While V.I. Senators responded to the State of the Territory Address by promoting their own personal and often vastly different economic-recovery plans, almost all said they felt unjustly attacked and wounded by the words of Gov. John deJongh Jr.
“This is the most acrimonious sort of blame-throwing that I have seen in a State of the Territory,” Sen. Louis Hill said.
Central to deJongh’s speech was last week’s Senate vote against raising the Gross Receipts Tax from 4.5 to 5 percent. DeJongh and his supporters argue that without this tax increase to use as collateral, the administration will be unable to borrow the $120 million the government needs to pay its past-due utility bills, to keep current on payroll and to prevent further employee dismissals.
Sen. Neville James said, “Clearly the governor is frustrated about what didn’t happen here in the Legislature last week and he showed it tonight. I thought his speech really didn’t focus on the optimism that we need at this juncture.”
For his part, James said he would like to see the government “double-up” on its tourism-promotion efforts as a way to heal the territory’s sick economy.
In his address, the governor criticized the Senate for cutting its members and staffs’ salaries by 8 percent without reducing its overall budget by the same amount.
Sen. President Ronald Russell said that since July, senators and their staffs had cut a total of nearly $700,000 from their salaries. That money, Russell said, was put toward paying past-due bills from Senate vendors and toward the Legislature’s ongoing operations costs.
But that was not the intent of the Senate’s own Economic Stability Act, deJongh said.
“The cut in pay was supposed to be a reduction of your overall cost to the taxpayers,” deJongh said to cheers from the crowd. “It is time for you to make these cuts.”
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Sen. Terrence Nelson said they wanted to know where their personal pay cuts went.
“I would like to know what happened to those savings,” Nelson said, adding that his own economic-recovery plans focus on fighting Hovensa for breach-of-contract payments and petitioning the federal government for emergency bailout funds.
Sen. Craig Barshinger characterized the Senate’s professed adherence to its own austerity measures as disingenuous.
“That was the illusion,” Barshinger said. “The Legislature right now has all the money it has ever had.”
For his part, Barshinger said he would like to restructure the government so its workers – and the public’s money – are put to more efficient use.
Sen. Usie Richards suggested consolidating administration of the territory’s two hospitals as a way to save money.
Senators said they strongly disagreed with deJongh’s assertion that they make policy decision based solely on whether or not it will help get them reelected.
“I think the governor wanted to give the impression that we, the senators, don’t care,” said Rivera-O’Reilly. “That is just not true.”
Rivera-O’Reilly said the governor has been given enough chances to borrow money and that he has mismanaged the funds he has received.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said deJongh falsely painted himself with a blame-free brush.
“I am trying to calm down,” Malone said right after the speech ended. “He has taken no responsibility to fiscal crisis at all.”
Sen. Majority Leader Celestino White Sr. said he is hopeful that his colleagues will go back to the table for a third try, and that this time they will pass the governor’s requested Gross Receipts Tax increase.
“We approved the borrowing, but not the mechanism under which we will be able to get the money,” White said.
White said he hoped that hurt feelings left in the wake of deJongh’s sharp words would not cause a leadership stalemate.
“If the Senators push back, then nobody move,” White said. “It’s up to me to heal the wounds.”