US commonwealth government partially shuts down

The government of the Northern Mariana Islands partially shut down Friday because the Legislature of the U.S. commonwealth failed to pass a balanced budget on time.

More than 1,400 government employees were out of work until lawmakers approve a budget and Gov. Benigno R. Fitial signs it into law. The affected workers hold so-called nonessential positions as defined by Fitial.

A new budget bill passed by the House on Wednesday night was amended by the Senate early Thursday.

The House then moved its Thursday afternoon session to Friday evening, effectively killing any chance of having a budget passed by Thursday's deadline, the Saipan Tribune reported.

"Today is a sad day in the history of the CNMI," Senate President Paul A. Manglona said after the House postponed its afternoon session.

"In my 23 years in the Legislature, I have never seen a House leadership that has turned its back to the people," said Manglona, R-Rota. "It's a total disrespect to the people who gave them the right to represent them."

Leaders in the House said the Senate's version, if passed, would not balance the $132 million budget and would lead to the layoff of 383 employees in the executive branch alone.

Fitial declared a state of emergency Thursday afternoon, because under the commonwealth's constitution, the government can't draw money from the general fund, with the exception of certain essential services, if an appropriations act is not in effect on Oct. 1.

Fitial's list of "essential" workers, who are exempt from the shutdown, is mostly comprised of those who provide services related to public safety, health, education and welfare.

Tony Babauta, the U.S. Interior Department's assistant secretary for insular areas, said in a statement issued in Washington that he was confident the governor would ensure the continuation of all essential services to protect the safety and welfare of residents.

"During this time, my office will work with other federal agencies to make certain that federal programs operating in the CNMI continue," Babauta said. "I am hopeful that a practical resolution can be reached promptly."

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