March 7, 2006 – In a surprising move Tuesday, the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee reduced the $59.2 million supplemental budget bill to $27.5 million. The bill, originally submitted by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, was approved by the Finance Committee in late February.
Rules Committee Chair Sen. Ronald E. Russell stated, "We decided to reduce the supplemental budget to matters considered emergencies and must be dealt with immediately." He added, "What we have done by consensus is to address major concerns needed by the community. The rest will be dealt with at a later date."
Senators said they have been concerned about approving the bill since Turnbull sent it to the Legislature early last month, and senators questioned the authority given to the director of the Office of Management and Budget in deciding when to release money to various departments after funds have been appropriated by the Legislature.
"It's not that we're worried about over-appropriating money," Russell said after the meeting. "But we do know that money from previous appropriations have not been released yet by OMB, and I don't think we should appropriate more funding when people are still waiting for their money. It is also disturbing to know that the OMB director can choose when funds can be released – that he has the discretion to choose not to release funding to departments and agencies after we've made an appropriation."
Echoing Russell's concerns, Sen. Lorraine L. Berry said, "Government can't have a surplus if there are monies which haven't been released as yet." She added that Kidscope Inc., a facility on St. Thomas serving victims of child abuse and neglect, is one of several entities in the territory "suffering" from a lack of funding. "They've been waiting for their money for years," she said. "And this is money that they really need."
Russell said committee members decided to restructure the bill to address the government's "critical funding needs" and would deal with the other appropriations included in the bill at the next Rules Committee meeting.
Among the appropriations cut from the bill is a $2 million supplemental budget request from the Waste Management Authority. The appropriation was added to the bill through an amendment approved by the Finance Committee in February. At the time, senators said the addition was necessary, since WMA Executive Director May Adams-Cornwall told committee members the authority would not be able to function properly if more money was not appropriated.
Also cut from the bill was a $6.3 million supplemental budget request from the Health Department to fund outstanding financial obligations, including roughly $245,000 worth of rent owed by the East End Medical Clinic. If the rent is not paid, the clinic stands to be evicted from its location at the Tutu Park Mall on St. Thomas (See "East End Health Clinic to Remain at Tutu Park Mall").
"It's not likely they will be evicted in the next week or two," Russell said after the meeting. "But we'll take a look at that appropriation and see if we could add that to the revised bill during the full Senate sessions this week."
Supplemental budget appropriations approved Tuesday were:
–$5.9 million to the Justice Department for outstanding obligations and improvements to the Bureau of Corrections (including improvements at the Golden Grove prison facility on St. Croix and the Criminal Justice Complex on St. Thomas).
–$3.5 million to the Finance Department to replenish the Government Insurance Fund and to fund claims made by homeowners in the Mon Bijoux community on St. Croix.
–$10 million to the Education Department to fund various programs until a third-party fiduciary is in place and federal funding can be released.
–$4.8 million to the Human Services department for various projects and to cover program funding shortfalls until a third-party fiduciary is in place.
–$750,000 to the Police Department for fuel costs.
–$1.5 million to the Labor Department to correct various health and safety violations.
–$400,000 to the Office of Veterans Affairs to reimburse air and ground transportation costs for veterans who travel off-island for medical care.
–$500,000 to the Virgin Islands Fire Services for equipment and outstanding compensation.
"This is the first time in many years – maybe ever – that the Legislature has decided to appropriate less than what we're bringing in revenues," Sen. Craig W. Barshinger said after the meeting. "It gives us the opportunity to be more sensitive to the critical issues when other needs come up."
In other action, senators quickly, unanimously, and without discussion, approved four other bills, including a bill to prohibit utilities regulated by the Public Services Commission from applying for Economic Development Authority benefits (See "Committee Approves Bill Denying EDC Benefits to Utility Companies").
Also approved were:
–a bill authorizing the ratification of a contract for off-island services rendered by the Pine Residential Treatment Center for Children, located in Virginia, on behalf of the local Education Department (See "Finance Committee Approves Supplemental Budget Bill").
–a bill allowing senior citizens and persons with disabilities to pay their bills at any government department or agency where there is a bonded cashier.
–a bill enacting education and safety regulations for recreational vessels.
–a bill offering protection for residents entering into agreements with rent-to-own agencies.
Present at Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Barshinger, Berry, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Usie R. Richards, Russell, and Celestino A. White Sr.
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