Nov. 19, 2003 The Senate majority put itself on the stand Wednesday morning at a press conference and answered all those questions or, at least, a good number of them the media and the public have been wanting to ask before and after the group released its fiscal year 2004 budget.
First, the majority's budget is $593.1, which is $7.1 million more than the executive budget not $35.3 million, as had been reported. A debt-service entry of $28.4 million was listed and then "backed out" of the executive-budget revenue column, but not posted to the miscellaneous section where it belongs. Post Auditor Anneta Heliger, who gave a rundown of the budget figures, repeated what Finance Committee Chairman Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said last week. This brings the executive budget to $586.1 million, not $593.1 million.
Senate Majority Leader Douglas Canton set the tone for the morning. "We called this conference so the public can understand those figures coming at you right and left," he said. "We want to make you privy to the important details."
Canton defended the Legislature's budget. "You get what you pay for," he said, noting the need for professional legal counsel and post auditors.
Senate President David Jones was a little more direct. "We are the people you love to hate," he said. Jones said the $13 million listed in the governor's executive budget did not accurately reflect the needs of the Legislature. He said the governor named that figure "without consulting us." He said the Legislature's $16.5 million budget was 4 per cent that of the total government. "It's a small piece of the pie," he said, holding up a pie chart, "not a pie in the sky."
Jones said he had no qualms about saying the Legislature would need $18.5 million to function adequately.
He said the majority-bloc senators had worked hard and long, meeting with people in the public and private sectors to come up with a document that, he thinks, is "creative and workable a work in progress, not set in stone." This is the phrase the senators have been using this week. By their own schedule, they have two-and-a-half more days left of progress to finish the work.
Donastorg talked about the government vacancies that had been left unfunded, an issue that surfaced at Tuesday's rules-committee meeting. He said the budget estimated the vacancies amounting to between $18 million and $21 million. He noted that he had started each department's budget hearings long before the governor's budget had arrived. The vacancies were determined to be 40 percent for emergency services fire, police and hospital and 60 percent for all other agencies.
He said if any department needs additional funding, it can come to the Senate with a supplemental budget request.
Donastorg said the senators felt the governor's budget to be "insensitive" in many areas the 36-hour week, 10-percent income-tax surcharge and the gross-receipts tax increase. "We have tried to be sensitive and sensible," he said.
Jones defended the budget's revenue streams as "sound." He said that the property-tax proposal, which anticipates two payments in one fiscal year to "true up" the accounts, will not be a burden on taxpayers. "It will bring them all current in one year," he said. Jones said the second 2004 payment can be paid in 2005 without penalty or interest.
Jones said the government will get a tax-anticipation loan of $40 million, which would be repaid soon by the tax revenue. "The revenues will go into what's called a 'lock box' to repay the note," he said.
He said that was one of the ideas contained in the government's Five-Year Plan, which has sat dormant since it was written. The Turnbull administration has largely ignored its existence. The majority tapped into it for several fiscal ideas.
Out of that $40 million, $16.6 million will be deposited in an Economic Stabilization Trust Fund, or a "Renee day fund," he said, referring to Sen. Luther Renee, who helped create the legislation.
Another issue which has received much public comment is the tapping into the Insurance Guaranty Fund for another $30 million. The money would be used as backup for a letter of credit. "The Virgin Islands has never had a reserve fund," Jones said. "Our integrity will be not be intact." He said the IGF has "never been used for more than $20 million."
Asked if he felt secure the administration would follow the Legislature's mandates, Jones smiled. "We will work in tandem with the administration," he said. And what if the governor should veto some of the majority's budget items? "That would be like pulling a thread from a garment, " Jones said, "if you pull one thread, the whole garment comes apart. He would have to have a lot of assistants to put it back together."
Jones said he projects about $3 million from a wholesale gasoline tax. He said the majority members had talked to the Hovensa oil refinery in St. Croix. "We are asking them to make a contribution to this anemic government," he said. "Hovensa has no problem with it," he said.
Should the retailers try to pass on the cost to the consumers, they will be brought up short, he said. "They would have to open their books, and go to the Public Services Commission." Jones noted that the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs is currently doing a study to determine the glaring discrepancy in gas prices in the St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John district, including a 14-cent gap that a previous study failed to answer.
Asked about objections to the recently passed 2-percent boost in the hotel tax (to 10 percent) and a stamp tax that real estate interests are condemning as onerous, Jones would not say if the majority will address these or other issues in the Rules Committee. Once bills reach the floor, they are passed on a closed rule which means no amendments can be added.
As to public comment, Jones said, "It's like everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." He stressed the need for those funds to go into tourism advertising.
The atmosphere at the morning forum was relaxed and often cheerful an easy back-and-forth between the media and the senators a radical change from the animosity that has existed since the majority's purported budget figures were released last week called by most senators "an irresponsible move."
The meeting was held at the Education Department teleconferencing center on St. Thomas and simulcast to the Curriculum Center on St. Croix.
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