While signing and vetoing a slew of laws last week, Gov. John deJongh Jr. asked the Legislature to repeal unfunded retirement annuity increases it placed in the Economic Stability Act (ESA), alongside pay cuts, hiring freezes and tax increases aimed at closing a major budget shortfall.
The passage says any employee who elects for early retirement under the ESA will be entitled to any pay raises negotiated before retirement and would receive retirement pay based on that higher salary level rather than on the level they actually contributed to the Government Employees’ Retirement System (GERS). DeJongh vetoed the section when it was initially passed, but the Legislature overrode his veto.
In his signing letter to the V.I. Legislature, deJongh said the ESA was meant to further economic stability and bring the budget closer to balance. "It is fundamentally contradictory to this purpose to create yet another unfunded and unaffordable liability of the government," deJongh said. At a time when the GERS is facing extreme and growing financial challenges, it is not prudent to "create a new class of retirees who have not contributed to the benefits they have been provided," he said.
DeJongh vetoed a section of Act 7270 mandating the V.I. Casino Control Commission require casinos to develop marketing strategies under its supervision, saying that sort of oversight would be best done through the V.I. Economic Development Authority. He also sliced out several other sections of the hodge-podge act, including an $80,000 appropriation from the Wells Fund for water meters and lines at Paul M. Pearson Gardens Cooperative, saying that fund is trustee-controlled and does not permit the proposed use.
DeJongh vetoed a series of licensure time limits in the bill for a long, itemized list of health professionals, saying it treated some professionals differently from others and his administration was looking into unifying Health with Human Services and that healthcare licensure should be part of that process.
He also vetoed another part of that same bill says the ESA’s across-the-board 8-percent pay cut “does not apply to government employees who receive a salary through federal funding if the grant under which the salary is paid specifically sets the salary for that particular position.”
In his letter, the governor said the paragraph "seeks to create a distinction between local employees whose salaries are funded by federal funds from those funded by local funds. This is a distinction we should not permit to exist. It has been my consistent position that all must share in the burden imposed by the Great Recession and our resulting budget crisis."
DeJongh also vetoed a bill requiring EDA beneficiaries to buy a home and hire a Virgin Islander for every $1 million in revenue, describing it as "an overly broad, misdirected and counterproductive measure, the effect of which will surely be to hinder and not enhance small business development in the territory."
A bill extending the five-year moratorium on new bar licenses in the St. Croix towns of Frederiksted and Christiansted and St. Thomas’ Savan to 10 years and expanding it to cover Contant and Frenchtown got the axe, but only because it appeared to inadvertently extend the moratorium for an additional decade. DeJongh said a new version with a five-year extension would meet his approval.
Also axed was a bill banning the importation of gambling machines. DeJongh said he agrees with the Legislature’s goal of regulating the importation of gambling machines, but the act is inconsistent with the felony importation statute already on the books and incorrectly assumes the Lottery Director currently has the power to issue licenses as envisioned in the statute.
DeJongh approved acts:
— requiring GERS contributions begin the moment a government employee is hired;
— renaming a former act regarding the visually impaired the White Cane Law to reflect greater sensitivity;
— appropriating $500,000 from the Union Arbitration Award Fund to pay attorneys who worked on a government lawsuit;
— renaming the roadway to Joseph E. Gomez Elementary School after Rubena G. Todman-Gutliffe;
— renaming the road to Picture Point on St. John after Calvert C. Marsh;
— rezoning 23A Hospital Street Frederiksted from R-4 residential to B-1 central business district with a variance to allow fewer parking spaces than normal;
— a use variance for 1.5 acres at No. 18 Cruz Bay Quarter, St. John, to allow a gas station and convenience story;
— to rezone the Justice Department’s old Estate Orange Grove property at no. 3 and 3 A Estate Orange Grove,, St. Croix from B-3 business scattered, to P- public; and
— rezoning parcel No. 2 Remainder Estate Donoe, No. 2 A New Quarter St. Thomas, 57 acres, from R-1 residential to S special.