June 22, 2002 – The Senate majority's endeavor to ride roughshod over the way Virgin Islanders vote for their lawmakers was summarily shot out of the saddle Friday by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
In vetoing the bill providing for all 15 senators to be elected at large territorywide, Turnbull said it was "incredible and beyond belief that at the dawn of the 21st century the 24th Legislature would attempt" such legislation.
The governor, never shy when chiding the Legislature about bills it has sent for his signature, pulled no punches in his cover letter to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd concerning this one.
He told Liburd that "after 85 years of political progress under the American flag, along the road toward more representative and accountable self-government," the senators were trying to reverse the trend. He said, "I will not be a party to such a travesty. To allow voters to elect all 15 senators at large is retrogressive and reactionary legislation. It must be noted for the historical record that this bill was passed without public hearings or any kind of input from the electorate."
On a 9-6 vote in the predawn hours of May 24, near the end of an all-night session, the Senate majority passed the measure as one of numerous amendments attached to a "Christmas tree" bill appropriating funds for a summer youth employment program. All majority bloc senators voted in favor; all minority and unaligned senators voted against. Because the measure was introduced as an amendment, it could be approved without benefit of public hearings or committee votes.
"As would be expected," Turnbull continued, "I have been inundated with numerous calls, letters and petitions from concerned, worried and indignant residents, voters and civic and political organizations to veto this legislation due to its intent and the manner under which it was passed. Virgin Islanders want more representative and accountable government, not less."
It would take a two-thirds majority, or 10 votes, to overturn the governor's veto. Observers consider it highly doubtful that the majority can muster the 10th vote, which would require one of the minority senators or the sole unaligned lawmaker, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, to switch sides.
Meantime, an effort by the Citizens for Legislative Reform to place an initiative before the Legislature and, if necessary, before the voting public to make all Senate seats numbered is under way. The measure would require candidates, both incumbents and challengers, to run for a specific seat in their district. The group is hopeful of getting the number of signatures required to put it before the Senate and, if the Senate rejects it, on the November ballot.
Turnbull indicated that he favors the initiative. "Numbered seats and eventually subdistricting are the wave of the future," he wrote to Liburd.
Like the school teacher he used to be, and in what has become a regular litany, Turnbull further admonished the Senate for its lack of fiscal responsibility as he item-vetoed additional portions of the 44-section omnibus bill:
– Appropriating $700,000 from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund to pay operating costs for VITRAN buses on St. John.
– Appropriating $206,970 from the Union Arbitration Fund for one individual, calling it "fundamentally unfair to unilaterally select individuals for special treatment over others who have been waiting for longer periods of time."
– Appropriating $1 million from the Interest Revenue Fund to expand the Micro-Credit Loan Program. He called the appropriation "illusory." He said, "The fund is already committed up to its limit for items such as the pending bill providing funds to the Lieutenant Governor's Office for property taxes reassessment. The people of St. Croix deserve a real program with real money, not one that presents a scenario of fantasy." This fund also was tapped for funding the annual meeting of the National Conference of Lieutenant Governors on St. Croix in the coming week.
– Establishing a Deficit Reduction Fund, to be funded by legislative appropriations, federal grants, 50 percent of property taxes derived from the Hovensa cracker unit and 10 percent of all lottery and casino gambling proceeds. The amendment also authorized the Public Finance Authority to use money in the new fund to finance the issuance of bonds to pay up to 30 percent of the retroactive wages owed government employees. Turnbull said he vetoed the section because it "significantly impacts the General Fund and obligates revenues already obligated."
– Providing tax exemptions to professional V.I. athletes who help promote the territory and locate new business in the Virgin Islands. Turnbull said that such a "blanket authorization deprives the government of the ability to weigh the individual merits of each proposal in the light of the relative benefits to the territory." An earlier bill established such exemptions specifically for St. Croix basketball star Tim Duncan.
– Appropriating $144,483 in Fiscal Year 2002 from the General Fund to pay prior year obligations for services rendered by Lew Henley's Sewage Disposal to the Housing Parks and Recreation Department, and $94,493 for the company to the Public Works Department in the amount of $50,000.
Turnbull said he item-vetoed these sections "because there are insufficient funds with which to fund these worthy projects." As he has done before, he again cautioned the Legislature "to restrain from passing any more appropriations, due to the financial constraints and the fact that many of the funding sources are currently over-obligated by millions of dollars."
The governor concluded, "We must be more cognizant of the fiscal picture and the constantly changing economic picture facing this government … we must act more responsibly by refraining from diverting funds needed to support the General Fund for special projects."
Publisher's note : Like the St. Croix Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.