CNMI LAWMAKERS SUSPEND EDUCATION TAX CREDIT
Strong community opposition fails to defeat bill
By Haidee V. Eugenio
SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April 28, 2011) – For almost two hours yesterday, teachers, administrators, parents, and students from public and private schools in the Northern Mariana Islands took turns asking the House of Representatives not to pass a Senate bill suspending the educational tax credit (ETC), but to no avail.
Despite strong opposition from community members in the House gallery on Capital Hill, Senate Bill 17-68 passed by a vote of 11-7, with one abstention and one absence.
The bill seeks to suspend the ETC program during periods of government austerity or when biweekly payroll is less than the regular 80 hours.
Many government employees are now paid only 64 hours every two weeks.
Rep. Tony Sablan (R-Saipan) described SB 17-68′s passage as a “reckless disregard of comments from professionals in the field of education-private or public schools, and also from parents and students.”
No member of the public in the House gallery supported the ETC suspension bill, which they said will do more harm than good during these tough times.
Scott Norman, president of the Coalition of Private Schools, said he’s “extremely disappointed” with the bill’s passage.
Norman, who is also the principal of Calvary Christian Academy, said the House members who supported the bill didn’t take into consideration the concerns of private and public schools that will be negatively impacted by the bill.
“It’s not a well thought out bill, there was no real impact study made,” he told Saipan Tribune.
Norman said the coalition will lobby the governor not to sign the bill into law.
The Senate said it would be better to directly fund the Public School System (PSS) rather than giving ETCs during periods of government austerity. The bill says during difficult economic times, the government cannot afford a tax credit that diminishes the overall money received in tax revenues.
Tempers flared as House members debated the bill, after hearing public comments from those in the gallery on Capital Hill.
Rep. Joseph Palacios (R-Saipan) said during the session that there’s one or two private schools allegedly abusing ETC funding and is now under probe. He said the ETC funding is allegedly used to benefit only the school(s) officials instead of students.
But Sablan said the House should not punish the rest of the private and public schools only because of the alleged wrongdoing of one or two private schools. He said there’s a system to investigate and penalize violators of the ETC law.
Those who voted to suspend the ETC program were: Rep. Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan), floor leader George Camacho (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Fred Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan), Rep. Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), Rep. Sylvester Iguel (Cov-Saipan), Vice Speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan), Rep. Joseph Palacios (R-Saipan), Rep. Froilan Tenorio (Cov-Saipan), Rep. Stanley Torres (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Trenton Conner (R-Tinian), and Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan).
Those who voted against suspending the ETC bill were: House minority leader Diego Benavente (R-Saipan), Rep. Frank Dela Cruz (R-Saipan), Rep. Joseph Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan), Sablan, Rep. Teresita Santos (Ind-Rota), Rep. Ray Tebuteb (R-Saipan), and Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan).
Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan) abstained from voting, while Rep. Ray Palacios (Cov-Saipan) was absent.
Benavente (R-Saipan) said it is “disturbing” for the bill to pass even though there’s overwhelming opposition to it from the individuals and institutions that will be directly affected if the measure becomes law.
He encouraged teachers, students, and parents to share their concerns with the governor.
Under the educational tax credit law, taxpayers could make cash contributions to qualifying educational institutions, including PSS and the Northern Marianas College, and receive a nonrefundable credit on their primary local taxes.
Teachers and other officials from PSS and the Coalition of Private Schools said ETC funding is a big help to schools who use the money to improve student learning.
Education Commissioner Dr. Rita Sablan, Board of Education (BOE) member Herman Guerrero, BOE vice chair Tanya King, and Public School System federal programs officer Tom Thornburgh were among education officials who asked House members not to pass the bill.
Also among those who testified against passage of the bill were Saipan Seventh Day Adventist School’s Michael Berglund, Joycelyn Atalig of Rota High School, Marianas High School principal Craig Garrison, Pastor Ray Kinsella of Grace Christian Academy, former BOE member Roman Benavente, Saipan Community School principal Bobby Winkfield, parent Milagros Merjilla, and Garapan Elementary School principal Yvonne Pangelinan.
Many of them also doubted that the proposed suspension of the ETC program is “temporary.”
Guerrero said years back, it cost US$6,000 to educate a child; now it’s less than US$3,000.
He also said schools have already cut their spending, but not other branches or agencies of government.
At this point, Rep. Fred Deleon Guerrero said the Legislature has already taken a cut in allotment.
Based on information from House members, PSS received US$240,397.52 in ETC donations in fiscal year 2009 while private schools received US$962,382.77.
In Fiscal Year 2010, PSS received US$240,892.02, while private schools got $708,588.22.
The Saipan Chamber of Commerce had also asked the House not to pass the educational tax credit suspension bill.
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