Jan. 19, 2004 – If Delegate Donna M. Christensen's bill to establish a chief financial officer in the Virgin Islands wins congressional approval, the V.I. government still will be responsible for establishing its own spending priorities.
That's a point Christensen made Monday addressing a full house at the monthly meeting of the League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands: The CFO as proposed would not decide how the available money would be spent, she said, but only make sure that the government doesn't spend money that it doesn't have.
The CFO would serve for five years. The measure also requires the V.I. government to establish — within one year of its passage — an integrated financial management system.
Christensen also told the gathering at L'Escargot Garden Restaurant on St. Thomas that local officials will become part of the legislative process as her controversial bill is taken up by the House of Representatives. "Local leadership will be asked to testify" on the proposal, she said. "They will be asked to justify their position."
The delegate made no apology for leaving those same local officials out of the loop when introducing her bill. "I didn't discuss it with them because they would have tried to stop me," she said on Monday, adding that "it was easier for me not to fight that."
Christensen said threat of federal takeover was not part of the impetus for developing the legislation. However, she said that since submitting the legislation she has had a conversation with a top Department of the Interior official who told her that numerous telephone calls had come in "urging Interior to step in."
In fact, Christensen said, much of the criticism leveled at the bill — including at town meetings she held on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John in December — is that it doesn't go far enough.
Many people feel a fatal flaw in the bill is that the sitting governor is charged with appointing the chief financial officer.
The bill provides for the formation of an eight-member commission charged with selecting candidates for the position, with the governor required to choose from among those names. As introduced, the bill calls for three such candidates, Christensen said on Monday, but the number could be revised. (See "Delegate says fiscal reality behind her CFO bill".)
The legislation specifies that if the governor and the Legislature fail to act as called for within 180 days to appoint a CFO, the Secretary of the Interior will name one of the recommended candidates to serve until such time at the V.I. officials do act.
Christensen was asked how her proposal differs from one introduced in the 25th Legislature by Sen. Lorraine Berry calling for the creation of a financial control board. Berry attended the League of Women Voters meeting on Monday but did not speak.
The delegate said that because it would be federal law, her bill is stronger. "It supersedes local law," she said.
She also said that the financial management system of her bill is key to stopping money spent on questionable contracts from "disappearing into the black hole." That's because the CFO would not be authorized to make decisions about priorities and therefore would have little control over sweetheart deals, non-competitive bidding contracts and subsequent contract overruns, she said. The financial management system also will allow for "better financial planning," she said.
Christensen said she has been surprised by the overwhelming support locally for her bill.
Despite rumblings within the Democratic Party about not supporting her for reelection in the fall because of her proposal, Christensen said: "I am a political animal." And, she added, "People appreciate it when you do what you believe in."
To track the legislation through Congress at any time, go to the federal Thomas Web site and enter HR 3589 as the bill number.
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