Nov. 25, 2003 At 12:15 a.m.Tuesday the $627 million fiscal year 2004 budget in all its massive glory was finally passed.
Not that all the lawmakers considered it a glorious process or a glorious result. Senators from both sides were critical or at least dubious about the budget measures, but the majority bloc maintained it was the best it could do with what it had.
The minority bloc has been sharply outspoken about the majority's revenue-generating policies, especially the property-tax collections. The Omnibus bill containing the measures passed on a strictly majority/minority vote, 10-5.
Sen. Lorraine Berry said she voted for the Omnibus and other bills "reluctantly."
The $627 million figure represents the former $593.1 million plus the $16.5 million fiscal year 2003 deficit and another $16.6 million for an Economic Stabilization Fund, which brought it to $626.2 million, but it grew during the long day. It was by no means the bottom line, as amendments flew fast and furious during the day.
Although the session started half-an-hour late, and the lunch recess grew from one to two hours, few senators expressed any interest in moving the process along. With little success, Sen. Emmet Hansen urged his colleagues to address the issues and move on as the seemingly endless process streched on into Tuesday morning.
Most of the majority senators took round after round of debate to praise themselves for their work on the budget, as it trudged along at the speed of mollasses, time and again congratulating themselves on doing away with the governor's 36-hour week and the 10-percent income-tax surcharge, items thoroughly thrashed out in many previous meetings.
Hansen said he had "mixed feelings" about the process. "I feel the governor sent us a poison pill," he said. "There's too much pork in the budget, too many people at too many high-paying positions. I have a problem with that."
Sen. Carlton Dowe succeeded in an amendment appropriating $1.3 million. The first item in the bill will be overwhelmingly welcome, if the governor doesn't veto it: $624,000 to hire 24 firefighters to reopen the Dorothea Fire Station. It also includes appropriations to create two fire-captain positions for the St. Croix district, to restore one captain for the St. Thomas-St. John district, to make firefighter promotions and for the hiring of six medical technicians each for both districts.
Senate President David Jones said in his closing remarks that a $2 car-rental surcharge brought back on the floor by the minority caucus after being defeated earlier in the budget process would help fund the appropriations. It is projected to bring in about $700,000 annually and would provide a recurring revenue stream.
"You raise people's property taxes and many people can't expect emergency services," Dowe said. "Colleagues, how to you sleep when you know it takes an emergency vehicle half-an-hour to get to Dorothea.?"
Other amendments include:
$1.3 million for resurfacing and installing culverts on Peterborg Road;
$200,000 to widen the road from Louisenhoj Castle to Drake's seat;
$125,000 for a traffic signal at the Donoe Road and Weymouth Rhymer Highway intersection;
$60,000 to the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs for a gas-price study; and
$60,000 to the Property and Procurement Department for a structural analysis of the Ville La Reine Shopping Center on St. Croix.
Many of the appropriations will likely get no farther than Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's veto pen, regardless of their good intent. The Legislature and the 24th Legislature regularly played the game of back-and-forth, as senators would send to Government House appropriations for which Turnbull said there was no funding.
For a breakdown on the budget items passed Monday, see "Budget bills clear Rules; Senate to meet Friday."
The budget has veered up and down since its inception. The figures are difficult to rein in. Monday, for instance, the executive department budget totaled $527.9 million. In an amended bill later in the afternoon, the figure grew to $545 million.
These figures reflect the funding returned to several departments.The majority bloc had cut funding to Human Services based on vacant positions. Commissioner Sedonie Halbert wrote letters to the governor and to Sen. Roosevelt David, the rules committee chair, protesting the cuts. Her department's budget was restored to the level recommended by the governor plus $100,000, bringing it to $35.5 million.
Juan Luis Hospitalgot about $3.1 million restored to its budget, bringing it back to $21.4 million after it had been whittled to $18 million. See "Rules sends full Senate a much amended budget."
Berry reminded her colleagues, "We have to change our psyche. We have borrowed and borrowed. We had to borrow $100 million to pay our own income-tax returns."
Berry and several of her minority-caucus colleagues are in favor of a financial control board, something the senator has been trying to pass with no support from the majority. She said it would be a solution to the territory's fiscal woes, not the federal control that Delegate Donna M. Christensen is bringing before Congress. All the senators expressed disapproval of the delegate's plan.
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