Nov. 15, 2003 Senate Finance Chairman Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg on Friday commented on what has been reported as a $35.5 million increase in the Senate majority's budget over the governor's fiscal year 2004 budget. The bulk of the increase was created by an administration error, Donastorg said.
He said the executive budget listed $28 million in debt-service payments in the revenue column of the miscellaneous section. "They backed out the $28 million on the revenue side, as opposed to putting it under expenditures," he said. "When we take the $28 million and put it under expenditures, of course the miscellaneous section will go up.
"I think the administration is being a little deceitful," he said.
The purported $35.5 million increase would raise the miscellaneous spending from $96 million to $130.7 million.
"We took the working capital loan/debt service ($21.8 million) and the Y2K loan/debt service ($6 million) from the revenue column and put it in the expenditures where it should have been in the first place," he said. "That's why our budget is greater than the administration's."
Other majority senators said the published information is incorrect.
"It is unfortunate that this was leaked to the press," Senate President David Jones said Saturday. "That's what happens when documents are placed in the public domain without proper explanation, taken out of context."
He said the released information is a "working document."
"We didn't want to release it until we have a firm decision on what we're going to do," he said.
Jones said the majority's budget will be on Monday's Finance Committee meeting agenda.
Jones said that, weather permitting, the Finance Committee will hold its second and final meeting Monday, forwarding the budget to the Rules Committee on Tuesday and Wednesday. During the rest of the week, the body will meet in full session to approve the final budget and pass it to Government House.
It is anticipated that the Tourism Authority bill will also be on the full Senate agenda, so it's possible the session could reach into the following week.
Tuesday's Labor and Veterans Affairs meeting has been preempted, Jones said, due to the inclement weather that caused the reshuffling of the Senate calendar. No new date for the meeting has been set, but Jones said an official Senate calendar will be published Monday.
The fiscal year 2004 budget has dominated headlines for months, with countless meetings between the Senate and the governor's financial team. It has caused much discord among the senators themselves, and has created distrust among constituents because of the many meetings held behind closed doors.
"This is the worst budget I've ever had to deal with," Donastorg said.
Finance Committee hearings have been going on since early July. "When you're dealing with a budget and using a spreadsheet, you have to find the most workable scenario," he said. "It's been a long and lengthy process right down to the last minute."
Donastorg cited instances of overspending. For instance, he said, the Legislature alone spends about $1,300 a month on telephone information charges.
"Why don't they use the phone book?" he asked. "If that's just for the Legislature, you can imagine what the entire government charges are."
Also, Donastorg said, the government doesn't have a single long-distance carrier. "Some departments are paying 94 cents a minute. If that isn't ignorant, I don't know what is."
He said the majority is putting a policy in place to put out a bid for a single government carrier through which "we could probably get close to 3.5 cents a minute."
Donastorg, responding to the published figures, confirmed the Legislature's own budget has been increased to cover debts of the 24th and other previous legislatures. However, he did not confirm the published $3 million figure.
"We have debts carried over from the 24th, and we decided to approach and liquidate these debts, just like the administration borrowed money from the General Fund to satisfy its debts," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Douglas Canton said Friday the majority had done an audit of the 24th Legislature. "Hopefully, all the documents are there," he said. "Based on what we were able to attain, its budget was way overspent." He said it was not just the 24th, but other Senate bodies as well.
"These things have accumulated and former legislatures have ignored them," he said. "We're being very aggressive in dealing with these debts." He said the 25th Legislature is still getting bills for "a media show from the 24th they're still asking to be paid."
Canton expressed optimism about the caucus' work so far. "It seemed so formidable a task, and these 10 people have bumped heads, but gotten together in a really big way in terms of how things look now."
Canton, too, said he was displeased at the publication of what he termed "inaccurate figures."
"This is a work in progress," he said. "It shouldn't have been made public."
Sen. Emmett Hansen II agreed. "It's wrong, wrong, wrong," he said, referring to the documents themselves and to their publication.
The documents in question were released to the Source, as well as other media outlets, late Wednesday evening. The Source did not publish the information because it could not obtain verification of the figures from majority members at the time.
The minority senators have been champing at the bit to get a look at what the majority has in mind, but thus far have been thwarted in their efforts, except for the documents released earlier this week. They have been sharply critical of their majority colleagues.
The minority caucus presented a 25-point budget-generating plan in April; some of these measures have since become law.
On Monday, minority senators tried to place amendments in its current budget proposal on the floor, but after much discussion, decided to wait until a Rules Committee meeting. Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, the lone minority member of the Finance Committee, said that panel "might be more accommodating."
(See "Finance rejects 36-hour week, 3 tax measures.")
Jones said the majority senators are meeting over the weekend to put the finishing touches on its budget, which has been delayed since Tuesday because of the inclement weather and other issues.
(See "Budget session delayed again, not just by rain." )
The public and the minority will have an opportunity to see the majority's budget at Monday's Finance Committee meeting.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name, and the city and state/country or island where you reside.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.