The Senate approved a roughly $20 million appropriation, using up most of what is left of a $220 million windfall from the sale of the Hovensa refinery to fund pay raises and school lunches during session Wednesday. The busy session also approved bills for registering stun guns, trying to make private contractors hire unemployed locals first and letting the governor use a revolving loan to buy government vehicles instead of appropriating or authorizing the funds directly.
The pay-raise bill appropriates roughly $20 million, with about $14.4 million as partial payment for salary increases, for the remainder of the current fiscal year and $5.1 million for school lunches and substitute teachers. The measure is financed by the rapidly dwindling funds from a $220 million one-time payout from the sale of the former Hovensa refinery earlier this year. With this new appropriation, roughly $12 million remains from the original $220 million, according to Budget Director Nellon Bowry.
The legislation funds pay raises for employees of the Bureau of Corrections, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Division of Personnel, Office of the Lieutenant Governor, Fire Services, Department of Human Services, Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and the Police Department for the current fiscal year only.
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd asked how they could be sure the raises could be sustained in subsequent years.
Sen. Clifford Graham, chairman of the Finance Committee, said lower funding for future tax refunds in future years would ensure there was funding.
Senate President Neville James also questioned whether the raises were sustainable, recalling that tax receipts were down for the year, but that they were rising now.
"We see the bump up in February already," James said, adding he wants to hear more from the governor about the state of the government’s finances.
"We are going to ask him to come down and tell us why these raises can be sustained," James said.
During committee hearings on the raises, Bowry said the $20 million for the raises in 2017 could be covered by reducing the reserve amount for tax refunds by $20 million. But he also testified the territory was facing an overall budget shortfall of $100 million for 2017 and another $100 million for every year after that.
In that context, Bowry said of the raises, "I am confident that what we could say about this is that it does not worsen our fiscal situation." He said the "structural deficit" would "be addressed as part of a five-year plan gong forward."
Senators added several nongermane amendments to the measure before approving it. One from Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly clarified V.I. law to say that businesses need fire inspections every year, not just when they open. Another from Rivera-O’Reilly appropriates $500,000 for the Herbert Grigg Home for the Aged.
Voting in favor of the spending measure were James, Graham, Liburd, Rivera-O’Reilly, Sens. Marvin Blyden, Novelle Francis, Kenneth Gittens, Positive Nelson, Sammuel Sanes and Kurt Vialet. Voting no were Sens. Jean Forde, Justin Harrigan, Myron Jackson, Tregenza Roach and Janette Millin Young.