Nov. 19, 2003 – If the fiscal year 2004 budget hit a speed bump on Tuesday, it ran head-on into a roadblock on Wednesday.
Shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sen. Douglas Canton Jr., the majority leader, confirmed that the Rules Committee session that had been scheduled for 2 p.m., then rescheduled for the evening hour, would not be happening until "sometime tomorrow."
Canton, reached by telephone, said what time the committee reconvenes on Thursday "depends on what time we finish tonight." And that reference was to a meeting of the Senate majority with Government House financial officials over points of disagreement in the budget.
At last announcement, the full Senate was scheduled to meet on Thursday and Friday to complete action on the budget for the fiscal year which began 50 days ago, on Oct. 1. Initially, this whole week had been blocked out for the legislative session; that time frame has been slowly whittled away by interruptions and delays in Finance Committee and now Rules Committee proceedings.
The Rules Committee on Tuesday had deferred action until Wednesday on key budget bills — to fund government operations and the majority's 2004 Omnibus Act — as well as bills to increase the hotel room tax to 10 percent from the current 8 percent and to appropriate $1.7 million from a special fund to the General Fund for government operating expenses. Also still on the agenda is an unrelated bill to create a V.I. Tourism Authority.
Canton said an announcement would be made on Thursday morning about when the Rules Committee would reconvene.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., a minority bloc member, said regarding the majority's situation: "The bus hit a boycott. It's a boycott just like in 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama."
White continued: "Seriously, though, what do they [the majority] have? They say they have met with the stakeholders. It's not stakeholders; it's corned beef holders. Now they're meeting again. The governor is sending his people down here again. How many times have they met?"
One such meeting took place Tuesday afternoon, when Nathan Simmonds, director of the governor's Office of Fiscal and Economic Recovery Implementation, showed up in the Senate chambers and went into a closed meeting with Senate President David Jones.
Also Tuesday afternoon, Jones announced that Wednesday's Rules session would be delayed to the afternoon so as to accommodate a majority press conference in the morning.
It proved to be an upbeat press conference, with talk of passing the budget out of the Rules Committee by day's end. But the process came to a dead halt in the afternoon. An hour and a half after Rules was to have reconvened came an announcement that the meeting would begin at 8 p.m. A similar scenario occurred on Tuesday. (See "Budget bills await Rules action Wednesday".)
Wednesday morning, chatting with media representatives, the majority senators congratulated one another and their support staffs on a job well done and about to be brought to light for all to see. However, it became known Wednesday night that the fruits of their labors would remain in the dark until Thursday.
The 11th hour has come and gone so many times in the countdown to completion of the FY 2004 budget that no one is betting at this point on when actual enactment will come. No one willing to comment know what amendments are in the hopper or what, if anything, is being extracted from the budget version before the committee on Tuesday.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull held a cabinet meeting earlier Wednesday, an occurrence which became public knowledge when the Port Authority sent out a release in the morning announcing that the VIPA board meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. had been canceled. "Since several of VIPA's board members are cabinet members, the board meeting would not have had a quorum," the release stated.
The upshot of the cabinet meeting, Sen. Usie Richards, the minority leader, told WVWI Radio on Wednesday afternoon, was that "the governor put has put his foot down and is sending his finance team to the Legislature." After hearing what the majority had to say at the morning press conference, Richards said, Turnbull "brought the process to a halt."
According to Richards, "Based on the utterances of members of the majority caucus, the proposals in the budget and in the Omnibus Bill would not work for the cabinet and for members of his [Turnbull's] financial team."
Richards charged that letters from government agency heads complaining about cuts in their budgets "speak volumes about their [the majority's] inability." He specifically cited concerns raised by Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert which came to light in the Rules meeting on Tuesday when Sen. Carlton Dowe, the committee's only minority member, produced a letter she had written to the governor and to Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the Finance Committee chair.
Halbert said the proposed cuts in her budget would severely impact the federal food stamp and Head Start programs and eliminate nursing care at the Lucinda Millin and Whim Gardens homes for the aged.
Richards, meanwhile, is concerned about getting consideration of the minority's "Omnibus Bill," a measure incorporating the numerous cost-cutting and revenue-enhancing proposals the minority has put forth since early this year.
The prospects for the bill to be taken up in the Rules Committee with Dowe the only minority member are slim; so, Richards has written to Senate President David Jones asking him as a matter of courtesy to bring the bill to the floor of the full session. Richards said Wednesday afternoon that he had not yet received a reply.
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