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Budgeted at $100,000, Constitutional Convention Needs Millions, Delegates Say

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Jan. 15, 2008 — With just three meetings under their belt, delegates to the Fifth Constitutional Convention have already spent about $29,000 out of their $100,000 budget, and Tuesday asked senators for an extra $3.3 million to sustain their operations over the next few months.
A draft document is supposed to be finalized by the end of July. But delegates said during Tuesday's Finance Committee meeting that because of an extensive legal battle between board of elections members and St. John resident Harry Daniel, they are currently in a "race against time" to complete the process. They need the extra funds to make sure the convention continues to run smoothly, delegates said.
The constitution has to be ratified by Congress and the president of the United States before coming back to the territory for a final vote, which had been — according to the original convention statute — scheduled to run around the same time as this year's senatorial elections, Senate President Usie R. Richards said during an interview after the delegates' swearing-in ceremonies in October.
"The way it was provided for by law is that the referendum would happen almost simultaneously with the elections to be held for senators," Richards explained. "We didn't know if that could still happen, with the delays that have happened in the process, but the group still thinks they could meet the deadline."
During Tuesday's meeting, delegates said the government must "seize the opportunity" to properly fund the convention, so that they can "get on with the work the people elected us to perform."
"The time has come for us to step up to the plate and be counted," said convention president Gerard Luz A. James II. "We are one of the last U.S. territories that has not adopted a constitution, and that is just unacceptable. Failure is not an option to our delegates, and the Fifth Constitutional Convention is just as important as any government agency or branch. We deserve the attention and funding necessary to get the job done."
Senators originally appropriated $100,000 to the convention for operating expenses — half of which had been released about two months ago by the Office of Management and Budget. The remaining $50,000 was released Monday, along with an extra $118,290 left over from funds allocated to the University of the Virgin Islands for a convention-based public-education campaign, James explained.
While UVI President LaVerne Ragster contended that the university had saved the money in hopes of continuing on with the education initiative, Richards said senators had intended that the funds be turned over to the convention after delegates were sworn in. Asking Ragster to supply the Legislature with a list of expenses incurred during the public-education campaign, Richards — along with delegates testifying during the meeting — said the convention should have been given more than the $118,280.
Senators also voted to subpoena from OMB and the Finance Department a list of the government's outstanding encumbrances — particularly all appropriations made available until expended — in hopes of freeing up some money to support the convention's proposed budget request. Committee members said they would have had an easier time brainstorming about a possible funding source had OMB Director Debra Gottlieb and Finance Commissioner Claudette Watson-Anderson attended Tuesday's meeting.
"We might have to break the money down in quarters instead of doing it en masse," said Sen. Liston Davis. "I know that we have to find some way to fund this project, but the task is trying to identify how and from where do we sustain this $3.3 million."
While Davis offered some suggestions on how the convention could pare down the budget, delegates said they have already implemented certain cost-cutting measures — including negotiating bulk rates for airline tickets and hotel stays. The decision was also made not to increase the $50 stipend for delegates to $75, James added.
Even so, delegates did include in the budget: $4,800 for rent, $50,000 for computers and alternative office equipment, $50,000 for furniture and $270,000 for delegates' travel costs — which breaks down to 60 trips for the 30 delegates at an average cost of $150 per round-trip ticket — and $72,000 in travel expenses for staff members, among other things.
"We're working behind the scenes to make sure this thing happens," said Violet Anne Golden, the convention's assistant treasurer. "The goal, in the end, is to accomplish our task in the cheapest way we can, but in the most effective way possible."
Senators said they would do their best to consider the request, which would have to be sponsored by a senator and drafted into bill form.
Present during Tuesday's meeting was Davis, along with Sens. Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Richards, Ronald E. Russell, James Weber III and Alvin L. Williams.
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