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VLT REPEAL, TOURISM AUTHORITY BEFORE SENATE

April 13, 2003 – The 25th Legislature will hold its first regular, full working session on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it promises to be a lively one, taking up bills to repeal the legalization of video lottery terminals and create a Tourism Authority with a business-majority board to replace the Department of Tourism.
This Legislature has met twice before in full session, but the first was an organizational meeting, on Jan. 13, and other was a special session called by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull on Feb. 12 to deal with sum-budgets, using 1999 valuations for 2001-2004 commercial property tax bills, and preserving St. John VITRAN funding.
The special session bills have been signed into law — the only ones so far for this Legislature, which has gotten off to a much slower start in committee meetings than its predecessors.
The 24th Legislature prided itself on virtually non-stop committee meetings — 34 in its first 100 days, along with two full sessions. The Finance Committee dominated many of these meetings as its chair, Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, pored over line-item agency budgets, refusing to give in to the governor's repeated pleas for lump-sum budgets.
The 25th Legislature also has met twice as the Committee of the Whole, on March 13 and 14, to listen to testimony on video lottery gaming.
Senators now are making up for lost time; they have held several committee meetings in the last month. This week's schedule is a relatively busy one, despite the Holy Week holidays, with a Health, Hospitals and Human Services meeting Monday on St. Croix, followed by the two days of full session on St. Thomas. Thursday and Friday are government holidays, Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
The body has yet to meet to examine the territory's fiscal status. This does not sit well with the five minority senators, who have been chomping at the bit to get the government's chief fiscal officers to provide information on government finances, which remain a secret well-guarded from the public as well as the Senate, although signs have emerged that there is cause for concern.
On March 27, the government borrowed $7 million from the Public Finance Authority to stem its apparently collapsing finances. Bernice Turnbull, Finance commissioner and PFA board member, said at that time that the loan would to toward "improving the government's cash flow." Since then, there has been much talk — but no comment from the Turnbull administration — of the government trying to secure more funds from an unidentified source to cover the three paydays in May.
In a letter dated April 2, the minority senators wrote to Senate President David Jones requesting a Committee of the Whole meeting for Monday. "The authorization of a $7.5 million loan from the PFA to cover the government's operational cost and the secret plan to borrow $25 million are of grave concern to the minority caucus," the letter stated. It added, "the month of May is upon us, and the expectation of meeting three paydays in one month brings fear and concern to every resident of the V.I."
Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards, the minority leader, circulated a petition among his Senate colleagues on Thursday seeking to force Jones to call the session, but he got only the signatures of the other four minority members. Eight signatures are needed to make such a petition binding.
Jones has not formally responded to the minority's request.
There may be hope from another source, but not for six weeks. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who chairs the Finance Committee, wrote Richards that he would be pleased to hold a meeting with the government fiscal officers, but the earliest date available is May 20.
"I share many of your concerns about the current fiscal crisis and the ongoing efforts to borrow money simply to maintain daily operations," Donastorg wrote. "While the Finance Committee and the Post Audit Division have made many inroads since January, we all require a great deal more data in order to make informed decisions and to move towards resolution of these matters."
On this week's agenda in addition to the VLT and Tourism Authority bills are confirmation votes on several nominations, including that of Elton Lewis to become Police commissioner; a couple of honorific resolutions; and a stack of long-awaited agricultural land leases. For the day-to-day agenda, see the Legislative Calendar.

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