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Senate Calls It a Day After Failing to Bring Back Omnibus Bill

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Dec. 22, 2006 — Senators cut their full-session agenda short Friday after unsuccessful attempts to resurrect this year's Omnibus Authorization Act, along with a few other measures still pending in the Committee of the Whole.
Originally the agenda consisted of only a few items: the consideration of nominees to various government boards and commissions and three bills approved during Wednesday's Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting.
The Senate approved the nominees during the first half of Friday's meeting, which ended around 2 p.m. The Senate was scheduled to come back after a two-hour recess to consider the final items on the agenda.
The Senate floor stayed quiet until well after 6 p.m., however. According to Sen. Liston Davis, during the two-hour lull majority senators were caucusing and trying to ready a new version of the Omnibus Authorization Act, which was sent back to committee during the last legislative session.
Majority senators had prepared a slew of amendments to attach to the bill, filled with appropriations and other reforms, Davis said. However, a shortage of staff in the legal counsel's office delayed the amendments and the bill from coming to the floor.
Attempts to resurrect the bill, he said, came at the bidding of Senate President Lorraine L. Berry, who adjourned Friday's meeting at approximately 6:30 p.m.
"I think she was overly frustrated," Davis said. "Because what she wanted to do is come up with an Omnibus bill that included the three proposals we sent back to committee last month. But it was a tremendous strain for the legal counsel's office to get all the amendments prepared. So her frustration grew, and she adjourned the meeting."
Berry was the primary sponsor of the Government Reform and Modernization Act (totaling more than 200 pages), which was one of the proposals sent back to committee during last month's session.
Senators were also trying to bring back a proposal that seeks to further reform the Government Employees Retirement System, said Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., speaking after the meeting. The bill, which has been amended by senators since it was submitted by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in July, also contains a provision authorizing the government to float up to $600 million in pension-obligation bonds to pay down on a portion of the system's unfunded liability.
White described the two bills as "money-making measures," which he said would "negatively impact" the people of the Virgin Islands.
A proposal to increase the salaries of the governor and lieutenant governor were also among the amendments he saw, White said. "This looked liked it was supposed to go into the Omnibus, but it was overloaded with other things," he said.
Government House has been trying to garner senators' support for the amendment, Davis added.
"There was some lobbying going on," he said.
The new version of the Omnibus bill is just as voluminous as the original proposal, totaling more than 100 pages, said Majority Sen. Ronald E. Russell. The bill incorporated provisions included in the initial bill, he said, including one allowing for the establishment of medical schools in the territory and another that replaces the Division of Banking and Insurance with a separate Financial Services Bureau.
"There were other things added, though," Russell said. "And it was those things that created confusion."Adjourning the meeting was "probably the right thing to do," he added.
"The biggest difficulty we were having involved the size of certain bills and the amount of appropriations that were being included," Russell said.
Friday evening Berry said she did not anticipate how many amendments would be proposed during the session, so she made a "command decision" to adjourn the meeting after finding out that the legal counsel's office was getting flooded with requests.
"It was too overwhelming," Berry said. "And it wasn't the right approach. Senators kept bringing amendments which were not authorized by the full group. And since I didn't expect to be there this late, we didn't have a chance to arrange dinner, or transport for the senators from St. Croix. I really felt that we needed more time to assess what bills and amendments were being drafted."
Added pressure came from Government House, Berry said, as Turnbull recently submitted two contracts for the Legislature to ratify. "Some of these things are time-sensitive," she said. "But we need to figure out how we want to proceed, not just rush to get everything done at the last minute."
Since Berry did not adjourn Friday's meeting "sine die" (meaning that no additional Senate sessions could be called before a new Legislature is sworn in next month), senators may still call another session within the next two weeks.
"I leave it up to my colleagues," she said.
Meanwhile, the halls of the Legislature were abuzz with rumors of Turnbull calling a special session to consider various proposals and contracts involving the Department of Health and the V.I. National Guard.
"I don't know what the governor is going to do," Berry said. "I guess we'll see."
All senators were present on Friday.
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