June 5, 2003 – After a relatively quiet morning, the Senate chambers suddenly resounded with outrage Thursday afternoon as the Finance Committee summarily sent home Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's financial team until the governor responds to a letter sent Monday demanding that he rescind pay raises given to exempt and unclassified government workers last year.
The vote to dismiss the administration officials was 5-1, with Sen. Louis Hill opposed and Sen. Roosevelt David absent for the vote.
Voting in favor were Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell
Speaking later, Hill explained his reason for opposing the motion. "The territory is in financial crisis," he said. "Both branches have a responsibility to resolve these issues. We cannot do so at the expense of each other."
The letter had set a 10 a.m. Thursday deadline for a response, the time the Finance Committee was scheduled to convene to consider the hefty and complex legislation sent by Turnbull on May 20 for consideration at a special session he called for May 22. At that session, the Senate sent all of the bills to the Finance Committee for consideration.
Nathan Simmonds, director of the governor's Office of Fiscal and Economic Recovery Implementation, was on the hot seat all morning, fending off senators' questions about the governor's response. Time and again the lawmakers asked him what the governor was going to do. At one point the Finance chair, Donastorg, told Simmonds: "You guys didn't make any decision, because it affects you."
Simmonds maintained that "the governor has just received the letter and will be responding." That was an answer the senators weren't buying, and which predicated their later action.
The move came on a motion by Baptiste that the committee dismiss the governor's financial team until such time as the Senate receives an answer from the governor to the Monday letter. (See "Cancel executive order pay hikes, Senate says".) The motion called for the committee to break for lunch and reconvene to hear testimony from private-sector representatives.
Members of the governor's cabinet appeared shell shocked. Attorney General Iver Stridiron strode out of the chambers, stopping at the press bench to announce: "Ladies and gentlemen, I have one word: disgraceful."
It didn't take the administration officials long to regain their power of speech. "Ludicrous," "absurd" and "embarrassing" were adjectives immediately tossed about. They were, as one, stunned that the senators would further delay consideration of the governor's legislation to address the territory's fiscal crisis.
"This $145 million deficit bridge has to be corrected," Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull said, adding that the senators "are not on the governor's board. They can't give him directions. Time is of the essence."
"It's disgraceful, doing this," Karen Andrews, the governor's chief labor negotiator, vehemently agreed. "It's ludicrous," she said. "I'm ashamed to be a Democrat. It's a waste of the taxpayers' money. Obviously, they feel they can do anything."
Some executive branch officials charged that the Senate's Democratic majority was being led by the minority caucus. "The minority is leading the majority," Bernice Turnbull said. "They are not in control — it's absurd, it's embarrassing to me as a Democrat — the lack of direction of the Democratic majority."
Andrews agreed: "They are being led by the minority."
Baptiste is the sole minority member of the Finance Committee. Three other minority members, Sens. Carlton Dowe, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Celestino A. White Sr., were part of the bipartisan caucus which convened before Baptiste offered his motion.
Simmonds expressed incredulity at the committee's action. "It is totally inappropriate in that time frame to respond to anything," he said, adding, "That is my personal opinion." Further, he said, "We were called here this morning to discuss the governor's legislation, not to discuss a letter the Senate wrote."
Joanne U. Barry, Personnel Division director, and Andrews were sharply critical of the senators' demand to rescind the exempt employees' raises. "Are you telling me that $2 million is going to resolve a $144 million deficit?" Barry asked. Andrews said, "You can't hang your hat on $2 million."
It was not clear what the $2 million figure referred to. According to the governor's proposed schedule of hundreds of pay increases last May, the raises would total some $2.3 million a year for upper-level employees and nearly $6.4 million a year for mid-level personnel.
Barry and Andrews both said they might not object so strongly to cutting the senior staff pay if "it were part of an overall plan."
Bernice Turnbull sparred with Donastorg, defending her position that the dismissal was out of order and "disgraceful."
As Andrews said to Turnbull, "Let's go; we've been dismissed," Donastorg retorted: "We expect you to go back to the governor and tell him we mean business."
Donastorg said he went along with Baptiste's motion in the belief that the Legislature needs to "put its foot down if it wants to control the government's purse strings" — a point he was making when Baptiste interrupted to make the motion.
Donastorg said if anyone was being disrespected, "it's the Legislature."
Dowe said there needs to a dialogue between the two branches of government. The governor, he said, "should have at least answered Sen. Jones (Senate President David Jones), not just ignored him."
All seven Finance Committee members were present for the morning deliberations: Sen. Baptiste, David, Donastorg, Hill, Malone, Renee and Russell. Also present were non-committee members Sens. Berry, Dowe, Liburd and White.
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