Sept. 22, 2005 Fast action was taken on more than 20 appropriations bills Thursday, much to the disapproval of Sen. Ronald E. Russell. While Russell did not contest the appropriations themselves, he did object to many of the voting tactics employed by the Senate's majority members during the Rules and Judiciary Committee's budget hearings.
When Sen. Usie R. Richards moved to consider voting on bills in a block without much discussion, for example, Russell pointed out the Legislature has just been approving Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's budget recommendations without changing them. "I can't believe it," Russell said. "There are even lump-sum budget figures that have been approved for departments and agencies. I thought that 'lump-sum' was a bad word at the Legislature."
Since the bills still have to be voted on by the full senate body Friday, Richards also made a motion to pass the bills out of committee with a three-minute debate time and a "closed rule policy," meaning that senators will not be able to make any more amendments when the bills come up for further debate. Russell pointed out that this measure disenfranchised senators who were not at Thursday's meeting including his fellow minority party members.
Sen. Craig W. Barshinger piggy-backed on Russell's comments by saying the entire process wasn't fair especially since he had not been invited to one budget mark-up meeting. Barshinger appeared at the Senate on Thursday to add amendments to a bill that calls for an appropriation of $1.5 million from the St. John Capital Improvements Fund for Department of Public Works and Waste Management Authority operating expenses.
Barshinger told colleagues that he was the only senator in the bunch from St. John, and the closed-rule policy would keep him from making amendments that would provide much needed extra money for island improvements. Indeed, when Russell tried to move an amendment on behalf of Barshinger calling for more funds to be appropriated from the fund, the majority voted it down.
"What's going on is that you guys are leaving the people of St. John out of the budget process," Barshinger said after the vote. "That is a serious allegation."
Additionally, Barshinger said he has been hindered by the fact that no one in government seems to have an accurate report of how much is presently in the fund. The senator said attempts made to the Legislature's post auditor trying to obtain the information have led nowhere.
Despite Barshinger's and Russell's concerns, however, the bill passed through the committee with Sens. Lorraine Berry, Shawn-Michael Malone, Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. voting in favor of the appropriation.
Discussion on the matter led to Russell's additional objection of an appropriation for $4.8 million to the Department of Finance for the development of a new Financial Management System for the government. Claiming the system was "antiquated," Russell said the money would be better used to fund a Supreme Court on St. Croix.
"We are supposed to put in place a Chief Financial Officer, and the Education Department is supposed to have their third-party fiduciary system set up by tomorrow. We don't need a new FMS. We've been appropriating money for it for years, and nothing has happened," Russell said.
When Russell proposed an amendment to the bill, Richards told him to save it for when the Legislative budget comes down to be marked up.
"The only problem with that is the Legislative budget is still being reviewed by legal counsel," Sen. Luis P. Hill said in response. Hill added that it was "ridiculous" that the Legislature's budget had not come down Thursday, since senators were scheduled to vote on it at Friday's full session.
"We don't get to review it, scrutinize it, debate it there's no discussion on what we as senators are going to do with our money," Hill said. He also put on the record that the Turnbull administration has added an additional $2 million to the Legislative budget, an appropriation which Hill said needs to be reviewed.
However, senators did approve budgets for the Judicial and Executive Branches on Thursday, at $23.7 million and $589.7 million respectively. However, the Executive Branch's budget came down to the floor around 8 p.m. Thursday evening, after senators took a one-and-a-half hour recess to discuss the appropriations outlined in the document in a "closed door" session.
When senators came back from the recess, Russell once again tried to offer amendments to appropriate additional money for the building of the Supreme Court, as well as various other projects on St. Croix. When senators voted down his amendments this time, Russell objected by saying he wasn't invited into the "closed-door session," and therefore, he should be allowed to give his input on the budget.
"It's clear that the majority does not want to entertain any measures made by minority senators," Russell said. "I went to the meeting you guys were having in the back [during the recess], and when I knocked on the door, I wasn't let in. I wanted to be in there I have things I want to vote on, too."
Russell was the only senator not to vote for the budget. In favor of the document were Sens. Berry, Malone, Nelson, Richards and White. This vote came despite statements by Malone about there being no budgets to approve at Thursday's session, only bills to appropriate money from different government funds into the General Fund so departments and agencies could receive their budget requests.
Russell had an objection about that as well. "I don't think we should take money out of funds designed for specific purposes to use for the General Fund," Russell said. In particular, the senator objected to a $13 million transfer from the government's Transportation Fund to be deposited into the General Fund.
He was also unhappy after hearing from the Senate's post auditor that the balance in the Transportation fund is only $6.1 million. "How can we pass a bill to transfer $13 million from this fund if we don't even have $13 million in there," Russell questioned.
Malone responded by saying senators do it every year because money is supposed to be deposited into the Transportation Fund on a regular basis. "We assume it's going to be in there," Malone said.
Senators also voted to:
— appropriate $23.2 million for salaries and expenses of the University of the Virgin Islands.
— appropriate $4.6 million to WTJX Public Television System.
— appropriate $16.2 million to the V.I. Waste Management Authority.
— provide $24.9 million for salaries and operating expenses for the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands and the Judicial Council.
— provide $2.6 million for operating expenses of the Office of the Territorial Public Defender.
— to appropriate $5.5 million from the Anti-litter and Beautification Fund to the Waste Management Authority for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
— to appropriate for operating expenses of the of the Business and Commercial Properties Revolving Fund.
— to appropriate from the Government Insurance Fund for operating expenses of the Finance and Labor Departments for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006.
— to make a lump-sum appropriation from the Health Revolving Fund for fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006.
— to provide for a lump-sum appropriation from the Indirect Cost Fund for salaries, operating expenses and for other purposes for the Office of Management and Budget, the Division of Personnel, Property and Procurement and the Finance Department for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006.
— to appropriate $3,500 from the interest earned on debt service as a contribution to the General Fund to provide for the operating expenses of the Public Employees Relations Board.
o appropriate funds to the Public Services Commission for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006 for operating expenses.
— to appropriate for operating expenses of the Waste Management Authority from the Sewer Waste Water Fund for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006.
— to provide a contribution from the Union Arbitration Award and Government Employees Increment Fund to the General Fund for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006.
— to appropriate funds to the Taxicab Division of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006 for operating expenses.
— to amend Title II of the V.I.Code, Chapter 2, Section 28, Subsection (e), relating to the amount of prior year's obligations.
— to amend Title 20 of the V.I. Code, Subsection (d), as it relates to taxi medallion auction for veterans, and for other related purposes.
— to provide appropriations from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006.
Other bills approved were the much debated measures relating to the establishment of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles as an entity separate from the Police Department, the charge of security deposits by the Water and Power Authority for new and transferred meter service, and the enactment of the Government Employees Retirement System Reform Act of 2005. Bills dealing with dismissals, demotions and suspensions of government employees, as well as relating to the hiring of people for the territory's boards and commissions were also approved (see "Senate Committee Supports GERS Reform" and "Senate Approves New WAPA Security Deposits").
These bills move on to the Senate's full body Friday for final votes.
A bill to enact the Carnival Promotion Accountability Act was not approved Thursday.
Present at Thursday's hearing were Sens. Barshinger, Berry, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Malone, Nelson, Richards, Russell and White. Sen. Pedro Encarnacion was absent.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.