Saipan — A piece of legislation that would amend the legislators' annual salary from $39,000 to $32,000 is now awaiting Gov. Ralph Torres’ action.
House Bill 20-195, which would apply to the incoming legislature, almost failed to muster the required three-fourth vote as several senators raised concerns about the bill, which eventually passed.
Torres has 10 days left to sign the bill that was introduced anew by Rep. Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) into law or the annual salaries of all lawmakers would go down to $8,000 as per the decision of the CNMI Supreme Court.
Members of the 21st Legislature could have received $70,000 annual salary as stated in the controversial Public Law 19-83 but the CNMI attorney general challenged it in the court.
The inauguration and opening of the 21st CNMI Legislature is on Jan. 14 with the local GOP keeping its hold of the majority both in the House (13-7) and Senate (6-3).
The Supreme Court then ruled in September that the almost 80 percent increase is unconstitutional including two previous Public Laws (4-32 and 7-31). P.L. 7-31 set the legislators’ salary to $39,300. Deleon Guerrero introduced H.B. 20-194 to keep $39,300 for the next Legislature, based on the recommendation of the Advisory Commission on Compensation for Commonwealth Executive, Legislative, and Judicial officers.
H.B. 20-194 passed both the House and Senate as they were trying to prevent the salary from going down to $8,000 but it was vetoed by then acting Gov. Victor B. Hocog, who believed the $39,300 recommended by the commission was way “too much.” He was amenable to the $32,000 level.
At last Thursday’s Senate session, all seven members present—Senate President Arnold I. Palacios (R-Saipan), Senate vice president Steve K. Mesngon (R-Rota), floor leader Francisco M. Borja (R-Tinian), legislative secretary Justo S. Quitugua (Ind-Saipan), and Senators Francisco Q. Cruz (R-Tinian), Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian), and Sixto K. Igisomar (R-Saipan)—voted yes. Sens. Teresita A. Santos (R-Rota) and Paul A. Manglona (Ind-Rota) were absent.
Before the voting, Quitugua asked Senate legal counsel Jose A. Bermudes if voting on the bill would be a conflict of interest since he is a returning member of the 21st Legislature. Only Palacios and Mesngon won’t be returning to the Senate with the former winning as Torres’ lt. gov. in the last elections while the latter lost in his bid for Rota mayor.
“Every year we vote on a CNMI budget and if the Constitution would be our basis, does that make us in conflict too since we are voting for our salaries that are also established in the bill.,” Hofschneider said.
Bermudes sided with Hofschneider. “If we follow that argument on the bills that have an effect on the financial interest of the legislators and fiscal budget that includes salaries of legislators, then everybody is conflicted. Then, we can’t pass the budget.