Legitimacy of CNMI officials' huge pay raises challenged in court
Saipan --- The CNMI Office of the Attorney General is challenging the legitimacy of Public Law 19-83, filing a lawsuit against the legislative measure that gives local elected officials a huge pay raises.
PL 19-83 gives the governor an annual salary of $120,000 from $70,000 and the lieutenant governor $100,000 from $60,000. Lawmakers had the highest jump of more than 60 percent from $39,300 to $70,000. The four municipal mayors --- Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and the Northern Islands --- would get $75,000 from $43,200 according to PL 19-83 but it is not clear if the implementation of their new pay grade would also be stopped.
It was the first pay hike for CNMI officials in 20 years, but the OAG deems it unconstitutional for two reasons: first, the new salary grade was based on the recommendation of an Advisory Commission that was not validly constituted; and second, the recommended salary increase for legislators exceeded the change in an "accepted price index" since the last time it was adjusted.
Authored by House Speaker Rafael S. Demapan, PL 19-83 is the same law that gave civil servants a measly 5 percent increase. All civil service employees had already received their respective pay hikes after the money appropriated was part of the CNMI fiscal year 2017 budget, which was passed a few days before FY2016 ended thus avoiding a government shutdown.
The governor and lieutenant governor started with annual salaries of $20,000 and $18,000 each, while lawmakers received $8,000 when the CNMI Constitution was ratified in 1977. The elected officials' compensation can only be changed once every four years based on recommendations by the Advisory Commission on the Compensation for Elected Officials.
PL 4-32 increased their salaries for the first time on April 1, 1985 when then Gov. Pedro Tenorio signed it into law giving the governor, lieutenant governor, and legislators compensations of $50,000, $40,000, and $30,000, respectively while mayors were paid $21,000. Their annual compensation rose for the last time on June 19, 1991 through P.L. 7-31.
The salary increase for the legislators and mayors, even before the lawsuit, was already deemed to fail. The Legislature passed the bill knowing that there's no money allocated to fund it. An appropriation bill is needed to fund the increase, which would cost a little over $800,000 for the remaining fiscal year and $1.14 million every year after that.
The House voted 15-5 to pass HB 19-3 on Nov. 29 last year and the Senate with an 8-0 decision on Dec. 6. Sen. Paul A. Manglona of Rota was off-island during the Senate session. HB 19-3 was officially transmitted to the Governor's Office on Dec. 12.
Gov. Ralph Torres played it safe. He did not sign the bill and just let it sat on his desk until it lapsed into law on Jan. 20 or 40 days since it was received at his office. The CNMI Constitution states bills become laws in 20 days for appropriations and 40 for non-appropriation measures.
At the time, Torres was in Washington D.C. attending the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Senate President Arnold I. Palacios became the acting governor since Lt. Gov. Victor B. Hocog attended Palau President Tommy Remengasau's swearing in ceremony.
And without a funding source, the legislators are still receiving the same salaries while Torres and Hocog won't be benefiting from it as the next administration in 2019 would earn the salary increase.
Torres informed the Legislature that he won't identify a funding source for the lawmakers' pay hike, a statement that did not sit well to Demapan, who suggested that he should have vetoed the bill rather than allowing it to become a law.
Unless new revenue sources could be found, the legislators' salary increase remains on hold. A welcome twist for those who oppose and questioned the huge jump of their compensation while giving civil servants only five percent while other government employees, in critical agencies like law enforcement, have not gotten any pay hike for years.
through PL 7-31. giving the governor, lieutenant governor, and legislators compensations of $50,000, $40,000, and $30,000, respectively while mayors were paid $21,000. Their annual compensation rose for the last time on June 19, 1991 through PL 7-31.