Nov. 21, 2003 – In a session sparked by frequent emotional outbursts, some highly creative parliamentary maneuvering, and much heavy rhetoric as the majority senators praised one another, the majority's $593.1 fiscal year 2004 budget finally was passed out of the Rules Committee on Thursday night to the full Senate, where it was to be heard at 10 a.m. Friday.
Friday's session actually got under way around noon, then recessed about half an hour later to reconvene at 3 p.m. — by which time the plan was to get copies of all of the budget documents as amended on Thursday to all of the senators.
A vocal group of union leaders sat in rapt, though not mute, attendance throughout the day on Thursday, and a number of them returned on Friday. They were there to ensure that the $12 million appropriated to pay their members in the miscellaneous section of the budget would actually reach their constituency and not get lost in the General Fund, which Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. calls the "bottomless pit."
Numerous budget issues, discussed for several weeks, were massaged and tweaked by the majority right up to the 11th hour and beyond. Thursday's Rules meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m.; however it took until 1:45 p.m. for the Post Audit, Journal and Legal Counsel Offices to prepare the voluminous amendments to the original documents.
The Senate is operating with a single legal counsel, Yvonne Tharpes, at present; another is on sick leave. And Tharpes has been besieged by a barrage of continually changing bills.
The committee on Thursday heeded remarks made on Wednesday by Sen. Carlton Dowe about serious underfunding in the appropriations as approved by the committee on Tuesday for the Human Services and Public Works Departments, the Office of Veterans Affairs, Juan F. Luis Hospital, and the Board of Education.
The majority had cut funding to Human Services based on vacant positions. Commissioner Sedonie Halbert wrote letters to the governor and to Sen. Roosevelt David, Rules Committee chair, protesting. Her department's budget was restored to the level recommended by the governor plus $100,000, bringing it to $35.5 million.
Juan Luis Hospital got about $3.1 million restored to its budget, bringing it back to $21.4 million after it had been whittled to $18 million. Dowe, a St. Thomas senator, had asked the St. Croix senators where their heads were on the earlier appropriation. "Don't you want to take care of your island?" he asked.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, a St. Croix lawmaker, had similar, if more explicit, criticism: "You guys tax everybody out of their wits and give them unnecessary stress, then you put in [the Omnibus Bill] a cardiac arrest survival act to take care of them when they reach the hospital, and a food donation act to feed them afterwards." He pronounced the whole thing "voodoo economics."
The Public Works budget was restored to $25.1 million, receiving a $3 million boost for road repairs on an amendment by Sens. Lorraine Berry and Shawn-Michael Malone. The money is for work needed urgently as a result of the incessant rains and flooding of the last two weeks. The amendment calls for the Public Works commissioner to submit a report to the Legislature identifying the roads to be repaired and giving a timeline for the work within 30 days after the budget is enacted.
For a breakdown of the reconfigured budget, see "Budget bills clear Rules; Senate to meet Friday".
Legislature's own budget causes contention
Jones said that the additional funding for the various and agencies departments would not increase the budget. The bottom line remains the same, he said. The road repairs and the restored budget amounts will be funded by the $16.5 government deficit payment and part of the projected Economic Stabilization Trust Fund, or "rainy day fund," that is part of the anticipated property tax revenues, he said, leaving a balance of $12.8 million in that fund.
The Legislature's $16.5 million budget sparked some lively discussion. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's proposed budget had listed it at $13 million, but Jones said the governor had never consulted with him about that. By law, the Legislature determines its own budget. Jones said the FY 2004 budget is identical to that for the 24th Legislature, which wound up being $16.5 million after a supplemental budget was enacted in mid-term.
The budget was signed by eight of the 10 majority members, with Sens. Lorraine Berry and Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg the exceptions. Berry, who cast the sole "no" vote in the Rules Committee, said she wouldn't comment on it. Five of the committee members — Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., David, Louis Hill, Jones and Ronald Russell — voted in favor of it. Dowe was absent for the vote.
The police and American Federation of Teachers representatives at Thursday's meeting became increasingly restless as they could not extract from Jones an iron-clad guarantee that their needs would be met. There was heated debate as they met with Jones and White in the corridor outside the Senate chambers.
Carol Callwood, chair of the AFT Committee on Political Education and no stranger to government contract negotiations, said it was clear the administration was unsymphathetic to the teachers' plight. "If the governor had wanted us to get a raise, he would have put it in the budget," she said. "In 11 years, we've never had increases in the budget."
The police union officials expressed no faith that they would see their raises. "We just want to make sure our money is secure," Arthur Hector Sr., representing the Law Enforcement Supervisors Union on St. Croix, said. "When the money goes in the General Fund, it just disappears," he said, "We want something in writing."
And they got it. After steady pressure from White all day long, an amendment from the minority caucus was passed stipulating that the unions get their salary increases "no later than 90 days after the approval of this act." This was later amended by Dowe and Hill to read that the raises would be retroactive to Jan. 10, 2003. When the amendments were approved, the union contingent gave a loud round of applause.
David, the Rules Committee chair, had commented repeatedly, following White's protestations, that "the stage is being set to vote against the $12 million." However, his cautions proved not to hold water as the amendments were passed.
An amendment allowing a 95 percent excise tax credit to tobacco wholesalers passed in a peculiar bit of parliamentary wrangling. It was brought up three times by Jones, failing the first time on a tie vote. Jones said since it was a tie vote, it was still on the floor and could be voted on again. (See "Rules approves tax break on tobacco imports".)
Dual property tax plan meets skepticism
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd joined his minority colleague Dowe in protesting the proposed dual property tax assessment in FY 2004. "People can hardly pay one tax," he said, noting he is a St. John resident and that his island has problems with the tax as it is. "We are being 'taxed out,'" he said. "People are being forced to put their property on the market. The court is removing a 10 per cent cap we used to have," he said.
"People will wait until the last day to pay their taxes," Liburd said. "They won't pay right away. If you have a mortgage, the bank will pay your taxes right away, and your mortgage goes up."
Urging his colleagues to "re-evaluate what you're doing," he added: "This budget is almost 100 per cent borrowed, on top of the $100 million the governor borrowed earlier this year."
The minority caucus gained a
bit of ground when David and Jones assured them their own Omnibus Bill would be heard in the full Senate session. However, David would not say which bill it could be amended to. Most of the bills have been forwarded to the full Senate on a closed rule, which means no amendments may be offered.
Berry offered an amendment to her pending Tourism Authority bill, turning the instrumentality into a "tourism board." She said: "It's a compromise — not an authority, but a board. It will be in charge of marketing and promotion." The board will have, as the authority did, 13 members — seven government representatives and six from the private sector. (See "Tourism Authority could go to a vote next week".)
The tourism board change was an amendment to a bill adding a 2 percent surtax to the current 8 percent hotel and time-share room tax, bringing the total to 10 per cent. Another amendment by Berry to that bill was approved mandating that 80 per cent of the revenues from the surtax go to the Tourism and Advertising Revolving Fund and 20 percent go into the General Fund; the earlier version had earmarked all of the surtax money for the General Fund.
An amendment by Hill was approved to clear up confusion over the proposed wholesale petroleum tax, which Alexander A. Moorhead, Hovensa vice president, had objected to in writing. (See "'No problem' with gas tax not so, Hovensa says".) The amendment makes clear the Hovensa is not subject to the tax. Hill said while he believed the original language in the bill did exempt Hovensa, he wanted to settle the matter. The tax would apply to the wholesale distributors — Esso Virgin Islands, Texaco Caribbean and Domino Oil — that supply retailers on St. Thomas and St. John.
Omnibus issues foster unusual alliances
The majority's Omnibus Bill took a verbal beating Thursday, being called everything from the "bad news bus" to the "bus to Hell and devastation" by Jn Baptiste.
It was a day filled with unusual liaisons between the two Senate blocs. Unrest between the two sides became palpable often during the day, as White joined forces with Berry to support her "financial expertise."
Dowe and Hill, who sit next to each other, agreed on several issues. Dowe is the lone minority member on the Rules Committee, but over the course of the last two days, he has dominated much of the discussion on Omnibus Bill measures, notably the double property tax and borrowing from the Insurance Guaranty Fund. The two senators joined in the amendment for the union raises.
It took the committee a while to get into gear as it slogged through endless rounds of flowery rhetoric, with the majority senators falling over one another with compliments on a job well done. The meeting started at 1:45 p.m. and didn't pass the first bill — appropriating money to a "Crisis Intervention Fund" — until after 3 p.m.
The Omnibus Bill contains a myriad of policy initiatives, and half of it, 40 pages, is dedicated to the Technology Enterprise Act of 2003, a complex document intended to bring the V.I. government into sync with the electronic age and vastly streamline its operations. Details will be covered in a later Source report.
All seven Rules Committee members — Sens. Berry, Canton, David, Dowe, Hill, Jones and Russell — attended Thursday's meeting. Also present were Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Jn Baptiste, Liburd, Luther Renee, Usie Richards and White, who do not sit on the committee.
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