Aug. 26, 2002 – The Senate Rules Committee finished its work on the Fiscal Year 2003 budget on Monday, approving the executive branch budget with an addition of $1.3 million for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor; passing its own budget; and approving the Omnibus Act of 2003, tacking on another $1.4 in amendments to the already burgeoning $20 million measure.
The extra $1.3 million approved for the office of Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James II was almost the entire amount the Finance Committee had taken away earlier this month from the administration's requested funding.
The Rules Committee voted unanimously to reinstate the funds on an amendment by Sens. Donald "Ducks" Cole and Carlton Dowe. The largest part of the increase, $771,076, was earmarked for personnel services, for the hiring of extra staff to collect taxes that James says contribute about $80 million annually to the government coffers.
Noting the Legislature had been overlooked as raises were handed out by the executive branch, Sen. President Almando "Rocky" Liburd recommended a FY 2003 budget of $16.5 million, an increase of $700,000 from this year. Liburd said the "slight increase" will pay Senate staff members who have not had a raise in two years. He praised the staff, saying 85 percent have now been trained in a computer program.
"We have to bring our employees up to the executive branch," Liburd said, adding, "The governor, the lieutenant governor and the senators are the only ones with no raises."
Liburd said some of the funds set aside for capital outlay will go to renovating the Legislature's Post Audit Division offices in the old District Court building. "We may have to move out of the building because of its deterioration," he said, adding that he has asked the Office of Management and Budget to take a serious look at the facility.
The Rules meeting got under way at 1 p.m., and Sen. Adelbert Bryan took up where he had left off last Thursday as the budget hearing, verbally attacking Post Auditor Terry Drake and challenging bills before the committee, demanding more information.
It was because Bryan attended no Finance Committee budget hearings that he was not as conversant with the bills as other Rules Committee members, Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel pointed out last week. She made the point again Monday as Bryan continued complaining.
Referring to the Finance Committee, Pickard-Samuel said to Bryan, "We put in a lot of work, working long hours and dotting every I. What contribution have you made? Is complaining your only contribution?"
Bryan offered several amendments to the Omnibus Act; the only one which passed would require real estate developers to install and connect the infrastructure for electrical, telephone and cable service, but exempt landowners who subdivide their property to family members.
The senators also added minor upward adjustments in the executive budget to the Public Works and the Property and Procurement Departments.
Dowe, the Rules Committee chair, lauded the voluminous Omnibus bill, saying, "While this document might not be perfect, there are things in there that affect the people that really need it." He added, "There are initiatives for housing, public safety and health. These are provisions that will benefit our hard-working people."
Liburd submitted a 32-page amendment to the Omnibus bill, adding another 30 sections to the bill's original 54. Among them are provisions to:
– Eliminate the original bill's creation of a Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands, in favor of establishing an appellate court to be funded by $2 million in excess of $50 million in
the Insurance Guaranty Fund, and $500,000 from the Industrial Development fund.
– Elaborate on the proposed new 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.
– Increase unemployment compensation benefits by $200 a week for four months following enactment of the bill.
– Appropriate some $1.3 million for infrastructure, sports, tourism and other projects and activities.
– Appropriate $5 million from GARVEE (federal grant anticipation revenue) bonds for the Water and Power Authority to build gasoline storage tanks.
– Appropriate $1.5 million from real property taxes to the Public Finance Authority for infrastructure funding, construction of homes and land acquisition in all districts.
Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen's amendment to appropriate $56,224 to the Human Services Department to pay prior years' obligations to O 'Reilly's Plumbing and Construction was passed. It was offered by another committee member in Hansen's absence.
The committee also established a Deficit Reduction Fund to pay a part of retroactive wages owed unionized government employees. It is to be funded by 50 percent of all property taxes derived from the Hovensa coker unit, from federal grants and from 10 percent of all lottery and casino gambling proceeds. The measure allows the Public Finance Authority to utilize money in the fund to finance the issuance of bonds to pay up to 30 percent of the retroactive wages owed.
Left untouched was a section in the Omnibus bill making it illegal for employers to require potential employees to sign an agreement to have labor-management disputes resolved by binding arbitration. Hovensa and one of its subcontractors, Wyatt Inc., now require such a dispute resolution agreement of candidates for employment in positions not governed by union contracts; a District Court ruling rejected V.I. government arguments that requiring such an agreement is illegal.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the full Senate is scheduled to act on the budget bills, then send them to Government House, action that apparently will occur this year well ahead of the end of FY 2002 on Sept. 30.
Rules Committee members attending Monday's meeting were Sens. Bryan, Cole, Dowe, Liburd, Pickard-Samuel and Celestino A. White Sr. Absent were Sens. Alicia Hansen and Norman Jn Baptiste. Also attending was Sen. Emmett Hansen II, who is not a member of the committee.
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