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SENATE SIGNS OFF ON MUCH-DEBATED BUDGET BILLS

Aug. 29, 2002 – Winding up two days of frequent and rancorous debate, the 24th Legislature on Wednesday approved the massive Omnibus Act of 2003, the executive branch budget, and the territory's the 2003 Community Development Block Grant funding allocations, thus completing action on the Fiscal Year 2003 budget measures, which now go to Government House.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has 10 days after receipt of the bills to act on them – signing them into law, allowing them to become law without his signature, vetoing them outright or item-vetoing them. Because both of the major bills contain appropriation figures, Turnbull can item-veto certain sections — which, according even to the senators who voted for the measures, he is certain to do.
With amendments, the Omnibus bill grew from 24 pages to 46 in Wednesday's deliberations, as senators added between $2 million and $3 million to its previous $20 million price tag. The lawmakers continued their practice of appropriating money for favorite projects from funds which Turnbull is almost certain to say do not exist. This has become almost a ritual dance by the executive and legislative branches after any full session that sends numerous bills to Government House.
The executive branch budget commanded relatively little attention, having been debated at length in the Finance and Rules Committees. The Omnibus bill was clearly the star of the show — and it may face legal challenges, according to Yvonne Tharpes, legislative legal counsel.
Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole, one of the Omnibus bill's majority sponsors, called it "replete with good measures," while minority Sen. David Jones said he would vote for the measure "holding my nose." Jones called it "the ominous bill, containing the good, the bad, the ugly, and sometimes the miserable." But, he added, "It puts us in a dilemma, because there are good things, too." Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg called the measure a "tool for political war."
Much of the bill is community oriented — calling for a new Youth Commission, senior citizen transportation, various infrastructure projects, and help for the potable water system on St. John. It also 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, and provides some funding for street lighting.
Sen. Douglas Canton, a minority member who voted for the bill, said there are "many good things in it" but also called parts of it "unconscionable," notably the reprogramming of tobacco settlement funds for Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix. Sen. Vargrave Richards, also a minority member, cautioned his colleagues that the legislation "could cause impairment of the tobacco funds."
Omnibus Act legal issues
Consideration of the Omnibus bill was held up in Tuesday's Senate session because the legal analysis requested by Canton had not been completed. On Wednesday, Tharpes said the analysis was drafted by outside legal counsel and was not submitted to her office for review. She said the analysis "concentrates on those sections of the bill which present legal issues or that contain fatal drafting errors that would adversely impact statutory construction."
She added, "A couple of major substantive recommendations for amendment to the bill were declined" by the majority caucus. She referred to sections reprogramming the tobacco settlement money and restricting arbitration as a tool for resolving labor-management disputes.
The 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.
Tharpes said the bill's section mandating the transfer of these funds "may be in direct conflict with Act 6428, and may have the effect of impairing an obligation of contract in contravention of the U.S. Constitution and the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands."
Likewise, Tharpes recommended striking the bill's section on arbitration. "The limitations the bill puts on arbitration are preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act," which supersedes local law, she said.
The section states that arbitration can be used to settle disputes "only if the employer or employee submits a written request after the dispute arises to the other party to use arbitration [and] the other party consents in writing not later than 60 days after the receipt of the request to use arbitration." It also provides that an employer "may not require an employee to arbitrate a dispute as a condition of employment."
The latter provision has been hotly contested by Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen and St. Croix attorney Lee Rohn. It apparently is aimed at Hovensa and at least one of its subcontractors, which earlier this year began requiring candidates for employment to agree in writing to have all work disputes resolved by binding arbitration.
The lawmakers ignored Tharpes' advice, leaving both sections in the bill. They did, however, accept her counsel that Territorial Court cannot establish a V.I. Supreme Court, changing proposal to do so instead to specify the creation of an Appellate Court.
The day was hot and heavy with political slurs and general antagonism. Sen. Adelbert Bryan continued the behavior he began at the first Rules Committee meeting on the budget last week and continued through this week's Rules meeting and two full Senate sessions, with his continual interjections of "Objection" and "Point of order."
At one point Tuesday, Bryan had announced he was "teaching school." On Wednesday, after the Senate rejected an amendment to fine employers in cases where a wrongful discharge claim was upheld, Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel had had enough. "I'm not your student. Your teacher's certificate was revoked yesterday," she told Bryan. "You just want to keep disrupting this body to argue, and I'm not into that."
She suggested Bryan take his labor issues to the Labor Department or attend a meeting next month of the Senate Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee, which she chairs.
The executive branch budget of $489.9 million, including almost $1.3 million for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor that had been denied by the Finance Committee but restored by the Rules Committee, was passed with little debate. Eleven senators voted for the bill. Bryan, who has voted against every FY 2003 budget bill, voted no; Sens. Lorraine Berry, Canton and Richards abstained.
The Omnibus bill was approved by all senators except Bryan, who voted no, and Berry and Richards, who abstained.
The $1.9 million 2002 Community Development Block Grant bill, containing funding for numerous projects on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, passed 14-1, with Bryan voting no.
Appropriations approved
The lawmakers approved the following FY 2003 appropriation bills:
No. 24-0273 – $3.1 from the Caribbean Basin Initiative Fund for interfund transfers.
No. 24-0274 – $362,285 for salaries, fringe benefits, supplies and other services and charges for the Property and Procurement Department, from the Transportation Revolving Fund.
No. 24-0275 – $940,000 for Public Works Department operating expenses, from the Sewage System Fund.
No. 24-0276 – $10 million from the Transportation Trust Fund to the General Fund.
No. 24-0277 – $605,576 to the Public Service Commission for operating expenses.
No. 24-0278 – $1.6 million for Public Works Department operating expenses, from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund.
No. 24-0279 – $4.5 million to WTJX/Public Television System, from the
General Fund.
No. 24-0280 – $750,000 to the Housing Parks and Recreation Department for the territory's annual carnival events, from the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund.
No. 24-0281 – $100,000 for operating expenses of the Public Employees Relations Board and the Labor Management Committee.
No. 24-0286 – $4 million for the Office of Management and Budget director to allocate funds to cover salary increases to each department and agency of the executive branch, from the Miscellaneous Section of the budget.
No. 24-0287 – to amend the V.I. Code to permit the commissioner of Property and Procurement to set fees for use of the government printing office.
No. 24-0288 – $346,455 to the Taxicab Commission for operating expenses.
No. 24-0289 – $1.1 million from the Anti-Litter and Beautification Fund to the Public Works Department and for other purposes.
No. 24-0290 – $23.7 million for Territorial Court and Judicial Council salaries and expenses, and for other purposes.
No. 24-0291 – $2.6 million for Territorial Public Defender's Office operating expenses.
In unrelated action, the lawmakers also approved:
– Seven rezonings.
– A lease between the government and Virgin Islands Resource and Development, for conversion of the old V.I. Hotel property into a veterans center.
– A resolution calling for a task force to investigate employment concerns at the Hovensa oil refinery on St. Croix.

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