Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone said Friday that he and members of the Senate look forward to Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s State of the Territory address Monday to hear how he plans to resolve the Virgin Islands’ budgetary shortfall.
Thursday the governor reported the territory’s budget deficit for the Fiscal Year 2014 had ballooned to $70.5 million and that, without tax increases or budget cuts, the government will run short of cash late in the year.
In his statement Friday, Malone said the Senate has received flawed financial information from the administration and accused the governor of trying to shift the blame for his "mismanagement" from the administration to the Legislature.
The Finance Committee, under the leadership of Sen. Clifford Graham, will conduct hearings with the administration’s financial team beginning Feb. 18 to determine the state of the territory’s finances, Malone said.
According to Malone, the governor and his financial team failed to submit a balanced FY14 budget to the Legislature.
"They were hoping to soften the blow of their mismanagement of the territory’s resources in anticipation of the State of the Territory address and transfer blame from the executive to the legislative branch of government," Malone said.
"Let me be clear, we will not be bulldozed into taking actions which are not in the best long-term interest of the people of the Virgin Islands. Senators have yet to receive financial data on the last two quarters of Fiscal Year 2013 – how are we to act without this information?"
"Fortunately the Legislature overrode the governor’s recent veto of a bill to collect occupancy tax from villas, which is slated to bring in an estimated $20 million in revenue annually," Malone said. "If the administration aggressively moves to implement this law it will go a long way toward addressing our shortfall. Additionally the Internal Revenue Bureau reports that there are millions in uncollected taxes – why aren’t collections the focus given our fiscal crisis?"
Malone said senators had also pledged to help lobby for Congressional passage of legislation to extend the rum cover-over to the higher $13.25 per proof gallon from the present $10.50. That $1.75 per gallon different constitutes a large part of the administration’s projected deficit
The Senate president suggested the governor’s conference call with the media Thursday was designed to shift attention.
"I am satisfied that the majority of people understand that Thursday’s pronouncements were made in preparation for the governor’s speech on Monday. Whatever they may say, the reality is that the Legislature has been highly cooperative and, at times, we have forced constructive changes which were in the public interest."
Malone also again urged the governor to eliminate perks such as personal vehicles and cell phone use in the executive branch.
"It’s about leadership," he said. "There are few aside from first responders that require a government issued cell phone. One of the first things I did as Senate president was to completely eliminate any expense associated with phone purchase or use, saving the Legislature more than $150,000 this term."