Sept. 27, 2005 After months of debate, senators unanimously voted to approve the Government Employees Retirement System Reform bill at full session Monday.
The bill, which has been on the legislative floor since May, now only needs the signature of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull before it becomes law.
"This has been a long time in coming," Sen. Louis P. Hill said. Hill, who has been working on the measure since 2004, added although the bill is not perfect, it will help to rectify many of the problems experienced by GERS and keep the system from collapsing in the next nine years (See " Senate Committee Supports GERS Reform "). Other senators, however, were not too sure of that. While all did agree something is needed to address the concerns of GERSin particular an almost $1 billion dollar debt owed to the system by the governmentmany also focused on the bill's "imperfections."
"It does not address the unfunded liability," Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said. Donastorg explained there was only a small amount in the bill set aside for that cause. Consequently, Donastorg called for senators to support an amendment to the bill, which earmarks 15 percent of taxes collected by the government from Hovensa on an annual or quarterly basis for ten years to take care of the debt.
The amendment never made it to the floor, however, as Sen. Lorraine L. Berry said another senator had offered the same amendment a month before Donastorg didalthough it has not yet been considered by the Legislature.
While Berry argued there is also an amount set aside in the executive budget for the unfunded liability, other senators offered the debt be partially funded through over $60 million in extra revenues recently found by the government. (See " Turnbull Has Plans to Spend 'Found Money'").
"It is proscribed by law that any such money be used to fund our liabilities," Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said. "That means the GERS debt, as well as the $400 million in retroactive pay owed to government employees."
Sen. Roosevelt C. David added to Nelson's comments by saying if some of the extra money is not used to fund the liabilityor if a fixed funding source is not soon identifiedthe debt would keep compounding until it would be almost impossible to pay off.
Closing these issues with a compromise to approve the bill and amend it later, senators discussed the spending of the additional money at length, each offering suggestions ranging from more money for education to saving the money for a "rainy day."
Turnbull had his own recommendations, however, which came in the form of a bill at Friday's Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting. Turnbull has also requested a special session be held this week to take care of any new appropriations.
Berry, who has not supported the special session, proposed adding amendments to the Omnibus Authorization Act of 2005 to take care of the governor's, as well as the senators', suggestions. However, because of the amount of amendments to the bill, it was not ready for a discussion and vote at Monday's sessionwhich stretched until 10:30 p.m.
When asked when the bill will be complete, Berry said she did not know, but plans to talk to Turnbull about a special session.
A $16.9 million Legislative budget was also approved by senators Monday, along with an additional $1 million allotment for capital improvement projects. This budget represents a 900,000 increase from last year's allotment, with $11 million dedicated to salaries for the Legislature's central staff.
Berry supported this allotment by informing other senators that central staff personnel have not been given raises since 1997. "It's not fair for us to approve salaries for other departments and agencies, and not give our staff a raise of their own," Berry said.
An amendment proposed by Nelson setting the amount of money each senator is allotted for operating expenses was also approved Monday. According to this amendment:
–each senator shall receive 2 percent of the total Legislative budget as a base allotment for the operation of their senatorial office.
–the senate president, in addition to the base allotment, will receive an additional 1 percent of the Legislature's total operating budget to perform his/her responsibilities.
–senators designated as committee chairs will receive, in addition to the base allotment, an additional .5 percent of the total Legislative budget to perform his/her chairing responsibilities.
–the Senator-At-Large will receive, in addition to the base allotment, an additional .5 percent of the total Legislative budget to perform his/her duties. If this senator is also the senate president, they will receive a total allotment of no more than 3 percent of the total Legislative budget.
While most senators commended Nelson for this effort, an intense debate between Nelson and Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste ensued. Since the amendment proposed the allotment changes be in place for Jan. 1, 2007, Jn Baptiste argued it would not be practical to impose restrictions upon a new batch of senators.
In response, Nelson had the amendment re-drafted to allow the changes to instead be implemented Jan. 1, 2006. However, when Nelson had Hill introduce the new date for senators to vote on, the request was ignored by Berry.
Instead, a vote was taken on the Nelson's amendment with a 2007 implementation date, which passed twelve-to-two with Berry and Sen. Liston Davis voting against the measure. Jn Baptiste didn't vote.
"I greatly object to this [Berry's] behavior," Hill said after the vote. "I was standing here trying to introduce an amendment, and I was blatantly ignored. Just because you don't agree with what I'm proposing, doesn't mean I have to be disregarded."
Berry responded by telling Hill there was a motion on the floor to consider the amendment with the original date, and therefore the new amendment could not be considered.
All bills have to go to Turnbull for final consideration and approval.
All senators were present at Monday's meeting.
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