detriment of all many programs including the Public School System and the Northern Marianas College. Also, perilously slashed was the judiciary's budget.

 Lawmakers voted shamelessly to give themselves an enormous increase in their already bloated discretionary fund budget.  At the same time, they are calling for all government employees to take major pay cuts (up to 16 hour work cuts per pay period), and the government has had to borrow money to pay for CUC fuel and government employees' salaries. The audacity is amazing!

Lawmakers voted to increase their discretionary funding from $86,796 to $130,000 or a $43,204 increase per legislator.  That increase could pay for the salaries of two government employees, help to pay for instructional materials and supplies for the public schools, pay for fuel for CUC, purchase supplies for the CHC, or be used to fund a variety of critical services.

The legislators also earn $39,300 annually.  It is clear where the priority lies in the minds of those who voted to pass this budget -with themselves. This chart from the Saipan Tribune that breaks down the budget.

Will the low budget allocation for PSS affect federal funding? Will the low budget allocation for NMC jeopardize its accreditation?

The vote was 12-7 in favor of the budget legislation, with all of the Covenant members voting for a personal raise, while ignoring the budget crisis and critical services.

Those who voted for the bill were Speaker Froilan C. Tenorio, Covenant-Saipan, House Floor Leader George N. Camacho, Ind.-Saipan, Vice Speaker Felicidad T. Ogumoro, Covenant-Saipan, Reps. Frederick P. Deleon Guerrero, Ind.-Saipan, Ramon S. Basa, Covenant-Saipan, Stanley T. Torres, Ind.-Saipan, Raymond D. Palacios, Covenant-Saipan, Teresita A. Santos, Ind.-Rota, Eliceo D. Cabrera, R-Saipan, Sylvestre I. Iguel, Covenant-Saipan, Ralph S. Demapan, Covenant-Saipan, and Trenton B. Conner, R-Tinian.

Those who voted against the bill were House minority leader Diego Benavente's Republican-Saipan and Saipan Republican Reps. Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, Ramon A. Tebuteb, Francisco S. Dela Cruz, Antonio P. Sablan, Ray N. Yumul and Joseph M. Palacios.

Rep. Edmund S. Villagomez, Covenant-Saipan was not present for the vote.

Rep. Diego Benavente showed that he has integrity and respect for the people of the CNMI. The Saipan Tribune reported:
Benavente, as well as Dela Cruz, said it's “irresponsible for the majority bloc to ram the budget bill down some members' throats” without having substantive debate on it.

Benavente was particularly disappointed with the majority's successful attempts to end debate on the bill, even before other members could introduce floor amendments to what they described as an unbalanced budget and one that gives budget increases to lawmakers while asking many government employees to swallow up to 25 percent salary cuts. He said the bill would force 80 to 64 work hour cuts per pay period, and unpaid holidays.

His defeated written floor amendments include stopping lawmakers from giving themselves $130,000 in discretionary fund, increasing the Judiciary's funding by $650,000, and giving NMC an additional $621,188 for the college to meet the maintenance-of-effort agreement between the U.S. Department of Education and the CNMI governor.

The Board of Education, given a zero budget in previous versions of the bill, will now be given $164,328 but this will be taken from the Public School System's budget, resulting in PSS getting just $29,967,694.

Benavente's amendment got only eight “yes” votes, while 11 voted “no.”

“It's a major disappointment. It's an irresponsible action. We're not only underfunding NMC but also jeopardizing its accreditation,” Benavente said in an interview after the session.

Benavente, who served for almost 20 years as a lawmaker, said he has never seen such “dirty politics” in a long time.

Republicans accused the majority of blocking attempts to debate on the bill and to make amendments.
I just don't understand how the CNMI legislators could justify their salaries and "discretionary funds" even before the hefty increase. It's not like they are lawmakers in a state where there are millions of people.  The lowest paying state legislators' salaries are: Louisiana ($16,800), Arkansas ($15,869), Rhode Island ($14,019), North Carolina ($13,951), Nebraska ($12,000), South Carolina ($10,400), Mississippi ($10,000) and New Mexico, Texas and Utah  — where legislators earn no salary at all. Every one of these states has over a million people in population and Texas comes in at an estimated 24,782,302.    Compare those to the CNMI's $39,300 legislator salary.

California legislators make the most - $95,291, but the salary may not be so far out of proportion considering the population of the state (estimated at 36,961,664 in 2009) and enormous scope of the job. This is one of four full-time state legislatures. 

Many state legislatures meet part time, which is also a consideration in figuring salary. (Here is a chart showing which state legislatures meet full-time, part-time or somewhere in between.)  Surely the sparsely populated CNMI should be able to function just fine with a part-time legislature while meeting the needs of the people.

I thought maybe the state legislators with smaller salaries get huge discretionary funds.  It doesn't look that way. Let's look at North Carolina.  A July 2010 article from the North Carolina Times News states that the North Carolina legislators (120 House members and 50 Senators) have not had a raise since the mid-1990s.  With all allowances (discretionary funds) their total annual salary is $20,659 a year. That includes the annual salary of $13,951, monthly expenses of $559, and a subsistence allowance of $104 for when they are in session. North Carolina has an estimated population of 9,380,884.

Compare the state legislators' salaries to their populations, and it looks like CNMI legislators are eating from the trough at the expense of all the citizens and non-citizens who call the CNMI home. Are they dividing the pie thinking, "Two for me, one for you; three for me, none for you?" 

CNMI citizens are planning on holding a silent protest  today outside the Legislature on Capital Hill from 11:30 am -12:30 pm.  I hope they get a large crowd.

I guess next time I find fault with my state's budget, I'll have to remind myself it could be worse -it could be as skewed as the CNMI's. The CNMI has to have the highest salary and discretionary fund account per legislator for all U.S. states and territories in  relationship to its population.

Read HB 17-96


The Saipan Blogger said...

Same goes for government worker to voter ratio. There might be more government workers than there are households in the CNMI.

Anonymous said...

We need to sunlight the NMIRF like so many other states do their retirement systems by listing the annual pensions of all our retirees and survivors.

We also need to publish the list of rebates that the CNMI is required by federal law to make available. Olopai v. De Leon Guerrero. Why are our local newspapers not requesting this list annually from Finance and publishing it.


[The value (or lack thereof) of an idea does not depend on its proponent.] ;-)

Anonymous said...

The MVA gets more than the Judicary?!

Anonymous said...

I hope the Senate pigeonholes this House version into some logical sense. Unlikely though. So then they go to conference committee and haggle for the entire month of September, the end of the fiscal year. A budget is cobbled together and sent to Fitial. He vetoes. No chance at an override here.

October 1st: Government Shutdown except for essential employees. NO SALARIES for any legislator until budget passed!! The best thing that could happen. Workers upset and demand the heads of Legislators and the Administration. Fearing an overthrow and becoming hungry themselves, they finally pass a legitimate and fair budget. By then, it is November and right before Thanksgiving. BenTan says he made it happen to help the people.

Politics. Gotta love it.

Anonymous said...

The budget, as posted, says it all!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

George Avalos, “Football legend Roger Staubach takes on Bay Area real estate,” Oakland Tribune, Aug. 25, 2010:

“I don't know when the comeback will begin,” Staubach said.

The big problem: Companies simply aren't sure what the future holds. The 2011 tax system is a cipher. The effects of the new health care system pose a riddle. Financial regulations present a fresh set of mysteries.

To compound the enigma, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently stated that he sees “unusual uncertainty” for the economy.

“That word uncertainty just stops job creation because companies are waiting to see what happens,” Staubach said. “The sign that we really, truly are in a recovery is when you see the job market come back.”

Id. The CNMI has similar uncertainties about labor availability and labor cost -- both caused by the poorly executed federalization of immigration and wages. Until these are resolved, there will be no recovery in the CNMI.

Contrary to what Angelo Villagomez has written elsewhere, the cost of power was not an issue to most major tourism investments. Hotels have generated their own power for decades, and inhabitants are moving closer to workplaces and minimizing use of fuel, leaving ghettoes in “remote” areas like Kagman. Article XII adds overhead costs and inefficiencies -- repeal would be an economic boon -- but those have already been factored in by business in determining prices.

Most CNMI businesses are not “greedy;” they are simply doing what needs to be done to recover expenses and stay alive; turning a profit so their owners can eat.