Senate Cuts Governor's Budget, Restricts All Executive Spending

The V.I. Legislature voted to cut the budget of the Office of the Governor by three-quarters for Fiscal Year 2015, and then voted to change existing V.I. law so that outgoing administrations may only spend 25 percent of the executive budget in a transition year, during session Tuesday.

The first budget cut was unabashedly meant to be a slap in the governor’s face, while several senators said the second cut was not meant as a personal attack, but as prudent policy.

When Sen. Craig Barshinger proposed the first measure, which cuts the line item for the Office of the Governor from $9 million to $2.25 million for FY15, he read a series of "whereas" passages, laying out a series of grievances against the governor, concerning wanting to see cell phone records, gasoline receipts, encumbrances on the St. John Capital Improvement fund and other complaints against the administration.

"It is limiting his budget so he cannot overspend the budget of the next governor," Barshinger said.

The measure cuts the total annual budget, so by itself Barshinger’s proposal has the effect of funding the deJongh administration until January, then leave the executive office entirely unfunded for the rest of the year, after deJongh’s departure. However a subsequent amendment further restricted the governor’s spending for any executive agency, including his own office.

Voting in favor of Barshinger’s proposal to cut the budget of the Office of the Governor by three-quarters were Barshinger, Sens. Diane Capehart, Kenneth Gittens, Myron Jackson, Shawn-Michael Malone, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Clarence Payne, Tregenza Roach and Sammuel Sanes. Voting no were Sens. Judi Buckley, Donald Cole, Clifford Graham, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen and Janette Millin Young.

Later the Legislature also approved an amendment from Graham forbidding the executive branch from spending more than 25 percent of the executive budget during a year in which an administration transfer occurs.

Roach asked legal counsel if the measure violated the principle of separation of powers and was told the measure was within the Legislature’s powers to set budget amounts.

The measure also affects charitable organizations that are funded in the miscellaneous section of the budget through the main executive agency budget bill, Graham said.

Senators insisted this measure was being considered for the sake of good public policy and not as a personal vendetta.

"This bill is more universal than the one the body approved prior," Millin Young said, comparing it to Barshinger’s measure cutting deJongh’s office’s budget. "I think many of my colleagues approved the prior measure for just the outgoing administration, but this one is to ensure that any administration only uses 25 percent of their funding in a transition year," she said.

Graham said, "It makes sense. Any administration could spend more than their share and leave the incoming administration holding the bag. It is really just the right thing to do."

Voting to make only 25 percent of the Office of the Governor’s reduced $2.25 million budget available to the administration were Barshinger, Capehart, Cole, Graham, Jackson, Malone, Payne and Millin Young. Voting no were Buckley, Hansen, Nelson, Rivera-O’Reilly, Roach and Sanes. Gittens was absent.

The Legislature made a number of other, smaller changes to the $558.1 million budget bill [Main Budget Bill]

Graham sponsored a series of revenue generating amendments. One generated some opposition: to allow the V.I. Water and Power Authority to bill customers for streetlights when it reduces the fuel surcharge, and to restore the portion of property taxes currently devoted to streetlights to the V.I. treasury.

“If this amendment is approved, then the WAPA bills will drastically increase. This bill needs be taken off the agenda and placed in committee for further consideration,” Rivera-O’Reilly said.

Graham said street lighting needs to be improved and giving WAPA more authority in this area would help.

“There are some parts of the island that are too dark because the street lights are not working,” Graham said, adding that the amendment would make roads safer and help balance the budget.

Post Auditor Jose George said the measure should free up about $2 million per year.

Voting for the change were a majority of eight senators Barshinger, Capehart, Cole, Graham, Jackson, Malone, Payne and Millin Young. Voting no were Buckley, Gittens, Hansen, Nelson, Rivera-O’Reilly and Sanes.

Other amendments:
– from Roach, adding electronic cigarettes to the list of taxed tobacco products;
– from Roach, forbidding Board of Elections members from seeking any other public office during their term of office unless they resign entirely from the board;
– from Payne, allowing the Nurse Licensure Board members to continue to serve until replacement, to allow the board to keep its quorum and continue certifying nurses;
– and from Jackson, requiring that lands foreclosed on by the V.I. Government "that are beneficial to the territory" be put in a land bank for public use and that properties be assessed for this land bank before being auctioned off.

Along with the main budget bill, the Legislature approved the government health insurance contracts and several bills special ordered onto the agenda Tuesday.

One bill from Sanes and Rivera-O’Reilly devotes any "proceeds from the sale of Hovensa," if any, and any corporate income taxes from a new refinery over the next 20 years to the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund.

Another requested by deJongh removes excise tax and customs duties from most personal electronic goods.

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