Aug. 23, 2002 – All but the biggest chunks of the government's Fiscal Year 2003 budget made their way through the Senate Rules Committee Thursday, despite the repeated efforts of one senator to bring proceedings to a halt.
Sen. Adelbert Bryan, who attended no Finance Committee budget hearings, made up for lost time Thursday, questioning the intent and financing of each bill, while opining far and wide on everything from Saddam Hussein and President Bush to Cruzan Rum sales at A.H. Riise.
The committee approved 23 of the 26 bills on the agenda, allowed one to die in committee, and postponed action until Monday on the executive branch budget and the voluminous Omnibus Appropriation Act of 2003. Also yet to be adopted is the Legislature's own FY 2003 budget, which originates in the Rules Committee.
Thursday's session was to have begun at 10 a.m. but was delayed for more than an hour awaiting the arrival of some St. Croix senators because their flight to St. Thomas was late. It was recessed shortly after it was convened, when Bryan demanded the post auditor's analysis of each bill on the agenda, so work didn't actually get under way until early afternoon.
After calling a half-hour recess around 6 p.m., the Rules chair, Sen. Carlton Dowe, announced the executive budget and Omnibus bills would be heard on Monday, which had been scheduled for a full Senate session for final review of all the budget bills. Dowe said the full session would be changed to Tuesday and Wednesday.
The executive branch budget, the Omnibus bill and the legislative budget were to have been heard last in the afternoon. The other bills, which had gone through extensive review in the Finance Committee and mark-up sessions, were approved with little discussion. The only dissenting votes came from Bryan, who either abstained or voted "no" on all but three of the measures.
The bills approved include fund transfers, supplemental department appropriations, $29 million for the University of the Virgin Islands, a $4.5 million for WTJX-TV/the V.I. Public Television System to comply with the federally mandated conversion from analog to digital transmission, and additional funding for the territory's three carnival events.
Bryan quizzed Post Auditor Terry Drake on each bill, asking questions Drake sometimes couldn't answer. Things came to a head when Bryan demanded to know the breakdown of appropriations from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund. The fund is supported by excise taxes from rum sales on the U.S. mainland, and therefore fluctuates. Bryan demanded to know the present amount in the fund, a figure Drake could not supply.
Hansen noted, and her other colleagues agreed, that it is impossible to know the precise amount of money in the fund at any given time. "It is a projection," she said. "If people drink more rum next year, then it's more; and if they don't, it's less." She added that Bryan was fully aware of how the fund operated.
As Bryan continued to badger Drake, Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel also came to the post auditor's defense. "The impression is that we don't get information; that is not so," she said. "We do get information."
More sparks over Lieutenant Governor's Office
Another hot-button topic of the day was the budget for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, which Hansen and Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James II spoke out on in back-to-back press conferences last week. The Finance Committee cut James's budget by about $1.4 million from the increase the governor had proposed after James refused to appear before the committee himself, instead on two occasions sending his chief of staff. Hansen refused to hear testimony from the aide, so the budget never got an airing before the committee.
Bryan persisted in quizzing Drake about the $1.4 million cut. "These are people who deal with property taxes and insurance," Bryan said. "On the one hand, you are increasing salaries, and on the other hand, you are decreasing the salaries of others."
Drake's explanation of the committee's action was: "It was vacant positions that were cut from the lieutenant governor's office. There were no employees in the positions at the time."
Bryan disagreed, insisting that James's office had been shorted 25 positions. He said he would later offer an amendment on the office budget. "They don't have new employees to assess properties like Hovensa," Bryan said.
Hansen said, "If these positions were so important, why weren't they listed in the classified category? They're political positions." She added of James, "He should have come before the committee." She also pointed out that, had Bryan attended the budget hearings, he would have had all the information he needed.
Pickard-Samuel, a Finance Committee member, sided with Hansen, making it clear the committee had not reduced James's staff. "I don't want anyone in this community to think we cut anyone's salary," she said. James has said he was in the process of interviewing candidates for the positions and that he terminated the process because of the budget cut.
No support for privatization of clinics
A bill transferring the East End Family Health Center on St. Thomas to the St. Thomas East End Medical Center Corp. and the Frederiksted Health Center/Ingeborg Nesbitt Clinic to Frederiksted Health Care Inc. was not approved. It died in committee for lack of a second after Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole moved its adoption.
From the start, Hansen had opposed the transfer of the facilities from government status to not-for-profit operations, which Government House has cited as an example of its move toward privitization of certain government services. Administration officials had said the clinics at not-for-profits would be eligible for federal grant funding they could not receive as government entities.
At the last Finance Committee meeting, it was approved despite her protests on a 3-1 vote, with one abstention. Sens. Douglas E. Canton Jr., Cole and Dowe voted "yes," with Hansen voting "no" and Sen. Norman Jn Baptist abstaining. On Thursday, Cole found himself standing alone.
At the Finance hearing, Hansen had called the proposal, submitted by the governor, "very ridiculous." She compared it to giving the territory's hospitals semi-autonomy, which she said has been the downfall of Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix by creating jurisdictional problems within the facility. On Thursday, Hansen asked Dowe if the bill could be moved again in the Rules Committee. Dowe replied, "Yes, but not today." Hansen retorted, "I'll move it again. I'll move it to kill it."
As Bryan continued to try to hold the meeting hostage with his verbal attacks on Drake and his relentless questioning of issues already resolved in earlier meetings, Dowe criticized his colleague's tactics. "Every member of this body had the opportunity to attend budget hearings," Dowe said. "Today is not the time" to be raising questions already addressed, he said.
All of the budget bills were reported out to the full Senate on a "close rule," which means they cannot be amended on the floor — and effectively prevents any non-majority member from acting on them. The Rules Committee comprises all majority members.
Budget bills approved
The committee approved:
No. 24-0265 – to appropriate money to the Property and Procurement Department for operating expenses from Business and Commercial Properties Revolving Fund.
No. 24-0266 – to appropriate money to the University of the Virgin Islands for salaries and expenses, and for other purposes.
No. 24-0267 – to appropriate money to the Finance and Labor Departments for operating expenses from the Government Insurance Fund.
No. 24-0268 – to appropriate a lump sum from the Health Revolving Fund.
No. 24-0269 – to app
ropriate a lump sum from the Indirect Cost Fund for salaries, operating expenses and other purposes of the Office of Management and Budget, Division of Personnel, Property and Procurement Department and Finance Department.
No. 24-0270 – to appropriate a lump sum from the Insurance Guaranty Fund to the General Fund.
No. 24-0271 – to appropriate funds from the Interest Revenue Fund.
No. 24-0272 – to appropriate funds from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund.
No. 24-0273 – to appropriate funds from the Caribbean Basin Initiative Fund.
No. 24-0274 – to appropriate funds from the Transportation Revolving Fund for salaries, fringe benefits, supplies and other services and charges for the Property and Procurement Department.
No. 24-0275 – to appropriate funds for Public Works Department operating expenses from the Sewage System Fund.
No. 24-0276 – to appropriate $10 million from the Transportation Trust Fund to the General Fund.
No. 24-0277 – to appropriate funds to the Public Services Commission for operating expenses.
No. 24-0278 – to appropriate funds for Public Works Department operating expenses from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund.
No. 24-0279 – to appropriate $4.5 million from the General Fund to WTJX/Public Television System.
No. 24-0280 – to appropriate funds from the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund to the Housing Parks and Recreation Department.
No. 24-0281 – to provide for operating expenses of the Public Employees Relations Board and the Labor Management Committee.
No. 24-0286 – to authorize the Office of Management and Budget director to allocate funds from the Miscellaneous Section of the 2003 Fiscal Year Budget to cover salary increases to each department and agency of the executive branch. *
No. 24-0287 – to amend the V.I. Code to permit the Property and Procurement commissioner to set fees for use of the government printing office.
No. 24-0288 – to appropriate funds to the Taxicab Commission for operating expenses.
No. 24-0289 – to appropriate funds from the Anti-Litter and Beautification Fund to the Public Works Department, and for other purposes.
No. 24-0290 – to appropriate funds for Territorial Court and Judicial Council salaries and expenses, and for other purposes. *
No. 24-0291 – to appropriate funds for Territorial Public Defender's Office operating expenses. *
* These three bills were approved unanimously. On all of the others, Bryan cast the lone "no" vote or abstained.
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