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MINORITY LAMBASTES NO-QUESTIONS-ASKED VOTE

June 16, 2001 – Still smarting from events earlier in the day, the 24th Legislature's six minority members explained at a hastily called press conference late Friday afternoon why they had walked out of a Senate special session just hours before.
Their exit en masse occurred after the majority bloc dismissed administration officials who had come to the Legislature on St. Thomas to testify on Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's bill to use a projected $100 million windfall in tax revenues to give government workers and elegible retirees salary step increases.
In an earlier letter to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd, the governor had said his financial officials "stand ready" to provide information to the Legislature concerning the bill.
Minority leader David Jones made a motion Friday for the Senate to go into Committee of the Whole to hear testimony from the financial officials. When the motion was defeated, the six senators walked out. The sole unaligned senator, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, left shortly afterward.
"We are supposed to be responsible," Sen. Emmett Hansen II said at the press conference several hours later. "We are the financial conscience of the government. We are not here to give out cotton candy to please people." He repeated his comment earlier in the day that he wasn't going to sit by and "rubber stamp" legislation which he hadn't had time to examine.
Jones said, "The majority's continuous disregard of the minority is an example of tyranny, and the governor's action is unprecedented." He was referring to Turnbull having called the majority senators into a closed meeting prior to his Monday press conference to announce the windfall and step-increase plans.
All six minority senators agreed that previous governors — including Turnbull's immediate predecessor, Roy Schneider, who had a turbulent relationship with the Legislature — invariably met with all 15 senators, inviting their input, on bills submitted by the administration.
David called the majority's action Friday an "abuse of power." Sen. Douglas Canton wondered if the governor is "taking his marching orders from the majority."
The issue was raised as to what the governor's agenda is. "This shotgun wedding between the majority caucus and the governor is heading for divorce," Jones said. Turnbull, like all of the minority bloc senators, is a member of the Democratic Party.
But the main thing on the minority minds Friday was the money: Where has the $100 million come from, or is it expected to come from? Is it a recurring source of revenue? And how, precisely, is it to be spent?
Sen. Lorraine Berry, now in her 10th term, said she had never before seen a bill passed in special session without testimony having been taken first. And she has never before missed a roll call vote.
She and her colleagues laughed derisively at the majority's claim to credit for the projected windfall from the Internal Revenue Bureau. The reason the majority didn't want the administration officials to testify, they said, is that the testimony would show that the money has come into the government coffers as a result of legislation enacted by the 23rd Legislature.
Berry, Jones, Roosevelt David and Vargrave Richards approved several measures in the 23rd Legislature — notably Industrial Development Commission reform and the Financial Accountability Act — which have led to increased tax collections now becoming evident, they said. The 23rd Legislature's Finance Committee, which Berry chaired and on which Jones and David served, also appropriated an extra $2 million to IRB to beef up revenue collections.
"They didn't want the public to know where the revenues came from," Berry said. "They have violated the legislative process. It was a travesty."
The minority senators recalled the comment made by majority leader Celestino A. White Sr. in the opening session of the 24th Legislature that the majority had the "right to be wrong" and "we made a rule to waive the rules."
The minority lawmakers said they were pleased that government employees would be put on step. But, Richards asked, "Will the raises be sustained? Will there be recurring funds?" He called dismissing the administration financial officials without taking their testimony "the height of nonsense."
Louis Willis, IRB director, would not confirm a recurring source of such funds. He indicated to the Source earlier in the day that it will depend on whether taxpayers opt to remain in the territory. "Americans have jurisdictions; they can move anywhere — another territory like Guam, or the mainland," he said. "If we are not business friendly, if we don't keep down crime or give public assistance, they could move away." However, he added, "As long as these things are in place, the majority [of taxpayers] should stay here."
Willis also would not comment on who, if anyone, had told him to leave the session before testifying earlier in the day.
Canton, a freshman senator who chairs the Health and Hospitals Committee, expressed concerns about health insurance issues addressed in the governor's bill. He also wondered how the raises would affect nurses and other hospital personnel, since the hospitals are now operated as a quasi-governmental agency..
Hansen, also a first-year lawmaker, noted that the Government Employees Retirement System has a court case pending against the government. "How is that going to affect the retirees?" he asked.
The minority also wondered how the bill will affect exempt and classified employees, and which unionized workers are to be paid in what order.
Jones posed the question of how President Bush's recent federal tax cuts will impact on the IRB, which under the territory's mirror tax system apparently will be obligated to pay out multimillions of dollars in refunds later this year. He also asked, "How about what the government owes" to the Water and Power Authority? "What about the Anguilla landfill … which will close the airport if it isn't fixed?"
In hopes of getting some answers to any and all of their questions, the minority senators said, they will be writing to the governor.

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