Nov. 21, 2003 – The full Senate convened around noon on Friday — two hours behind schedule to take up the fiscal year 2004 budget. About 20 minutes later, it recessed.
Sen. Usie Richards, the minority leader, successfully moved to have the session put on hold until he and other minority senators could get copies of the amended budget bills they were to vote on. The recess was to be until 3 p.m., which came and went. And eventually everybody went, not to return, officially at least, until Monday morning.
In all, it was a frustrating week for the lawmakers and for the territory's taxpayers who want to know what is being done with their money.
At the start of this month, the full Senate was scheduled to be in session all this week — Monday through Friday — bringing the FY 2004 budget into being.
But Monday was occupied by a Finance Committee meeting delayed from the week before. The Rules Committee met on Tuesday then didn't meet again until Thursday afternoon, after the majority had huddled in secret with unhappy administration officials. Rules signed off on the budget Thursday night, leaving Friday for the full Senate, but to no avail. Now the full session is scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. Monday.
The Legislature calendar released on Friday shows no public meetings next week, with Thursday the Thanksgiving holiday. Friday was Day 52 into fiscal year 2004, which began Oct. 1.
The most recent stumbling block to enactment of the fiscal package that the majority has taken to calling a "work in progress" is an amendment that appeared out of nowhere on Thursday, sponsored by Senate President David Jones and Sen. Roosevelt David.
As introduced, the measure would give tobacco importers a 95 percent break on excise taxes; in a later version, the break was reduced to 90 percent. See "Rules approves tax break on tobacco imports".)
The amendment is attached to the bill funding the entire executive branch budget — which also includes a $12 million appropriation to fund union contracts. Under "closed rule" proceedings, bills taken up on the Senate floor cannot be amended, only voted up or down. A vote against the tobacco tax break would be a vote against the union members and against all government agency funding. It's a vote any senator with a desire for a political future would be loathe to cast.
The 11th hour amendment caught the attention of the community on Friday. Callers to radio talk shows raised objections about smoking and health, about the parliamentary maneuvering to get the measure back on the floor after it had been defeated in a tie vote, and about the very idea of giving tobacco importers a break.
Samuel Morch, AARP Virgin Islands president, wrote to Jones strenuously objecting to the amendment and also commented on the "Topp Talk" show on WVWI Radio Friday morning. "We believe the Legislature should live up to the commitment made when it reallocated the Tobacco Settlement Fund monies to health care and the prevention of cancer in the territory," Morch said.
"Tobacco sales in the territory should not be promoted, for residents or tourists," he said. Further, he said, the matter should have been discussed during the public hearing process.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said at Thursday's Rules Committee meeting that the amendment is in conflict with the whole idea of the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Center under construction at Roy L. Schneider Hospital. "We are exporting death," he said.
Jones maintains the proposal would boost cigarette sales, and therefore increase gross receipts, an idea that doesn't appear to be popular with anyone except a few senators and the tobacco importers.
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