The financial team for Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. presented what senators are calling an “ambitious” FY 2022-2023 Executive Budget during Thursday’s Finance Committee hearing which kicks off a chain of budget hearings to be held throughout the following months.
Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal said the new biennial budget is vastly different from fiscal year 2021 and proposes an increase of roughly $100 million for each year creating a total proposed budget of nearly $1 billion.
Among the 18 budget highlights given during O’Neal’s testimony were proposed budget allocations for tax refunds, government employee wage increases, 1,259 new and vacant positions across several departments, and budget increases of 40 percent or higher to nine agencies, O’Neal said.
For the Education Department, the biggest single agency and line item, Bryan’s budget proposal allocates $184 million for 2022 and $187 million for 2023, assuming revenue projections hold. That’s up from $180 million in 2020 and $167 million for the current 2021 fiscal year.
Human Services, the second-largest agency, is slated for a large increase, from $57 million in 2021 to $75 million in 2022, and $76 million in 2023.
The V.I. Police Department is increasing from $65 million in 2020 to $83 million in 2022, and $85 million in 2023.
The governor’s financial team said they were optimistic that the newly proposed budget was achievable due to the consistent uptick in revenue collections.
“Not only did we spend the last 15 months dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but we were able to utilize our resources to collect more revenues than before,” O’Neal said. “While this was not what we expected at a time when the pandemic was raging, cruise ships weren’t coming, and the territory had to be shut down for extended periods of time, we are eternally grateful for those who continued to pay their taxes.”
But committee members weren’t convinced that the proposed budget, and its projections, were truly achievable, nor the goals set by the proposed budget allocations.
“I know in these past several years we had difficulty hiring … but in order to utilize many of those funds and move forward, we must know how we are going to get there. And right now, I’m not sure,” Sen. Marvin Blyden said. “You are speaking of hiring 1,200 plus employees within one year. How does that look? What does that plan look like? How are we going to get there, because I honestly don’t see it happening.”
Director of the Division of Personnel Dayna Clendinen said the administration is “feverishly working with all the departments” to recruit and will be initiating a stateside campaign to “bring native Virgin Islanders back to the territory to fill these 1,200 positions.”
Plans aside, the committee struggled to accept the proposed budget.
“While we may want to move forward with a two-year budget at this particular time, we have to also have perspective,” Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said. “Perspective on why we’re where we are … As we build this budget with all of these positions and all of these new things we are talking about, we have to ensure we are able to sustain.”
The perspective Frett-Gregory asked her colleagues to keep in mind came from O’Neal’s original testimony where she states revenue collections are higher primarily due to transient reasons.
“We are experiencing higher revenue collections mostly due to the ongoing hurricane-related disaster projects. Projects are expected to last for a number of years ahead as we build back better than before,” O’Neal said. “To a lesser degree, revenues are also higher due to both the storage and refinery operations on St. Croix, and we cannot ignore the impact of continuing increased airlift bringing a significant number of persons who’ve never visited the Virgin Islands before.”
After the hearing, Sen. Kurt Vialet sat down for a LEGIT legislative tv special about this season’s budget hearings, a tradition now for the last few years.
Vialet said while last year’s budget was “very conservative” because of pandemic uncertainty, the FY 2022-2023 Executive Budget “is a very ambitious budget that has been sent down by the Governor of the Virgin Islands, and it literally increases the fiscal 2021 year budget by $121 million, that is a substantial increase.”
After the committee meets with all the testifiers, Vialet said the committee will “scrub the numbers” and come up with their own revenue projection for every category and decide “whether or not we agree with the revenue projections.”
The Finance Committee will continue reviewing the FY 2022-2023 Executive Budget on June 15. For access to the full budget calendar visit the legislature’s website.
The proposed budget can be downloaded here.
Sens. Vialet, Frett-Gregory, Blyden, Samuel Carrion, Javan James Sr., Dwayne DeGraff, and Janelle Sarauw were present for the hearing. Additional non-committee members were also present.