After a month of political controversy over the 2023 fiscal year budget, the Northern Mariana Islands remain no closer to the passage of a bill that would stave off a shutdown.
In late August, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives unanimously passed a budget that included money for retiree’s pensions, a hot button issue in the commonwealth this past year, as well as tax increases on tobacco and sugar. However, the budget was met with sharp criticism from Governor Ralph Torres (R). Torres argued that the bill unjustly gave $1.2 million to the House for discretionary spending. Additionally, his legal counsel suggested that the bill illegally misused funds appropriated from the American Rescue Plan, which was passed by President Joe Biden (D) last year. Torres also criticized the bill for slashing the budgets of numerous government offices, such as the Carolinian Affairs Office, the Indigenous Affairs Office, the Women’s Affairs Office, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the CNMI scholarship office. He then criticized the unprecedented inclusion of taxes in the bill and suggested the move was unconstitutional.
Following in step with the governor, in mid-September, the Republican-controlled Senate passed their own budget with the unanimous approval of those present. The Senate President, Jude Hofschnieder (R), accused the House of running past deadlines and giving the Senate too little time to deliberate over the bill. Senate legal counsel also reiterated Torres’ accusations that the tax provision was unconstitutional and that the budget defunded many government offices. The Senate’s version of the budget bill, in response, removed the tax additions and rebalanced the funding such that more appropriations come from the Northern Mariana Islands’ budget and less from the American Rescue Plan.
In late September, the House rejected the Senate’s counter-proposal in a vote that trended along partisan lines. Representative Manglona (I), the author of the original house bill, turned Torres’ accusations on their head, insisting that it was the Senate and Governor’s proposal that defunded government institutions and saying that the CNMI government would be incapable and weak under the Senate’s budget.
The deadline for the budget is October 1, after which a partial government shutdown is likely. Governor Torres said that a shutdown is both a very real possibility and also the House’s fault, arguing that they received his initial budget in April and took until August to move on it. At present, the shutdown seems likely, as the House and Senate’s positions are irreconcilable and the two chambers seem to be at a stalemate. With luck, compromise will prevail, but the deadline is worryingly close.