Dec. 23, 2002 – In its first session, nearly two years ago, the 24th Legislature came in like a lion. And in its last session, on Monday, it exited much the same way.
The lawmakers voted substantial raises for themselves (to $85,000 a year), the governor and the lieutenant governor; overrode the governor's latest veto of video lottery operations in the territory; and, although the administration has announced that the territory is in a "fiscal crisis," appropriated $25.1 million for everything from back bills owed garbage haulers to beefing up the budget of the Lieutenant Governor's Office.
They also approved funding sources for salary increases the administration negotiated in collective bargaining with V.I. firefighters and their supervisors and with government workers in various departments and agencies represented by the United Steelworkers of America.
The Dec. 18 V.I. Daily News quoted Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull as having said that the government's cash reserves "are at an all-time low." The newspaper report said Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's top financial officials were working on plans to address the situation.
Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said one "obvious area" of revenue shortfalls was of $50 million to $60 million in projected property taxes that failed to materialize. The administration has not issued any statement on its plans for dealing with the fiscal shortages.
On Monday, the senators seemed blissfully unaware of the administration's pronouncement as they appropriated the $25.1 million. Most of the amendments were attached to a bill appropriating:
– $300,000 to V.I. Music Festival for an event scheduled for July 11-13, 2003, on St. Thomas.
– $213,179 to the Office of the Supervisor of Elections to defray costs from the 2002 primary and general elections.
– $600,000 from the General Fund to the Police Department to hire the Housing Authority's soon-to-be-disbanded police force.
– $10 million from the General Fund. Of this amount, $1.6 million is to satisfy an Environmental Protection Agency fine of $25 million; this amount was supposed to have been paid by October in order to avoid the entire $25 million fine. The other $8.4 million is for startup costs for Waste and Transfer Station operations on St. Croix.
White was on top of his game Monday, adding some welcome levity to the session, which was the last for four of his fellow majority members. Sens. Adelbert Bryan, Donald "Ducks" Cole and Norma Pickard-Samuel were not re-elected. Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen ran for governor, unsuccessfully, instead of for re-election. It was also the final session for Sen. Vargrave Richards, who has been a minority member in the 24th Legislature but will become lieutenant governor in January.
White was clearly enjoying his last day as majority leader as he introduced several appropriations. He also warned repeatedly that at a meeting on Monday night of his Housing Parks and Recreation Committee, the Housing Authority would get some flack. He referred specifically to the firings of top administrators that new VIHA executive director Ray Fonseca has announced. (See "VIHA cost cutting bites into bureaucracy.)
White referred to VIHA's board chair, Fitzgerald Rowe, and Fonseca as the "new Yankees" and said they have some explaining to do about their trips to everywhere from Washington, D.C., to the "Topp Talk" radio show. He chided Sen. Emmett Hansen II, who will chair the housing committee in the 25th Legislaturer, and freshman senator Luther Renee, telling them "everybody knows who the real head of housing is."
Hansen took it in good humor. "Housing is White's passion," he said.
All senators except Norman Jn Baptiste attended the final session. Sen. President Almando "Rocky" Liburd did not end the session sine die because of White's final committee meeting that was to convene at about 6:30 p.m. following the full Legislature's final session.
A full account of all appropriations, votes on bills and details on the video lottery history will be in Tuesday's Source papers.
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