Senators were faced with the choice on Wednesday to untie their salaries from the lowest-paid executive branch commissioner, who is due for a raise in 2021. An amendment to untie the salaries was added to an unrelated measure on the importation of non-indigenous creatures, but senators voted to strike the bill from the agenda.
The bill was meant to act as a so-called “Christmas tree bill,” to which multiple unrelated amendments can be added, but the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Athneil Thomas, offered a motion to pull it from consideration. This resulted in a two-minute debate between Thomas and Sen. Javan James Sr., who wanted to vote on the amendment untying senators’ salaries from the salary the Sports, Parks and Recreation commissioner, who makes $85,000 annually and is in line for a $15,000 raise in fiscal year 2021.
In a 10-4 vote, Thomas’ motion passed and the bill, along with any amendments offered, was struck from the agenda.
“Failure to act on this amendment means that senators will give themselves an automatic pay raise,” Sen. Kenneth Gittens said in a statement issued after Wednesday’s hearing.
“I cannot support a salary increase for senators at this time given the level of economic uncertainty we face in the territory, and I certainly would oppose any increase for senators until such time as we have found a way to address the shortfall at GERS,” Gittens said.
Because the salaries are tied to that of the lowest-paid commissioner, senators will see the same $15,000 raise, bringing their annual salary to $100,000 each. But having their salaries untied would raise a series of questions: Who would set the senators’ salaries? Would the Legislature end up setting their own salaries? Would there be anything stopping one senator from getting paid more than another? Would there be a cap on what a senator can make annually?
Due to the nature of a “Christmas tree bill,” none of these questions were answered during the session because the amendment did not go through the same process as bills vetted in committees.
Gittens suggested in his release those who voted in favor of striking the bill from the agenda “wanted a raise,” and instead of voting on the amendment they shut down session in an effort to block the amendment. “I am deeply disappointed in what transpired today,” he wrote.
But at the hearing, Thomas said the reason he motioned to strike the agenda item had nothing to do with the amendment, and that the amendment could have been placed on a different bill but instead was tacked on to his – which he said was not ready.
“It is my bill. I had left out certain sections that would address other indigenous harmful species that are already here, and we need to correct that. The amendment is not prepared, and I don’t want my bill moving forward without the proper amendments,” Thomas said.
Voting to strike the agenda item were Sens. Thomas, Allison DeGazon, Myron Jackson, Kurt Vialet, Janelle Sarauw, Stedmann Hodge Jr., Novelle Francis Jr., Marvin Blyden, Donna Frett-Gregory and Steven Payne Sr.
Opposing the motion were Sens. James, Gittens, Dwayne DeGraff and Oakland Benta. Sen. Alicia Barnes was excused from the session.