June 6, 2004 – Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and Senate President David Jones will testify in Washington, D.C., on June 16 at the House Committee on Resources hearing on Delegate Donna M. Christensen's bill to create the office of chief financial officer for the territory. The hearing will be webcast live.
Officially known as the Virgin Islands Fiscal Accountability Act, the bill calls for the CFO to serve for five years and also for the establishment of a comprehensive financial management system for the territory.
The legislation has been mired in controversy since Christensen introduced it in Congress last November. Turnbull has been vehement in his objections to the bill, which he rarely fails to mention at any press conference relating to budget issues. He has said repeatedly that the territory provides its own checks and balances and can take care of its fiscal matters without outside help.
A number of V.I. public officials anticipate attending the hearings, but Turnbull and Jones are the only ones officially invited so far, according to the delegate's staff. Jones was concerned that he might not be able to take part because his son, David Alexander Jones, is graduating from Education Complex High School on the morning of June 15. But he said later that he would be able to catch a flight that afternoon to Washington and be able to attend the hearing the next day.
Brian Modeste, an aide in Christensen's Washington office who was on St. Croix on Monday, said House committee chairs decide who will be invited to testify at hearings. Brian Kennedy of the Resources Committee public relations office, said on Monday that a list of those invited for the June 16 hearing should be made public Wednesday or Thursday.
Most members of the Legislature are adamantly against the bill. Twelve senators voted for a resolution introduced by Sen. Emmett Hansen II in December condemning the delegate's action. Nine of the 10 Senate Democrats endorsed the resolution directed against Christensen, a fellow Democrat; the 10th, Sen. Ronald Russell, abstained. Voting against the measure were two minority members, Sens. Usie Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. Richards said on Monday he is not planning to travel to Washington for the hearing.
In response to the Senate's action, Christensen said in December that "it seems like such a waste of legislative time to do a resolution like that and condemn an action when there are so many unanswered questions about the fiscal state of the territory out there. I remember clearly when the governor first sent the budget to the Legislature, he said we were in 'bad times.' And he suggested a 36-hour work week and laying people off. And I remember his cabinet members saying, 'Yes, it's that serious.'"
Christensen pointed out that she had announced her intentions publicly months before actually introducing the measure. "There is not one member of the Legislature who didn't know of this," she said. "I really considered sending the bill to the Legislature and to the governor, but I knew they would say, 'Don't introduce it.'"
After holding a series of public meetings in the territory, Christensen amended her legislation to expand on what the chief financial officer would do. (See "Delegate Plans Amendment Clarifying CFO Duties".)
Senators to Testify from Different Viewpoints
Hansen and Russell have said they plan to attend the congressional hearing. Russell is not opposed to the bill but has other issues. Hansen has remained steadfast in his opposition.
Russell said on Monday that he hopes to offer testimony that "will hinge around the social state of affairs in the territory — the poverty on St. Croix; the unfair distribution of wealth, the imbalance that exists, especially within the executive branch, between the higher-paid bureaucrats that make decisions and the government workers."
Russell added, "I will support any effort by the federal government to lend assistance, in the form of a chief financial officer or some type of hybrid. We need to revise the executive budget; it's not fair."
Christensen's proposed legislation "harks of colonialism," Hansen maintained on Monday. He said he has "a healthy respect for the delegate," but he thinks she went about things the wrong way. "Do I think she had the best intentions? Yes, I do," he said.
Hansen said he fears seeing an amendment to the bill proposing not a single financial officer but a full control board. "I've been a senator long enough to see what amendments can do," he said, "and I''m afraid that is where this is heading."
Hansen: A Tradeoff Would Have Worked
He said Christensen might have said to the federal government: "If you are so concerned about our finances, we will give you this if you will give us the cap on Medicaid, and SSI benefits, take better care of our veterans." He added: "If we were going to get these in exchange for the chief financial officer, I would be rolling out the red carpet."
As chair of the Senate Housing, Parks and Recreation Committee, Hansen has seen one federal takeover — that of the V.I. Housing Authority last year. Although his relations with Housing Authority have been cordial, the said on Monday, "nothing good can ever come out of ceding total control to the federal government. We are not being given a chance to fix what's wrong."
He added: "I would have been more inclusive about what it is that I was doing. We have to be mindful of what we are doing when we make these decisions. Why put someone else in charge? There is no advantage to this."
Hansen said he has a bill in the works aimed at fiscal reform. Legislation to give the V.I. Inspector General's Office more power is scheduled to be heard on June 16 on St. Thomas by the Government Operations Committee. The bill would provide the inspector general at least 1 percent of the executive operating budget to appoint at least one assistant attorney general in each district to prosecute cases of government corruption referred by the inspector general.
The measure also calls for the Finance Department to develop and implement an accounting system for reporting total daily revenue collections throughout the government. Ironically, the bill is to be heard on the same day as Christensen's bill, so Hansen won't be on hand for the St. Thomas hearing.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, meanwhile, has legislation pending that called for the creation of a local financial control board for the territory when it was introduced in early 2003. Berry reworked the proposal in the light of administration opposition to make it a financial "review board" appointed by the governor. (See "Senator Now Pushing for a Fiscal Review Board".) But hearings have yet to be heard on the measure.
Federal Intervention Favored in Poll
Readers responding to a Source poll in April on the issue of the V.I. government's financial management overwhelmingly voted for federal officials to oversee the territory's finances. Seventy-seven percent of the votes cast were in favor of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs appointing a chief financial officer not from the territory, or of federal officials setting up a control board. (See "Poll: CFO Should Be Up to Federal Officials".)
Christensen's bill calls for the CFO to assume the functions of the Office of Management and Budget for five years, overseeing and approving all government spending, with the power to disapprove spending which would result in a deficit.
The measure calls for the CFO to be appointed by the governor
subject to confirmation by the Legislature. A search commission of public and private sector representatives would submit three candidates to the governor. The Secretary of the Interior would chair the body and would be empowered to make a selection if the commission failed to act.
The complete text of Christensen's legislation can be found at the Library of Congress bill tracking Web site. In the "Bill Number" window, type in HR3589, then click on "Search."
A release from Christensen reiterated on Monday that V.I. residents may comment on the proposal by telephone or fax. Calls may be made to 774-4408 on St. Thomas, 778-5900 on St. Croix, 776-1212 on St. John or (202) 225-1790 in Washington. Faxes may be sent to 774-8033 on St. Thomas, 778-5111 on St. Croix or (202) 225-5517 in Washington.
A Spanish-language version of the legislation is available on the delegate's Web site.
To watch the live webcast on June 16, go to the House of Representatives page, then select the Resources Committee live audio button.
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