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HomeNewsArchivesMAJORITY BLOC PASSES STEP INCREASE BILL

MAJORITY BLOC PASSES STEP INCREASE BILL

June 15, 2001 – In a special session on Friday called by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, the Senate majority approved his bill to appropriate $100 million to pay salary step increases to government workers and eligible retirees.
Over the objections of the non-majority senators, the vote came without a hearing on the bill or any other public opportunity for legislators to put questions to administration officials concerning any aspect of it.
Turnbull had met with majority senators prior to calling a press conference on Monday to announce a $100 million tax windfall and his plans to spend it for step increases. Minority and independent lawmakers, however, got no opportunity to ask questions, let alone get answers to them, about the distribution of the step money or any other aspect of the governor's plan.
Sen. Lorraine L. Berry, who has the longest tenure of any current legislator, said afterward that never before in her experience had the Senate passed a bill in a special session without having taken any testimony concerning it.
After starting about 45 minutes late Friday, Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd called a recess shortly into the session. During the recess, most of the majority senators left the chamber.
Several administration financial officers who had been in the chamber also exited during the recess. Some stated afterward that they had been told they were not needed to testify and could leave. No one could say later who gave out that information, and no one in the Senate would take responsibility for having done so.
As Senate staff were carrying out the stack of chairs for the witnesses which they had brought in moments earlier, Sen. Emmett Hansen II demanded of Sen. Carlton Dowe across the room, "Where's the governor's people, dem?" Dowe held up his hands indicating he didn't know. Sen. Roosevelt David called the action "very disrespectful."
When the session resumed about 15 minutes later with all senators back on the floor, Sen. David Jones made a motion to go into Committee of the Whole so the body could take testimony from witnesses. The motion failed along majority/minority lines.
Hansen than told Liburd: "This is the height of irresponsibility without the governor's financial people here to answer questions. They were here; this is totally and completely irresponsible." Hansen and the other minority senators then walked out.
The sole non-aligned senator, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, then accused the majority of running a kangaroo court. But, in a moment of levity, he added, "I'm happy to see you're supporting my bill. You're running the Legislature with not even nine — with eight." After that reference to his far-from popular bill to reduce the size of the Senate from 15 to nine members, Donastorg, too, walked out.
Liburd told his remaining majority colleagues: "Too often propaganda is spread, and that's what you just heard. Motions fail and motions pass. They just picked up their marbles and left. We are here on behalf of the people's business, not self-interest."
At his press conference Monday, Turnbull announced a financial windfall of money from the Internal Revenue Bureau. He said the money had been collected from taxpayers in the top personal income bracket who had been attracted to the territory by the Economic Development Commission (formerly the Industrial Development Commission).
While the governor met with the majority bloc before the press conference, minority senators protested that they had no chance to study the measure. Some said on Friday that they still had not even seen the bill before the special session, and they had questions for the governor's financial team. As soon as the session was over, the minority senators announced they would hold a press conference later in the afternoon.
Along with putting government employees on step beginning Oct. 1, the bill passed Friday provides incentives to unions to waive any retroactive money owed and/or certain rights.
It also calls for allocating:
– $2.3 million to the Public Works Department for a summer school repair and maintenance program.
– $390,000 to Public Works for V.I. Carnival cleanup.
– $13.6 million for increased health insurance premiums and a deficit in the pharmaceutical plan.
– $350,000 for a court-mandated master and special master to review property tax bills, and to fund the Foreign Sales Corporation Task Force.
– $400,000 for books and supplies for the summer enrichment program and the coming school year.
The bill also provides money for "other purposes." Those undefined "purposes" grew steadily throughout the afternoon as senators piled one amendment atop another.
Sen. Adelbert Bryan once again made one appropriating an extra $1.5 million for the Legislature, and topped it with another for $500,000 to repair the District Court building which houses the Senate post audit division. The governor had vetoed the budget increase earlier this year, telling the senators they already had "sufficient" funds.
Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole offered an amendment to an amendment requiring the IRB to provide the Legislature an itemized accounting after the expenditure of every $2.5 million.
The flurry of amendments also would:
– Authorize the governor to reopen negotiations with the American Federation of Teachers locals to increase entry-level salaries of public school teachers.
– Appropriate $500,000 to the Education Department for teacher training and recruitment.
– Appropriate $9 million to the IRB for revenue collection improvement, staff training and contracted work to improve processing.
– Appropriate $1.2 million for parking facilities in Cruz Bay, St. John.
– Appropriate $50,000 to Public Works for St. John Festival cleanup.
– Provide $210,591 from the Homestead and Home Loan Fund as a 10 percent match to the $2.1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation for infrastructure of the Castle Burke development on St. Croix.
– Require the Health Insurance Board to submit at least three bids to the governor with recommendations no later than 180 days before an existing contract expires.
– Require government salary increases to be paid no later than Oct. 18, and retirees' annuities to be paid no later than Aug. 31.
Voting for the bill and amendments were the majority bloc — Sens. Liburd, Dowe, Bryan, Cole, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Norman Jn. Baptiste, Norma Pickard-Samuel and Celestino White.
According to Sen. Douglas Canton, who cited an opinion from the Legislature legal counsel, the V.I. Code mandates that only germane amendments applying specifically to the legislation at hand may be made in a special session of the Legislature.

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