April 13, 2003 The 25th Legislature will hold its first actual full session Tuesday and Wednesday. It promises to be a lively session, featuring a bill repealing the by-now-infamous video lottery terminals and another creating a Tourism Authority to replace the Department of Tourism.
The Legislature has met in full session twice an organizational session Jan. 13, and another called by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull on Feb. 12 to consider lump sum-budgets for the Executive branch, to provide for 2001 through 2004 commercial property tax bills to be sent out using 1999 valuations, and another to preserve the availability of funds for St. John's VITRAN operations.
These bills have been signed into law, the only ones so far for this Legislature that has gotten off to a much slower start in committee meetings than its predecessor. The 24th Legislature prided itself on virtually nonstop committee meetings 34 in its first 100 days, along with two full sessions. The Finance Committee dominated many of these meetings as its chairwoman, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, pored over individual agency's budgets, refusing to respond to Turnbull's repeated pleas for lump-sum budgets.
The 25th Legislature met twice in Committee of the Whole on March 13 and 14 to listen to testimony on the controversial VLTs. Senators now are making up for lost time they have held several committee meetings in the last month, and the schedule remains busy with a Health, Hospitals and Human Services meeting Monday, followed by the two days of full session. Thursday and Friday are government holidays, Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
The body has yet to meet to examine the territory's finances. This does not sit well with the five minority senators who have been chomping at the bit to get the government's chief fiscal officers to provide information on the territory's finances, which remain a well-guarded secret from the public as well as the Senate.
On March 27, the government borrowed $7 million from the Public Finance Authority to stem its apparently collapsing finances. Since then, there has been much talk of the government trying to secure more funds from an unidentified source to cover May paydays. The administration has not commented on this.
In a letter dated April 2, the minority wrote Sen. President David Jones requesting a Committee of the Whole meeting for Monday. In part, the letter said, "The authorization of a $7.5 million loan from the PFA to cover the government's operational cost and the secret plan to borrow $25 million are of grave concern to the minority caucus. … The month of May is upon us, and the expectation of meeting three paydays in one month brings fear and concern to every resident of the V. I.," the letter continued.
Minority leader Raymond "Usie" Richards circulated a petition Thursday to force Jones to call the session, but he only got the signatures of the other four minority members. Eight signatures would be needed to make the petition effective.
Jones has not formally responded to the minority's request. However, there may be hope from another source, but not for six weeks. Finance Chairman Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg wrote Richards that he would be pleased to hold a meeting with the government fiscal officers, but the earliest date he has open is May 20.
"I share many of your concerns about the current fiscal crisis," Donastorg wrote, "and the ongoing efforts to borrow money simply to maintain daily operations. While the Finance Committee and the post audit division have made many inroads since January, we all require a great deal more data in order to make informed decisions, and to move towards resolution of these matters."
On next week's agenda are several board nominations, as well as resolutions and a mountain of agricultural leases.
The nominations are Cedric Swan and Lowell A. Thomas Sr., V.I. Lottery Commission; Fred Vialet Jr., Board of Land Use Appeals; Lisa Davis, Government Employees Service Commission and Health Insurance Board of Trustees; Lawrence Lewis, Agriculture commissioner; Roy D. Jackson, Auguste Rimpel Jr. and Henry Smock, University of the Virgin Islands board of trustees; Horace Brooks, Natalie Thomas and Samuel Topp, V.I. Government Hospitals and Health Facilities Corp.; and Elton Lewis, Police commissioner.
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