CNMI House Democrats looking into finance chief's reprogramming power

SESSION: House members take a break from a session on Friday, April 23, 2021. Emmanuel T. Erediano/For The Guam Daily Post

SAIPAN — The Democrats in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands House of Representatives are considering the rejection of Republican Gov. Ralph Torres' Executive Order No. 2021-08, which renews the finance secretary's authority to reprogram funds.

The Democrats and their independent allies hold 10 of the House's 20 seats.

The executive order, which the governor issued on April 19, extends for another 30 days the finance secretary's authority to reprogram or transfer funds from any department, agency, office, board, commission, corporation, instrumentality or other entity of any branch of government to meet the COVID-19 threat.

During a session last Friday, Rep. Sheila Babauta, a Democrat, said this "unlimited reprogramming power is really a concern for me and many members of our community, especially those who work in the executive branch."

She said she supports Speaker Edmund Villagomez's decision to refer the governor's April 19 executive order to the Ways and Means Committee and requested that its chairman, Rep. Donald Manglona, look into it seriously.

Villagomez and Manglona are independents aligned with the Democrats.

Babauta said, aside from American Rescue Plan Act funding, the CNMI also stands to receive federal financial assistance for education and infrastructure projects, so there would be close to a billion dollars in federal moneys coming in.

With this huge amount of federal funding coming in, Babauta said, it is important that the Legislature discuss the executive order that the governor has been renewing every month for over a year now.

She said allowing the finance secretary to move money from any department, agency, commission, corporation, instrumentality and even government branches including the Legislature, "is a very high level of power."

Babauta said the Planning and Budgeting Act already grants department heads a 25% reprogramming authority. 

Another Democrat, Rep. Celina Babauta, said she doesn't see language in the CNMI Constitution that gives the finance secretary "unlimited reprogramming power," and allows the governor to delegate his reprogramming authority to anyone.

She also expressed doubt whether the governor can continue to use the COVID-19 pandemic as justification for "unlimited reprogramming power."

Manglona said, as soon as the session adjourns, he would schedule a committee meeting to discuss the governor's executive order. He also agrees that "this is something that we can tackle" in the early weeks of May.

Democratic Rep. Tina Sablan thanked Rep. Sheila Babauta for raising the issue, saying she agrees it is a serious matter and that the Legislature should discuss it.

Sablan said she supports rejecting the governor's executive order.

She also thanked Manglona for expediting the review of the executive order so the committee can obtain legal research on the constitutionality of the unlimited reprogramming power for the finance secretary, and look for options in rejecting the executive order.