May 6, 2005 The 26th Legislature ended a marathon three-day session Friday, by approving the heavily amended Bill No. 26-0013, which provides $300,000 from the Tourism Advertising Fund for V.I./Puerto Rico Friendship Day and Emancipation Day activities.
The bill's 31 amendments have nothing to do with the bill itself. The only resemblance of a relationship is that, like the original legislation, two of the amendments raid the Tourism Revolving Fund a fund that Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards told senators a month ago was "already committed."
Senators approved an amendment offered by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste appropriating $75,000 from the Tourism Revolving Fund for the Eastern Caribbean Friendship Committee for its annual activities held the week of Labor Day.
The Senate also approved a measure by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. appropriating an additional $170,000 for the St. John July 4th Celebration.
This got a rise out of Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville, who had sponsored a bill last month that would have used the same $300,000 from the Tourism fund for a Latin Music Festival on St. Croix. But in a Finance Committee hearing, senators chose to use the money for the V.I./Puerto Rico Friendship Day and Emancipation Day activities instead.
"A great injustice is being done to the people of St. Croix," Figueroa-Serville said.
Figueroa -Serville said when he tried to move his legislation the majority would have none of it telling him the fund was committed, yet they were now appropriating money from the committed fund. He said the festival would have brought in money for St. Croix, as do music festivals on other Caribbean islands such as Dominica and St. Lucia, which is currently hosting its Jazz Festival this week.
"Everyone is raiding the Tourism Revolving Fund," Figueroa-Serville said.
Sen. Neville James said a letter was also sent to Senate President Lorraine L. Berry from the V.I./Puerto Rico Friendship Day Committee, informing her they did not have a need for all the money that was being allotted to them. Berry did not respond. Despite harsh words across the aisle and constant reminders of a projected $60 million shortfall in the territory's budget, senators still appropriated a total of $545,000 from the "committed" Tourism Revolving Fund.
However, that was nothing compared to the millions appropriated from other government funds.
On Thursday, the Senate appropriated $10 million for union raises from the General Fund, despite the fact that they did not have "a clear picture" of the territory's financial situation. Sen. Usie Richards warned his colleagues about approving the measure when they did not know for sure if the government employees would really be able to get their raises. Still the measure was approved.
Senators also approved $900,000 Thursday from the Union Arbitration Fund to pay retirees who were owed money by the government.
Here is a list of the other appropriations made in the amended bill:
– $1 million from the debt service reserves to the Public Works Department for the construction of an alternate road on the property deeded to the government by the Harthman Family, offered by Sen. Roosevelt David.
– $20,000 from the General Fund to the Committee for the Betterment of Carenage to defray the expenses related to the Father's Day Weekend celebration in Frenchtown, offered by White.
– $100,000 from the Union Arbitration and Award Fund to the Public Employees Relation Board to supplement the board's fiscal year 2005 budget, offered by Sen. Terrance "Positive" Nelson.
– $162,000 from the General Fund to the Public Works Department for the purpose of painting traffic regulatory markings on the roads of the territory, and $30,000 from the General Fund to the Property and Procurement Department to purchase an industrial paper shredder.
Despite the repeated references to the fiscal condition of the territory, $12.7 million was appropriated in the amended bill without any meaningful legislation to implement austerity measures and without any ideas put forth about raising revenues for the cash-strapped islands.
Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone, Craig Barshinger, and Liston Davis all speculated that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull would line-item veto most of the appropriations.
It is unlikely Turnbull would veto the entire bill as his amendments to the Animal Cruelty bill are also attached to it.
Along with appropriating money, some senators took time Friday to cast hints about the 2006 gubernatiorial elections, and berated each other on the floor about the obvious campaigning that was going on.
James said, "These guys are trying to secure their re-election, when they were just elected."
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