SAIPAN — The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands House Ways and Means Committee and the Department of Finance are looking at the possibility of increasing the government's fiscal year 2022 budget amount to $105 million from $98.8 million.

These amounts do not include debt payments, including those for the retirees' Settlement Fund, which will receive $39 million from the CNMI government in FY 2022.

In separate interviews, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Donald Manglona and Finance Secretary David Atalig said there is a possibility of additional revenue in the next fiscal year by using a portion of the CNMI's American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for certain government obligations.

Manglona said the fiscal 2022 budget concurrent resolution has been drafted, and he was ready to prefile it this week. He said, however, he had to hold it back "pending clarification" regarding the possibility of additional revenue.

Atalig said Manglona is asking "that we use American Rescue Plan Act funds for bond payments to increase the base budget resource from $98 million to about $105 million."

Of course, he added, 25% of $105 million will have to go to the Public School System, as required by the CNMI Constitution.

"We also anticipate to revise the projected budget resources in July as allowed by the Planning and Budget Act," Atalig said.

Ready to deliberate

In a separate interview, Speaker Edmund Villagomez said the House of Representatives is ready to begin deliberations on the budget for fiscal 2022, which starts Oct. 1, 2021.

He said he plans to call for a session by the end of this week to act on a resolution to concur with the governor's fiscal 2022 budget proposal, which was submitted to the Legislature on April 1, 2021.

The governor said $98.8 million in projected revenues are available for government appropriation.

The speaker said there may be a change in the amount of the budgetary resources, "and that's something we want clarified."

Villagomez said legislators want to find out if the administration is correct to say that a certain amount from the CNMI's American Rescue Plan Act funds can be used to meet some of the commonwealth obligations so that additional local revenue can be appropriated by the government.

"We wanted to get clarity in terms of (paying, for example,) the Settlement Fund. One of the boundaries of ARPA is that we cannot pay pensions. But there is an argument that it's not really a pension fund anymore, it is (now) the Settlement Fund. Still, according to the opposing argument, that fund is taking care of the retirees," the speaker said.

He said lawmakers want to "free up a few million dollars in local revenue so that the Legislature can appropriate."

In his budget submission, Gov. Ralph Torres told the Legislature that the American Rescue Plan Act funds "will aid the Commonwealth in the restoration of hours affected by austerity due to loss of government revenues impacted by the public health emergency."

Torres said the funds also will allow for the reinstatement of government employees who were furloughed, and the cancellation of reduction in force as well as other measures to address "the impacts of the public health emergency."