Sept. 20, 2007 — At Thursday's full legislative session, minority and majority senators made their opinions clear in occasionally heated debate over the fiscal year 2008 budget proposal. At the end of the day, however, the group unanimously approved the $835.2 million General Fund spending package, sending it to Gov. John deJongh Jr. for his final stamp of approval.
Standing firm on concerns expressed over the past week, minority senators said they were not in favor of "rubber stamping" a lump-sum budget for departments and agencies. Government revenues are up, they said, and senators should want to control excess spending and delineate exactly what the funds would be used for.
Majority senators responded by pointing out that the budget proposal, which was first introduced during last Friday's Finance Committee meeting, has since been amended and changed to a modified line item proposal, showing exactly how much each department and agency has to spend on categories such as personnel services, fringe benefits and supplies.
The amended budget, which came down during Tuesday's Rules Committee meeting, was not circulated to the minority, some senators said. In addition, the proposal — along with a sheaf of other budget bills up for consideration on the day's agenda — had been submitted to the full Senate body with a closed rule, prohibiting any amendments from being added.
"We have appropriations being approved with a closed rule," said minority leader Sen. Ronald E. Russell. "And that was done so that seven senators can decide what's going to happen for the 15 of us. That's not even a majority."
Toward the end of the session, however, senators managed to get one amendment attached to the bill that made certain appropriations contained in the FY 2007 budget available until expended.
Sticking points for the minority include bills that, among other things, appropriate $1.5 million to the Public Services Commission to cover FY 2008 operating expenses and earmarks another $31.37 million for the V.I. Supreme Court, Superior Court, Judicial Council and Office of the Public Defender.
During budget hearings over the past few months, chief Supreme Court Justice Rhys S. Hodge requested a little more than $7 million for operating costs, Sen. Louis P. Hill argued. Shortchanging the institution by some $6 million would hamper the court's ability to fully integrate into the local judicial system, and stymie any progress made on setting up a Supreme Court office in the territory.
Finance Committee chairman Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson explained that Hodge would be invited back to the Senate to justify the $7 million request.
"Don't worry. We're looking into it," he said.
Concerns about the PSC centered on the commission's controversial involvement in a legal battle waged between Innovative Communications Corp. owner Jeffery Prosser and his creditors. The Legislature needs to get to the bottom of ICC's bankruptcy issues, minority senators said, and until that happens, giving the PSC a $500,000 increase in funds may not be such a good idea.
Senate vice-president Shawn-Michael Malone said that a joint hearing of the Government Operations and Consumer Protection and Labor committees would be held on Oct. 1 to discuss telecommunication matters with PSC representatives. In a letter sent to Thursday to PSC chairwoman Alecia Wells, Malone said that the purpose of the meeting was to "get this kind of information out to the public."
Despite the friction, however, a few senators on both sides of the isle joined together on a few points, saying that the executive branch has to do a better job of identifying priority areas within the government.
"We've come to a point now where everything is a priority," Malone said. "But keep in mind as we move forward that things should start being singled out so we can see some progress made in at least one major area each year. We have issues with housing, salaries — social problems that emanate from families that don't make enough money to support their families. Some of these things are addressed in the budget, but we have to do more."
Combined with the $835.2 million General Fund budget, the government's overall FY 2008 spending plan — with all revenue sources factored in — totals about $1.2 billion. While this figure has not changed much over the past few months, the General Fund portion has increased by about $36.1 million, up from the $799.2 executive budget submitted by deJongh in May.
During recent budget hearings, members of the government's financial team explained that any increase in FY 2008 revenue projects was due, in large part, to an anticipated spike in real property taxes. If that increase is not factored in, the revenue collections would stay put at close to $800 million, they said.
On Thursday, Nelson pointed out that senators' approval of the $836.2 million proposal was, by default, a vote in favor of the property tax increase, which has generated much concern within the local community. Residents might risk losing their homes if a tax increase in implemented, Nelson added, and any additional revenues should be taken out of excess money left over from prior fiscal years.
Senate President Usie R. Richards said that a meeting with deJongh to discuss the property tax situation has been scheduled for 10 a.m. on Sept. 27.
Another $10 million increase to the General Fund budget was announced during last week's Finance Committee meeting. Senators have confirmed that the extra funds — which have been used up in appropriations added to the miscellaneous section of the General Fund budget proposal — would be coming from the federal government, as a reimbursement for money borrowed by the V.I. Education Department.
Included in the $836.5 million General Fund figure are:
– $560.6 million for government departments and agencies;
– $137.3 million in miscellaneous budget appropriations;
– $19.8 million for the Legislature;
– $31.37 million for the courts, judicial council and Office of the Public Defender;
– $4.5 million to WTJX Channel 12; $34 million to the University of the Virgin Islands and $28.5 million to the Waste Management Authority (semi-autonomous government agencies that still receive subsidies from the General Fund);
– about $8.2 million in supplemental appropriations; and
– $10.7 million worth of appropriations already made by senators against the FY 2008 projected revenues.
Other budget bills approved Thursday either transfer money from various government funds into the General Fund, or make appropriations from those funds to government departments and agencies. A few of the bills also appropriate money from the General Fund to the government's semi-autonomous agencies or smaller divisions, which are not generally included in the overall fiscal year executive budget proposal.
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