May 6, 2004 – Senators received validation on a long-standing issue at a committee hearing Thursday when the presiding judge of Territorial Court told the director of the Office of Management and Budget that OMB's interpretation of the law regarding the budgets of the judicial and legislative branches was "misconstrued."
Judge Maria Cabret appeared before the Senate Rules Committee, meeting on St. Croix, to request the reappropriation of funds slashed from the court's budget by OMB in the first quarter of fiscal year 2004.
She read into the record her letter dated Feb. 27 to the OMB director, Ira Mills. In it, she wrote: "OMB lacks any authority to reduce the budget of the Territorial Court or to apportion its allotment … Title 33, section 3104 (a) of the Virgin Islands Code specifically authorizes the legislative and judicial branches of the Virgin Islands to apportion their respective appropriations."
That section of the V.I. Code "limits your apportionment authority to executive branch appropriations only," she told Mills.
In the letter, Cabret asked for the apportionment of the court's second-quarter allotment plus $817,169 which she said was "unlawfully withheld from the court's first-quarter allotment."
Cabret accused OMB of having relied on a "misconstrued interpretation" of the law. She said the law "merely grants the director of the budget the authority to review, approve or modify planned expenditures of the executive branch and specifically excludes the court and the Legislature."
Telling the senators that she had yet to receive a response to her letter, Cabret then asked the Legislature to "trump" the cut in the court's budget. Otherwise, she said, "the position of judicial independence will be severely damaged … litigants will not have the confidence that the process will be fair."
"The court must exist as a co-equal branch of government," Cabret said. "One branch of government does not have the power to impose its policy decisions on another branch of government."
The Senate majority met repeatedly with administration officials late last year in efforts to wrangle out a fiscal year 2004 budget well after the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. The Senate ultimately rejected the governor's budget and passed its own on Nov. 25; on Dec. 23, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull summarily vetoed the whole thing and announced that the FY 2003 budget would carry over for all of FY 2004 but that he would submit a supplemental budget "in the very near future."
It became public knowledge on April 21 that Turnbull had a $590 million supplemental budget ready to submit. Lawmakers officially got their first go at it on Monday, when the Finance Committee passed the measure after midnight, having amended it to appropriate an additional $9.1 million for union wage increases, $2.5 million for the Police Department, $1.4 million for the Bureau of Corrections and lesser amounts for the V.I. Election System, V.I. Housing Authority, Office of Inspector General and Vocational Education Board.
Meanwhile, the government continues to operate under the FY 2003 budget, and May 31 is the legal deadline for the governor to submit his proposed fiscal year 2005 budget for the executive branch.
Rules Committee members present at Thursday's meeting were Sen. Roosevelt David, the chair; and Sens. Lorraine Berry, Douglas Canton Jr., Carlton Dowe, David Jones and Ronald Russell. Sen. Louis Hill was excused. Also present were Sens. Emmett Hansen II, Norman Jn. Baptiste and Usie Richards, who are not members of the committee.
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