Home News Local news GOVERNOR SAYS V.I. NOT FACING A FISCAL CRISIS

GOVERNOR SAYS V.I. NOT FACING A FISCAL CRISIS

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Jan. 13, 2003 – With a smart trumpet fanfare, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull entered the Senate chambers Monday evening on the arm of Senate Vice President Lorraine Berry and proceeded in his fifth State of the Territory address to tell lawmakers, judges, cabinet members, visiting dignitaries and Democratic supporters who filled the chambers that the government is in far rosier financial shape than recent reports have indicated.
And he said to overwhelming applause that he would challenge the 24th Legislature's override of his third veto of legislation allowing video lottery terminals on St. Thomas and St. John.
"While new challenges await us," Turnbull said, "we continue to improve and remain fundamentally strong enough to meet any of the challenges the years ahead may bring."
The governor said a Fiscal Year 2001 financial audit issued last week shows the government ended the year with a General Fund surplus of some $35 million. Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull last month made a widely quoted remark about the government's "fiscal crisis" which left many wondering whom to believe about the government's finances — and then she backed off from the statement herself testifying in District Court on Friday.
Last fall, Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said revenue projections were running about $40 million short of earlier expectations.
Turnbull continued Monday night: "While we anticipate that the uncompleted FY 2002 audit will show some slippage, it is undeniable that we are making steady financial progress and that our progress has allowed us to make a number of important improvements in the government's ability to deliver services and meet its obligations.
"Considering national and international trends and uncertainties over which the government has no control, revenues are positioned to increase to record levels in the coming fiscal year. Thus concerns about the so-called '$100 million windfall' collected in FY 2001 were misplaced. There was no one-time 'windfall.' Rather, as a result of our disciplined tax collection efforts and the success of our reinvigorating the Economic Development Commission program, the $100 million increase has been built into our revenue base.
"Indeed, preliminary estimates indicate that the Bureau of Internal Revenue increased its total collections last month by some 25 percent over previous record levels in December 2001."
The governor reflected on his administration's success in completing long-overdue financial audits and bringing the government into compliance with the Federal Single Audit Act for the first time. "No other administration has achieved such a record of compliance with federal financial audit requirements," he said. With new confidence placed in the territory because of that, he said, the territory has succeeded in increasing federal grant funding by some 50 percent since January 1999.
Turnbull noted the agreement the government had negotiated with the Environmental Protection Agency to allow a 20 percent increase in rum production, resulting in a further 20 percent increase the territory's rum revenues.
He called attention to the economy of St. Croix, announcing a plan to build a $35 million convention center and citing more than $1 billion in planned in private-sector investments in hotels, casinos and other tourism-related projects, which brought him to his mention of the VLT legislation. (See "Democratic Party comes out against VLT's".)
The governor, once again, said education is the top priority of his administration. Speaking intensely, he occasionally departed from his prepared speech to voice his concerns. He said he would "personally" oversee efforts for the schools to regain accreditation. He talked of the need for site-based management, reduced teacher absenteeism, improved student attendance and substitute teacher pools. He said: "We have raised teachers salaries (but I know not enough)."
Having his audience entirely with him at this point, Turnbull was more relaxed than in some previous addresses. "When I retire," he said to thunderous applause, "I'll be part of that substitute teacher pool."
He took the occasion to announce the Teachers of the Year: Annette Kelly of Charlotte Amalie High School for St. Thomas-St. John and Cidell Petersen Christopher of Claude O. Markoe Elementary School for St. Croix.
And, while he was ad libbing, he said to the senators: "I beg you not to send me any more Christmas tree bills. We don't have the funds for all these things." Giving them a broad smile, he added, "I know I can depend on this new Legislature" to not do this. His remark was met with laughter from the audience, if not from all the senators.
As he wound up his address of nearly an hour and a half, Turnbull came to the matter of the recent astronomic raises for top elected officials, an incendiary issue which prompted protests, unrest and discord across the community until Friday, when he vetoed the legislation he himself had submitted to the 24th Legislature. He said in the speech: "After much consideration, review, and noting public reaction, I decided to line-item veto Section 39 of Bill 24-0307."
He lauded the protests as "in keeping with the tradition of American democracy." "However," he continued, "I would be remiss if I did not note the great disrespect to God, country, homeland and people of African descent that took place during some of the demonstrations." The crowd cheered his remark, yelling "Yes! Yes!"
The governor also addressed many other issues including public safety, health and housing. To access the full text of his speech, posted in the Data section, click here. Reactions to the speech and an account of the first session of the 25th Legislature will be published in the Source on Tuesday.

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