July 11, 2002 – The Senate Finance Committee embarked Wednesday on what promises to be a spirited if sometimes cantankerous season of hearings on the various sections of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's $567.7 budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2003.
Committee chair Alicia "Chucky" Hansen's schedule calls for concluding the hearings by July 31. They're taking place on St. Croix through July 22, then move to St. Thomas on July 23. The committee is to meet on Aug. 7 on St. Thomas for consideration of the various appropriation bills and markup of the budget. The bills then are to move to the full Senate before traveling back to Government House. The new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.
As is the custom, most departments and agencies will the Legislature ask for more money than the governor has allocated. A notable exception Wednesday was the Public Services Commission, which said it could operate within the amount Turnbull had proposed.
The PSC chair, Desmond Maynard, said the $605,570 budget Turnbull recommended would be adequate. The PSC operating budget is funded by fees assessed the utilities it regulates — the telephone, water and power, cable television and franchised ferry companies.
On the other hand, Eileen Petersen, chair of the Casino Control Commission, asked for $1.5 million, more than double the $650,000 the executive branch has recommended.
Petersen said her commission operates with no vehicle, an executive director and one assistant. She said the body currently oversees one casino, Divi Carina Bay, but that two more applications are anticipated within FY 2003. Additionally, she said, the recently legalized Internet gambling is expected to begin this fall, putting added strains on the commission's limited resources.
The commission's $300,000 appropriation to get the Internet gambling started will probably not be enough, Petersen said. Half of that money is earmarked for hiring experts, she said, and the rest will be used to investigate license applicants.
Petersen told Hansen that she had not seen the breakdown of the casino commission budget, as it appears in the Miscellaneous section of the overall budget with no details. She said the costs of the new Internet gambling were included in the commission's initial budget request.
Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin asked for $12.5 million, less than the $12.8 the governor had recommended. Benjamin said that this was misleading, however, because his figure reflects the recently implemented salary increases.
Also, Benjamin said, federal funding to his department has ben decreasing over the years, and the local government has had to absorb the cost of any federal cuts. Staffing problems have caused difficulties in complying with mandates for some federal grants, he said.
About 60 percent of Labor's budget is derived from federal funds, which are "subject to specific mandates," he said. "Over the years," he added, "some divisions have been short staffed, crippling their ability to carry out certain basic functions." Since 1996, he said, the staff size has shrunk to 207 from 386. He said the step pay raises awarded to unionized government employees last year have compounded problems by absorbing the federal funds and leaving many positions unbudgeted.
Benjamin asked the committee not to cut his budget further. "I earnestly implore you to give us every penny that we can get to accomplish our mission and objectives," he said, concluding, "Any reduction in our budget will be catastrophic to the progress of the Labor Department."
John Abramson Jr., supervisor of elections, asked for $1 million, saying the $796,000 recommended by Turnbull "does not provide adequate funding for the implementation of the primary election of Sept. 14." He said the Election System of the Virgin Islands has forwarded a supplemental budget request of $162,859 for conducting the primary election and asked that the Legislature act on that appropriation in its next session. The current allotment, he said, doesn't even allow for funding of day-to-day operations.
Abramson made another request regarding the "how," as opposed to the "how much," of his budget. He asked that the Legislature consider allowing the Election System to submit its annual budget request directly to the Legislature, independent of the executive branch budget.
"In the election business, perception is everything," Abramson said. "The Election System needs to be free of any perceived association with the executive branch of government. Political decisions made about the Election System have a cost and administrative implications for the agency."
Abramson said his $1 million request would fund full staffing of the Election Systems offices in the St. Thomas-St. John district and give an even staff distribution in the St. Thomas and St. Croix offices with one full time employee on St. John. Some of the funds would go to streamline the campaign fund disclosure process, he said, adding that he is working with the Federal Election Commission to set up a web site to allow local public office-holders to file campaign disclosure reports via e-mail.
The budget hearings were to continue Thursday with testimony on the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, Commissioner of Insurance, Territorial Public Defender, Legal Services of the V.I., Law Revision Commission and Uniform State Laws Commission.
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