Some are calling for more civility in the acrimonious back-and-forth between Government House and the Legislature over administration-sponsored legislation to address the territory’s deficit in response to Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s announcement Wednesday: approximately one thousand government employees will be dismissed in January because government cannot make payroll.
Tensions between the executive and legislative branches are high after a year of deJongh warning, in ever more stark and acerbic terms, that more revenues and more cuts were needed to keep the territory’s government afloat this year.
The Legislature implemented some, but not all of deJongh’s proposals, increasing gross receipts tax to 4.5 percent, not 5 percent, and declining to eliminate nine paid holidays as the governor requested.
In June, the Legislature passed a broad budget stabilization package that imposed an unpopular 8 percent government pay cut and offered cash incentives for senior employees to retire. The administration has been warning the legislature’s actions helped lessen the deficit, but did not eliminate it.
DeJongh’s financial team recently testified to the Legislature revenues have declined, coming in lower than projected, increasing the projected 2012 deficit from initial estimates of around $17.5 million to around $66 or $67 million.
Throughout the process, several senators have angrily denounced the administration and its proposals, with many, including Sens. Janette Millin-Young, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Neville James strongly suggesting the governor is fabricating the budget numbers. With that concern in mind, the Legislature passed a bill requiring the governor to provide the Legislature with access codes to all the government’s bank accounts, so it can get figures directly from those institutions instead of from the Finance Department and Office of Management and budget. DeJongh vetoed the measure, saying it was a violation of separation of powers, and the Legislature overrode the veto.
DeJongh called an emergency session of the Legislature Dec. 23, saying the government would very soon be forced to start mass layoffs if several new fiscal stabilization measures were not taken. Dejongh was acerbic in his message, taking the Legislature to task for failing to act sooner. The senators, in turn, took great offense at the governor, questioned whether the emergency was so dire it could not wait until after the holidays, and rejected deJongh’s proposals without offering any substitute.
Wednesday, deJongh announced he would begin layoffs almost immediately. The governor’s initial plan involves dismissing 143 temporary, per diem, and part-time employees before the end of the year. Their last day will be on Dec. 30. The second wave of layoffs will come on Jan. 5, 2012, with an additional 350 employees being dismissed. This group will be made up of individuals determined to be non-essential by their department or agency heads. The governor pulled no punches and made it clear he blamed the layoffs on the Legislature for its failure to act to resolve the crisis.
In response to deJongh’s move, Delegate Donna Christensen issued a statement Wednesday, saying “attacking other elected officials is not what the people of the Virgin Islands need at this time. What is needed right now is for us to come together and work in their best interest,” Christensen said, adding that the announced dismissals would have far-reaching effects on families, businesses and this community, "something all of us must work to avoid or mitigate to the greatest extent possible."
When asked Thursday whether she meant to criticize just the governor, just the Legislature, or both, Christensen declined to elaborate on her statement.
The Source reached out to several senators Thursday seeking reactions to the governor’s layoff announcement and comment on the level of civility or lack thereof in the debate.
"We need to reach a level of political maturity and have a civil discussion," Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe said Thursday. "The problems are too great for this type of back and forth. I’m not getting into who is right and who is wrong. My point is, while both branches argue, the people suffer. No problem is so insurmountable we cannot sit down and find the best way forward."
Sen. Alvin Williams did not comment on civility or whether layoffs could be avoided, but said he did not support deJongh’s proposal to increase gross receipts taxes from 4.5 percent to 5 percent, and instead favors "structural change."
"What happens if things don’t improve in two to three years? Then we will have to increase taxes again," Williams said, adding that he felt the government had also been borrowing too much and needed to adjust to the new fiscal reality. "We need structural change, and until we have a structural plan in place where we will not have to continue borrowing every year."
Asked what he would support, Williams suggested cutting back on capital projects where possible, where the money is in place, but the projects are still in the design phase, and devoting those resources instead to basic government operations.
Senate President Ronald Russell said he would be civil and enforce decorum among senators when he is in the chair, but also said each senator was elected independently and spoke for him or herself.
"I have not been into personal attacks or name calling; it is not my style. We have to work with the officials the people have elected," Russell said Thursday. "I keep decorum, but I respect the individual senators and they speak for themselves."
As for the crisis, Russell said the Legislature and the executive branch would be meeting and he was certain solutions would be found, but meanwhile, the first waves of layoffs were probably unavoidable.
"The [first wave of] 143 and 350 employees, there is little we could do to save those jobs now, they are gone," Russell said. "But we are currently working on getting a meeting of all the elected officials to address stopping further dismissals and putting policies in place to address the difficult economic forecast… I think when we put everybody in the same room and minds come together we will find solutions," Russell said.