Aug. 8, 2002 – After proudly shaving $8.6 million off the executive branch budget in its daylong and final Fiscal Year 2003 budget session on Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee countered that move between midnight and 1:30 a.m. Thursday, as the majority caucus tacked on more than $20 million in new spending via the Omnibus Act of 2003.
Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Finance chair, had recessed the budget hearing about 6 p.m. Wednesday, saying it would reconvene at 9 p.m. to hear the Omnibus Bill. However, the meeting didn't get under way until midnight, as the legal counsel added finishing touches to the bill.
Late-night meetings, sometimes stretching until nearly dawn, have become common with the majority caucus. Hansen said she and seven majority worked until 4 a.m. Wednesday completing their mark-up of the budget.
Living up to its name a catchall or potpourri the 25-page FY 2003 Omnibus bill has 55 sections. Among other things, it creates a new government department, reallocates tobacco funds for cancer and cardiac care centers at the territory's hospitals, establishes a Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands, establishes a Land Buyer's Protection Act, provides funds for the proposed University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park on St. Croix, funds a central fire station on St. Thomas, provides some funding for street lighting, and makes it legal for mothers to breast feed their infants anywhere they choose.
The Omnibus bill, according to a Senate source, was intended to be a policy document to accompany the annual budget bill. But for the past two years, it has borne more resemblance to the Senate's much-loved "Christmas tree" bills with ornamental appropriation amendments stuck every which way onto any bit of legislation handy.
At earlier hearings, Hansen had taken Thomas Robinson, chief executive officer at Juan Luis Hospital, to task over his not allocating all of the hospital's tobacco fund money to creating a cardiac care center. The tobacco funds are to be divided among the Health Department, Luis Hospital and Roy L. Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas.
The St. Croix hospital funding was earmarked for a cardiac center, and the St. Thomas hospital money is to create a cancer care center. Robinson told Hansen he needed the Luis funds for daily operating expenses. Rodney Miller, Schneider chief executive, said plans are ongoing for a cancer center, but he could use $1.7 million more for it.
The Omnibus bill calls for $1.8 million in interest from bond proceeds to be allotted to the Health Department on St. Croix, with the money to be transferred by the Public Finance Authority to Luis Hospital for constructing, staffing and equipping a "cardiac care and treatment center of excellence." It adds another $1.6 million from the General Fund for hospital staffing.
Schneider Hospital also is allocated $1.7 million from the General Fund, to construct, equip and staff a cancer care and treatment center; it's to get another $1 million from the Transportation Trust Fund for the purchase of medicines and pharmaceuticals.
The bill seeks to establish a Department of Youth Affairs, Sports and Recreation which would put under one umbrella activities now under the Housing Parks and Recreation, Planning and Natural Resources, and Human Services Departments.
The new department would oversee sports promotions, boxing and wrestling, automobile racing and outdoor recreation, and would maintain the physical facilities of parks and recreation areas now operated by Housing Parks and Recreation. It also would develop youth sports programs including swimming, tennis, baseball and auto racing and organize youth advisory groups.
The department would be headed by a commissioner and funded by money which now goes to the above departments. It is to be in business not more than six months after enactment of the bill.
Other sections in the Omnibus bill include:
– A $3 million appropriation from the General Fund to the Housing Finance Authority for a mortgage subsidy program.
– The creation of a Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands, to be established by the V.I. Territorial Court. It would be funded by $2 million from the Insurance Guaranty Fund and $500,000 from the Industrial Development Fund.
– A $1.5 million appropriation to the Public Works Department to establish house-to-house trash pickup in the St. Thomas/St. John district.
– A $500,000 appropriation to the Water and Power Authority from the General Fund as a subsidy for the maintenance of street lights; and $100,000 from interest earned on bond proceeds to WAPA to install electric poles and power lines.
– Appropriations totaling $1.4 million from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund for a variety of construction projects and the hiring of Emergency Medical Technicians on St. John.
– Establishment of the Land Buyer's Protection Act, which is intended to protect the buyer, individual or corporate, and the seller by establishing fair market value and setting duties and obligations of both parties with civil penalties for violations of the act.
-Establishment of a Fish and Wildlife Fund and sport fish restoration and management projects.
The bill takes $11.6 million from the General Fund alone, plus $1 million from bond proceeds, $1 million from the Transportation Trust Fund, $790,000 from the Industrial Development Fund, $1.9 million from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund, $1 million from interest on bond proceeds, $1.4 million from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund, $2 million from the Insurance Guaranty Fund, and $500,000 from the Interest Revenue Fund.
The breast feeding section is an amendment to the V.I. Code. There was no explanation of why the measure was attached to the Omnibus document, nor of whether the practice had formerly been illegal.
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