Aug. 8, 2002 – The Senate Finance Committee tightened the purse strings on Wednesday, lopping a whopping $8.6 million off the proposed executive branch budget of $497.1 million for Fiscal Year 2003.
Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, the committee chair, tried to keep the process moving throughout a long day which was interrupted to allow the legal counsel to prepare amendments, especially the voluminous 33-page amendment in the nature of a substitute for the executive budget.
The amendment was submitted by eight of the nine Senate majority members and was passed unanimously by the committee. All of the budgets are for line-item allocations, except that for the Office of the Inspector General, which was granted a lump-sum budget by Hansen at its budget hearing last month.
Taking the biggest blows in the executive budget were the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, cut by $1.4 million; Agriculture Department, sliced by $1.2 million; and the miscellaneous section, chopped by $7.5 million. "Miscellaneous" comprises dozens of items covering 16 pages and ranging from health insurance for government workers at $13.1 million to band equipment for Joseph E. Gomez Elementary School at $4,000. It also includes $4 million for salary increases for the executive branch.
The budget for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor was decided upon without testimony from the office defending or differing with the amount proposed by the governor. Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James II did not appear on two occasions when he had been invited to do so, although Hansen had made clear that she would not take testimony from a designated representative.
Hansen said the committee had been up until 4 a.m. Wednesday in the final mark-up process for the budget, which she called "history making" in its timely August appearance. Previous budgets have been known just to make it in under the wire before the onset of the referenced fiscal year on Oct. 1, or to arrive well after that date.
Eight of the nine majority members were at the overnight mark-up session, which was in fact a majority caucus. Five of them — Sens. Hansen, Donald "Ducks" Cole, Carlton Dowe, Norman Jn Baptiste and Norma Pickard-Samuel — are members of the Finance Committee; the others — Sens. Emmett Hansen II, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Celestino A. White Sr. — are not. The other majority member, Sen. Adelbert Bryan, was not at the session.
Excluded from the mark-up were the two Finance Committee members who are not majority members — Sens. Douglas Canton Jr. and Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg. On Wednesday, Canton referred to the overnight meeting as one of "the committee within a committee."
The proposed budgets for the University of the Virgin Islands, at $29.5 million, and the Territorial Court and the Judicial Counsel, at $23.7 million, remained intact.
The budgets for individual agencies and departments can be confusing, as many of them are funded from varying sources for different purposes. For instance, the Public Works Department budget falls under the executive branch budget. However, there is another bill appropriating $940,000 to DPW for sewage maintenance out of the Sewage System Fund. DPW's recommended budget of $26.9 million was reduced by the committee to $26.4 million.
Carnival doings on all islands got a boost. Hansen increased the Crucian Christmas Fiesta appropriation to $325,000 from $200,000 to put it on the same level as V.I. Carnival on St. Thomas. The St. John Festival got twice its request, $100,000 instead of the governor's proposed $50,000.
In addition to the budget, the committee passed a bill transferring two government entities to private not-for-profit corporations. The East End Family Health Center on St. Thomas was transferred to the St. Thomas East End Medical Center Corp., and the Frederiksted Health Center/Ingeborg Nesbitt Clinic was transferred to Frederiksted Health Care Inc., much to Hansen's displeasure.
She called the measure "very ridiculous," comparing it to giving the territory's hospitals semi-autonomy, which she said has been the downfall of St. Croix's Juan F. Luis Hospital by creating jurisdictional problems within the facility.
Hansen also said, "The argument that we can now get federal funds is not true," referring to administration officials' contention that converting the agencies to not-for-profit bodies would make them eligible for federal grants that would not be available to them as government entities.
The legislation provides for the not-for-profit corporations to receive matching funds directly to supplement the community center federal grant.
The measure passed 3-1 with one abstention. Canton, Cole and Dowe voted yes, Hansen voted no, and Jn Baptiste abstained.
In other action, the committee approved the transfer of Fiscal Year 2002 line-item funds for the Property and Procurement Department, Office of the Inspector General, Office of Veterans Affairs and Internal Revenue Bureau.
The senators also approved a fund transfer request of $3.6 million from Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, which was special ordered to the floor. Mills said the request was to make sure enough funding is in place at the start of the school year for school bus transportation, special education accessibility mandates, school lunch programs and other services.
Hansen recessed the meeting at about 6 p.m until 9 p.m. Thursday in order to give the legal counsel time to get the FY 2003 Omnibus Bill prepared. She commented with a smile, "This bill is going to have some big surprises."
The budget bills upon Finance Committee approval move to the Rules Committee; if approved there, they go to the full Senate for final consideration.
Committee members attending the meeting were Canton, Cole, Dowe, Hansen and Jn Baptiste. Donastorg and Pickard-Samuel were absent. White, a non-committee member, dropped in from time to time.
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