Nov. 17, 2003 – The Senate Finance Committee reconvened Monday a full week after the first day of its scheduled two-day session — interrupted by the weather — and passed the majority's anxiously awaited fiscal year 2004 executive branch budget. The appropriations totaled $527.9 million, $29.7 million less than the $557.6 million proposed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
However, Monday's figure is misleading: It comprises the reconfigured executive department and agency allotments from the General Fund. The budget is not complete without the Omnibus bill which as of 10 p.m. Monday had not surfaced in the Finance Committee's deliberations.
The figure does not include $25.3 for the University of the Virgin Islands, nor the Legislature's budget
The Omnibus Bill contains numerous amendments — revenue-generating measures, cost-cutting measures, policy initiatives — which will yield the final budget. The bill was in surgery in the Journal Section of the Legislature all day Monday for last-minute revisions. It will likely provide fodder for debate for the duration of the budget process before the Rules Committee and on the Senate floor.
It will confirm or give the lie to majority initiatives rumored by the minority caucus at the Nov. 10 Finance meeting, rumors not totally denied by the majority caucus. At that time, minority senators provided the media copies of a chart purporting to show majority proposals to balance the budget that included $30 million to come from the Insurance Guaranty Fund, $40 million from two property tax billings within the 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 track down those who are under-reporting their income or not filing tax returns.
The Senate's own budget was not take up Monday. The Legislature devises its own budget, and it will be on the Rules Committee agenda Tuesday or Wednesday. Without confirming a published increase of $3 million to $17 million, Sen. Douglas Canton, the majority leader, said last week that the body's budget was being increased in order to clear remaining debts from previous Legislatures, in particular the 24th.
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd, president of the 24th Legislature, took umbrage at Canton's assertion. He said the body had left no outstanding debts and suggested the Office of Inspector General audit the 24th Legislature's records.
Earlier in the day, the committee unanimously passed the governor's proposed 2 per cent surtax on hotel rooms and time-share occupancy, which is projected to generate $3 million in new revenue for the General Fund. Majority senators said on Monday that they will offer an amendment in the Rules Committee to earmark that revenue for the Tourism and Advertising Revolving Fund. Sens. Roosevelt David and Louis Hill spoke in favor of the amendment.
Hill said the territory lags behind "some of our other Caribbean competitors." Jamaica, he said, "spends $30 million annually on tourism funding." And he said there is evidence that "every one dollar spent on tourism advertising earns three dollars in return."
David said the measure should be incorporated into the bill creating a Tourism Authority which is scheduled to come up on the agenda for the coming full Senate session along with the FY 2004 budget.
Almost all of Monday morning was devoted to lambasting certain members of the media for publishing material leaked last week that purportedly was from the majority budget. Even more galling to the senators was an editorial published on Monday in The Virgin Islands Daily News sharply criticizing the Senate budget process and calling the purported majority budget "ridiculous."
The majority senators defended what Sen. Ronald Russell called holding the budget "close to the vest." Russell suggested holding a "media summit" to clear issues. He called the editorial "disgusting, creating chaos."
Donastorg repeated what he has said before: "This is one of the most difficult budgets I've had to deal with. It is the best workable package we could come up with. No one will be totally satisfied, but at the end of the day we will come up with a balanced budget."
Hill said the majority has "been responsible. We have held the budget close to the chest because it was not appropriate to give it to the public until it was complete." He added: "We have not been as forthcoming as the media would like, but we didn't want to confuse the public with information that has been changing."
Minority Sen. Carlton Dowe said he is "keeping an open mind. I'm waiting to see about the $30 million from the Insurance Guaranty Fund, the property tax issues, the proposed wholesale gas tax increase." Dowe also said he is determined to get his own amendments allotting funds for education onto the floor. Donastorg and Dowe have almost identical amendments, Donastorg said, and since Donastorg's amendment reached the Legislature's legal counsel for drafting first, that would be the one to go to the floor.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., a minority member, was not patient awaiting the forthcoming amendments. Throughout the day he asked "Where's the bus?" — a reference to the Omnibus Bill. Accusing the majority senators of "sitting in the middle of the floor kissing each other," he said that "this glee club thing has to stop."
White had long been vocal on the absence of a majority budget plan. The minority had submitted budget initiatives from early this year. On Monday, the minority distributed its own Omnibus Bill. The minority leader, Sen. Usie Richards, said it will be presented in the Rules Committee.
The Finance Committee also passed a bill which Donastorg said had inadvertently been left from a previous meeting, to provide for a lump-sum appropriation of $2.9 million from the Health Revolving Fund to the Health Department.
Attorney Henry Feurerzeig, representing Lloyd's of London, waited in the Senate chambers most of the afternoon to object to the majority's proposal to appropriate $30 million from the Insurance Guaranty Fund.
Vernelle De Lagarde, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers, also spent hours waiting in the afternoon, in the interest of $12 million allocated to comply with the negotiated contracts of the AFT, the International Association of Firefighters and United Steelworkers of America. The allocation is within the Miscellaneous section of the budget.
The 2004 Omnibus Bill finally came before the Finance Committee at 10:30 p.m., and with little debate it was passed unanimously. The meeting adjourned at 11:15 p.m. A full report on the bill will be in Tuesday's Source.
For a comparison of the FY 2004 appropriations from the General Fund passed by the Finance Committee on Monday with those proposed by the governor and those requested by department and agency heads in testimony before Finance last week, see "Budget appropriations approved by Finance".)
Committee members present Monday were Sens. David, Donastorg, Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone and Russell. Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Luther Renee were absent. Also present were Sens. Canton, Dowe, Liburd and Richards, who are not members of the committee.
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