Aug. 27, 2002 – By 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the 24th Legislature had approved eight of the Fiscal Year 2003 budget bills on its agenda — and had spoken little more than eight words about any of them.
Which is not to say it was a quiet session. The lawmakers had plenty to say, about items on their own agendas.
The body met in full session for its final go 'round with the budget bills, which arrived from the Rules Committee under a "closed rule," meaning no amendments could be offered, with a three-minute limit for debate stipulated for most.
This was an unpopular state of affairs for the non-majority lawmakers, especially Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Roosevelt David, who objected at each opportunity to being deprived of the option of offering their own amendments. At one point, after pleading vainly for Liburd to open the Omnibus bill, David announced he had a plan that "will burst it open today."
Later in the session Liburd said, "We'll have a special session for Senators David and Donastorg to bring their bills. It will be in September."
Donastorg wanted an opportunity once again to offer his proposal to reduce the membership of the Legislature to nine from the current 15, something his colleagues voted down last year.
Liburd enforced the three-minute debate time, cutting off the microphones of senators who went over the limit. Competition for floor time was fierce, with battles continuing after the mikes were silenced.
Sen. Lorraine Berry objected to the whole budget process moving forward without consideration of the Fiscal Year 2002 revenue shortfall of $40 million to $50 million that Ira Mills, Office of Management and Budget director, projected in testimony before the Finance Committee last month.
Berry had written to Liburd and to Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen as Finance chair asking for an analysis by the Senate post auditor of whether projected revenues would sustain the level of expenditures in the FY 2003 budget and its accompanying Omnibus bill. Neither had responded, Berry said Tuesday.
She asked Post Auditor Terry Drake for his analysis. Drake apologized for not having prepared one but said the projections "look reasonable." He added, however, that "definite supportive information from the Office of Management and Budget was not forthcoming."
Berry said she would abstain from voting on any bills which are supported by the General Fund. "Even though Mills announced the shortfall," she said, no measures had been taken to counteract a reduction in revenues. "We haven't dealt with it," she said.
Sen. Adelbert Bryan held fast to the disruptive style he had maintained for the previous three sessions. And on Tuesday he formalized his posture.
Holding copies of the V.I. Code over his head, Bryan announced, "We are going to have school today, so bring your pens and pad and recorder. I have heard enough." He pointed to a large box on his desk, saying it held pertinent documents to back him up. Referring to another senator's description on Monday of the "long hours" the Finance Committee had put in on the budget, Bryan said, "This will be short and sweet and fair." And, with that, he had used his first three minutes.
Several senators returned to their themes each time their turns to comment came around.
Bryan continued his complaints about the Senate budget-making process and the what he termed a lack of study put into the bills on the floor. He was critical of ambiguous language in the University of the Virgin Islands budget which describes its funding source as "appropriated from any available funds in the Treasury of the Virgin Islands."
Sen. David Jones said the territory's revenues declined 10 percent from FY 2001 to FY 2002. "I don't see how this pans out with the financial news we're getting from Wall Street," he said, referring to the increased level of spending laid out in the 2003 budget bills and cautioning a more circumspect use of government funds.
He noted that fund listings have a caveat, an asterisk at the bottom, stating that the balances are "available until expended."
"We have the malady of not knowing the balances that exist in government funds," Jones said, because of the terminology "to be used until expended." He said that language makes it impossible to get a true reading on how much money is in each fund at any given time. He said the 23rd Legislature had taken that language out of the budget bills, only to see it returned in the 24th Legislature.
Although there was intense debate on everything the senators could shake a stick at, election year politics surfaced from time to time, bringing a little levity to the proceedings.
Sen. Vargrave Richards, who is running for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in the November election, held forth on Santa Claus. "He is coming, and you'd all better have been good," he cautioned regarding the fiscal prudence of the bills, clearly making reference to the Finance Committee chair, who is running for governor.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., the majority leader, had a comeback for Richards. "You'd better not talk about Mrs. Claus," he said. "Remember, each of these bills was sent here by the governor; so, you'd better be careful talking about Mrs. Claus." White elaborated on the theme until his three minutes were up.
In its morning deliberations, the Senate approved the following FY 2003 appropriation bills:
No. 24-0265 – $1.6 million for Property and Procurement Department operating expenses, from the Business and Commercial Properties Revolving Fund.
No. 24-0266 – $29 million to the University of the Virgin Islands for salaries and expenses, and for other purposes.
No. 24-0267 – $2.6 million to the Finance and Labor Departments for operating expenses, from the Government Insurance Fund.
No. 24-0268 – $2.8 million for the Health Department, in a lump sum from the Health Revolving Fund.
No. 24-0269 – $2.7 million for salaries, operating expenses and other purposes of the Office of Management and Budget, Division of Personnel, Property and Procurement Department and Finance Department, in a lump sum from the Indirect Cost Fund.
No. 24-0270 – $5 million from the Insurance Guaranty Fund to the General Fund.
No. 24-0271 – $3.5 million from the Interest Revenue Fund to the General Fund.
No. 24-0272 – $69 million from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund to the General Fund and other transfers.
All senators were present except Alicia Hansen. Berry voted yes on all bills except the General Fund appropriations, on which she abstained as she earlier said she would.
Bryan either abstained or voted no on all bills. All of the other 12 senators present voted in favor of the bills.
The session was set to resume in the afternoon. The agenda called for finishing action on all the bills except the legislative budget, the executive budget and the Omnibus bill, which are scheduled for Wednesday.
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