Nov. 10, 2003 – The Senate Finance Committee's final battles over the fiscal year 2004 budget got under way on Monday in ferocious fashion.
Although the committee managed to act on 27 of 29 budget bills, it was not a pretty process. To date proceedings in the 25th Legislature had been far more civil than in the 24th; however, when issues were raised on Monday as to who initiated which proposals, things quickly degenerated.
Neither the 10-member majority nor the five minority bloc senators approve of certain proposals presented by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull — notably cutting back to a 36-hour work week, increasing the gross receipts tax, adding a 10 percent income tax surcharge, imposing a year-long moratorium on collective bargaining and imposing a surcharge on car rentals. Ironically, this very lack of disagreement sparked the discord: It became a matter of who could put their voice on record first.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste is the lone minority member of the seven-seat Finance Committee. The minority has devised an extensive list of amendments to the governor's budget bills which it has made public, and which it wanted to place on the floor Monday.
Sen. Luther Renee, the committee vice chair, motioned successfully to reorder the agenda to place five of the governor's controversial proposals first, and to address the remainder of the measure in blocks of five. Over Jn Baptiste's objections, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the committee chair, persevered in calling the bills to the floor, as the chair's prerogative.
After voting with the other members on the first bill, Jn Baptiste subsequently declined to vote, as a "protest" against the procedure.
Five administration revenue measures rejected
The committee voted down bills:
– No. 25-0122 – to reduce the government employee work week; to place a one-year moratorium on union contract negotiations; and to reduce annual and sick leave payments.
– No. 25-0125 – to authorize the Office of Management and Budget to transfer funds from vacancy savings between one department or agency and another.
– No. 25-0127 – to add a surcharge to rental vehicles.
– No. 25-0128 – to increase the gross receipts tax from 4 per cent to 4.25 per cent.
– No. 25-0129 – to establish a 10 per cent surcharge on personal income tax.
After the votes were in, the fireworks started. Donastorg had said he would allot each senator five minute of debate time. However, the votes were taken before any minority senators other than Jn Baptiste had spoken.
Sen. Usie Richards, the minority leader, was incensed. He jumped up and approached Donastorg's chair expressing his disgust with the procedure. "Is this an attempt to pre-empt members elected to this body to put their views on record?" he demanded. "This is disrespectful to those of us who want to speak on these bills."
Sen. Celestino A. White joined Richards on the floor, raising his voice to Donastorg. "No one in the Virgin Islands will keep me from speaking," he said. "This is disrespectful to those of us who want to speak on these bills."
Donastorg called a five-minute recess, which developed into about a half-hour break with the majority senators reportedly holding an impromptu caucus while the minority senators spoke to reporters.
Minority chart purports to show majority's plan
Although the majority has not made any of its budget plans public, Sen. Carlton Dowe, a minority member, had a print-out of a chart that purportedly compared the governor's, the minority's and the majority's proposals.
The chart indicated majority proposals to balance the budget utilizing $30 million from the Insurance Guaranty Fund, $40 million from two property tax billings in the one fiscal year, $8 million from a 3 percent tax on gasoline at the wholesale level, and $20 million from an IBM contract calling for a company called "GS" to find those who are under-reporting their income or not filing tax returns.
These alleged proposals were threaded in and out of the debate for the balance of the day, along with repeated calls from the minority senators for the majority to reveal its budget initiatives.
"I hope the media will not report these inaccurate figures without checking," Sen. Louis Hill, a majority member, said. "Those two property tax bills — there is no such proposal." He said the majority would present its actual proposals at Wednesday's committee meeting.
"If these aren't the right ones, where are the right ones?" Dowe asked It was a question echoed by his minority colleagues throughout the day.
Donastorg, too, said the proposals would be revealed on Wednesday. "We will put in place a policy that will prevent the administration from spending like drunken sailors," he said. "Our proposals are 10 times better than the governor's."
According to Hill, "Our proposals won't cure all the territory's ills; they have been building for years, decades. They will represent the best. You can't just simply cut budgets; we have to expand the tax base and the consolidation of agencies."
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, also of the majority, said they had dusted off the "five-year plan" and implemented some of its ideas. His reference was apparently to the Five Year Operating and Strategic Financial Plan developed by the Economic Recovery Task Force appointed by the governor at the start of his administration. The task force submitted the extensive department-by-department restructuring plan in April 2000; with few exceptions, its recommendations have been gathering dust since then.
Revolution vowed to protect people's rights
Jn Baptiste after accusing the majority of stealing the minority's work — "Bill-thieving is what it is!" — took particular umbrage at the idea of "double taxing the people twice in one year." He said the majority "had better be prepared to do war. I will begin a revolution in this community to protect the rights of the people. I will grab around the neck and mop up the floor with any individual [who does that]."
Furthermore, Jn Baptiste, said, the majority senators "are like a pack of marauding hyenas moving on an injured wildebeest."
Donastorg took all the comments in good stride, occasionally inserting remarks comparing Jn Baptiste to David confronting Goliath. "Maybe he stole some of these lines from the movie 'The Gladiators,'" he said.
The rest of the day's deliberations lacked the drama of the first couple of hours, but it had its moments. Dowe wouldn't reveal where he had come across certain data, making a joking remark about "bugging." Donastorg replied that some of the figures sounded accurate. "Maybe there's some truth to that," he said.
Sens. Ronald Russell, Hill, Roosevelt David and Malone deplored the lack of decorum in the meeting, reminding their colleagues that they are role models "children might emulate."
Things heated up again when Richards, still smarting from the earlier rebuff, objected to what he saw as poor treatment of veterans in the budget bill funding the University of the Virgin Islands. The majority had amended the bill to give UVI sole discretion in dispensing funds for veterans' tuition, among several other items.
Richards accused the majority of befriending the veterans and then "sticking a knife in their backs." He accused the majority of lying. Then he had to leave to catch a flight for St. Croix.
Hill entered into the argument. "It's clear in black and white," he said. "I don't understand distorting the information. It's important for this body not to mislead people. They listen to what we say."
Malone elaborated: "What we did was take out the line-items and take out the limits." As a result, he said, UVI will be able to spend as much
sees fit. "Before, $184,000 was all they could spend on the veterans' tuition," he said.
Dowe challenged a majority amendment suspending an annual $2 million appropriation from the Internal Matching Fund to the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund for one year. He asked the St. Croix senators why they hadn't opposed it. They explained that there already is $55 million set aside for St. Croix development.
Dowe also said the hotels are hiring, "Look at the want ads," he said. And his pet concern, capital projects, are looking up on St. Thomas. One cause in particular that Dowe has long championed is coming to fruition: He said the League of Women Voters has withdrawn its appeal, and work on the $18 million Long Bay federal road project can now commence.
Economist's plea is to promote consumer spending
Renee, an economist, cautioned his colleagues on taxing bills. "We have to look at consumer spending," he said. "Sixty-seven per cent of the gross territorial product is composed of consumer spending. Consumers can only spend when there are jobs and incomes to do so."
He counseled: "Forget taxing. That's not the way to go. We need to remove anything that reduces the spending power of the public."
Jn Baptiste in closing turned his criticism to the majority's alleged proposals on gasoline tax and property taxes. "I wonder if this body is using alcohol or other drugs, or what it is smoking," he said.
Donastorg asked Jn Baptiste where all the minority's amendments were. "I had imagined you would have a huge amount,'' he said.
Jn Baptiste replied: "I had several amendments and I was denied. My hands were tied. I shouted 'Motion,' and I was stopped." He said he would bring the amendments up in the Rules Committee meetings later this week, "where I think they will be more accommodating."
Donastorg told Jn Baptiste that he thought his ideas about the senators using "influencing" substances should be checked out: "I commend you; I congratulate you. You bring a draft to me Wednesday morning, and we will set up drug testing for senators. Or, what do you call it? A sobriety test?"
Donastorg said the majority's proposals will be presented in an Omnibus Bill which will be on Wednesday's agenda along with two bills deferred from Monday: They are No. 25-0120 – the operating budget for all government departments and agencies, and No. 25-0126 – to impose a surtax on hotel rooms and time-share occupancies.
Budget bills passed on Monday
Approved Monday on votes of 6-1 with Jn Baptiste not voting were:
No. 25-0104 – to appropriate $25.3 million for salaries and expenses of the University of the Virgin Islands and for other purposes.
No. 25-0105 – to appropriate $2.4 million from the Government Insurance Fund for operating expenses of the Finance Department and the Labor Department.
No. 25-0106 – to provide for a lump-sum appropriation of $3.5 million from the Indirect Cost Fund — $1.1 million for the Office of Management and Budget, $149,952 for the Personnel Division, $212,900 for the Property and Procurement Department and $2.1 million for the Finance Department — for salaries and operating expenses, and for other purposes.
No. 25-0108 – to appropriate $1.5 million from the Land Bank Fund to the General Fund.
No. 25-0109 – to appropriation $61 million from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund.
No. 25-0110 – to appropriate $6 million from the Caribbean Basin Initiative Fund.
No. 25-0111 – to appropriate $3.8 million from the Anti-Litter and Beautification Fund to the Public Works Department, and for other purposes.
No. 25-0112 – to appropriate $443,352 to the Taxicab Division for operating expenses.
No. 25-0113 – to appropriate $279,497 from the Transportation Revolving Fund to the Property and Procurement Department for salaries, benefits, supplies and other services and charges.
No. 25-0114 – to appropriate $12.5 million from the Transportation Trust Fund to the General Fund.
No. 25-0115 – to appropriate $611,067 to the Public Services Commission for operating expenses.
No. 25-0116 – to appropriate $1.9 million from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund to the Public Works Department for operating costs.
No. 25-0117 – to appropriate $925,000 from the Tourism and Advertising Revolving Fund to the Housing, Parks and Recreation Department.
No. 25-0118 – to appropriate $462,500 for the Public Employees Relations Board and $100,000 for the Labor Management Committee for operating expenses.
No. 25-0119 – to appropriate $4.5 million from the interest earned on bond proceeds to the General Fund.
No. 25-0121 – to amend the V.I. Code to increase the stamp tax on real property.
No. 25-0123 – to amend the V.I. Code to provide for the annual transfer of $2 million from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund to the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund, but suspending the transfer for FY 2004.
No. 25-0124 – to amend the V.I. Code to defer implementation of a provision for an annual appropriation to the Crisis Intervention Fund, due to insufficient revenues.
No. 25-0130 – to appropriate $1.7 million from the Business and Commercial Properties Revolving Fund to the government of the Virgin Islands for operating expenses.
No. 25-0131 – to appropriate $700,000 from the Sewage System Fund to the Public Works Department for operating expenses.
No. 25-0134 – to appropriate $19.9 million to the Territorial Court and $352,353 to the Judicial Council for salaries and operating expenses.
No. 25-0135 – to appropriate $2.1 million to the Territorial Public Defender's Office for operating expenses.
These 22 bills and whatever other legislation is approved by the Finance Committee on Wednesday, following Tuesday's Veterans Day holiday, will proceed to the Rules Committee, which is scheduled to take the budget measures up on Thursday and Friday.
The full Senate is scheduled to meet next week to adopt the budget.
All Finance Committee members were present on Monday: Sens. David, Donastorg, Hill, Jn Baptiste, Malone, Renee and Russell. Also present were Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Richards and White, who are not members of the committee.
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