Nov. 5, 2003 – All 15 senators met privately at 1 p.m. on Wednesday to discuss the mark-up of the Fiscal Year 2004 budget. By around 2:30, the five minority bloc senators, six of the 10 majority senators and a lot of plates of food were left.
And the only thing that was accomplished, according to most senators still there at that point, was the enjoyment of a good meal.
The budget mark-up meeting, held at the offices of the Economic Development Authority, had originally been scheduled for Thursday. The majority had formally invited the minority senators to meet then to participate in a mark-up session. On Monday, however Sen. Usie Richards, the minority leader, wrote to Senate President David Jones thanking him for inviting the Minority Caucus to the session but asking that the meeting be changed to an "earlier" date because of a conflict involving all of the minority senators.
Richards told Jones the "Invitation to Budget Mark-up" had arrived in his office at the end of the day last Friday after the minority had already accepted an invitation to participate in a Central Labor Council summit scheduled for this Thursday. (See "Clashes, closed doors make budget a mystery".)
Although there was no public announcement, the majority in fact did reschedule the meeting for Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, ironically, the president of the Central Labor Council, Luis "Tito" Morales, announced that the summit had been postponed because "some of the stakeholders have [advised] us that they are unable to meet" on Thursday.
Sen. Celestino A. White, speaking from the meeting in the EDA offices on Wednesday, said: "We were all here. Now, there's the minority and Sens. Berry, David, Donastorg, Malone and Hansen. The Senate president walked out, Canton walked out, Renee and Russell walked out — they said they had to catch a plane."
"We're not doing anything. We are simply eating," White continued, adding an invitation to come down. "We have 25 plates of food."
As far as what had been accomplished at the meeting, "They should have listened to Donastorg or Berry," White said. "Berry has years of fiscal experience."
He then handed the telephone to Sen. Lorraine Berry, who confirmed his report. "We are eating now, waiting to see if Sen. Jones is coming back," she said.
Jones, contacted at his office, said he would not be going back to the meeting. "Senators Berry and Donastorg are there. The members of the team should continue the meeting," he said.
Although he did not elaborate, Jones apparently was not pleased with the tone of the meeting. He noted that "the Minority Caucus asked us to move up the meeting, because of the labor meeting."
Jones said no further meeting with the minority caucus on the budget is scheduled. "If there needs to be one, certainly [we'd meet]," he said, but no such meeting is scheduled, and "we are continuing to meet with our legal counsel on drafting legislation for Monday." He added regarding the mark-up of the budget: "It's a fluid process."
Sen. Louis Hill, upon returning from the meeting, offered this assessment: "We didn't discuss anything substantive, and the meeting broke up."
According to Berry, "We had some discussion, but it got out of control, and it ended. We couldn't continue because almost everybody had left. Sens. Renee and Russell had to catch a 3 p.m. flight back to St. Croix. Sen. Hansen left. There was discussion with both sides explaining some of the proposals. The minority said they wanted it in writing."
Berry acknowledged that because the meeting had been held a day earlier than planned, "we weren't ready." The meeting had been scheduled for Thursday "as a courtesy" to the minority bloc, she said, but having the session on Wednesday afternoon "changed everything."
The next step in the budget process, Berry said, will be to "continue to work through the weekend and collect all the information and do due diligence on all the initiatives." She said the minority's numerous proposals regarding both revenue enhancement and spending cutbacks would be considered. "All of the proposals are going through an analysis by the post auditor now, to see if they are feasible," she said.
"We are going over everybody's proposals," Berry said. "Every senator has his own ideas."
The Finance Committee is scheduled to meet Monday and Nov. 12 to finalize the mark-up of its version of the FY2004 budget, after which it is scheduled for the Rules Committee on Nov. 13 and 14.
Jones confirmed on Wednesday that he has called the full Senate into session Nov. 17-21 to take up the budget. However, he said the session wouldn't necessarily last all five days. "It's time we set aside," he said.
Fiscal Year 2004 began Oct. 1. Until the budget is in place, the FY 2003 version remains in effect. While most department and agency heads in hearings before the Finance Committee last summer asked for an increase in 2004 appropriations, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's budget proposal, submitted on Aug. 29, calls for $10 million less in spending than in 2003.
Before Morales sent out a fax late Wednesday afternoon announcing the postponement of the labor summit, several senators including Jones said it had been called off. Calls to Morales' office were unreturned. The labor leader had said previously that the purpose of the summit was to oppose several of the governor's budget proposals, especially cutting employees back to a 36-hour work week.
Several senators, Jones and Donastorg among them, have said publicly that there is no chance they would vote for that measure. On Tuesday, speaking on WVWI Radio, Sen. Douglas Canton Jr., the majority leader, pronounced idea "dead in the water."
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