June 6, 2003 – Sen. Lorraine Berry was the first legislator to fire back at Gov. Charles W. Turnbull publicly in writing Friday evening after reading the letter he sent the lawmakers on Friday in response to theirs of Monday.
And she had little sympathy for the "umbrage" the governor expressed at the Senate's call for him to rescind millions of dollars in pay raises to unclassified employees as a condition of considering his bill to float another $235 million in bonds to keep the government from sinking in a sea of red ink.
Borrowing another $235 million, she said, "would push our debts to over $1.2 billion … not to mention the growing unfunded liability that is over $500 million (and some suggest it is closer to $800 million!)."
Berry, the ranking Democrat in the Legislature and a former president of the body and chair of its Finance Committee, took the Democratic governor to task from the first paragraph of her response:
"Usually he procrastinates and avoids making tough decisions; he has become notorious in not responding to my queries. I had to read his letter several times to make sure I did not misunderstand anything he suggested."
Tapping into Turnbull's imagery of the territory as a "tempest-tossed ship," Berry said that he "is the captain who must rise to the occasion." The members of the 25th Legislature have "put aside our internal differences in the effort to develop the necessary political consensus and will to keep the ship afloat," she said.
Midway into her eight-page response, addressing the federal court moratorium imposed last month on the collection of property taxes, Berry accused Turnbull of "ignoring necessary reforms to make the collection of property taxes equitable and efficient" after such reforms were mandated in a 2000 court case settlement.
"He could have fixed a constant revenue stream," she said, but instead "the governor took the adversary approach against a group of commercial landowners and amazingly gambled the entire property tax revenue stream on a single legal dispute."
She also said cost cutting has got to entail job cutting, politically popular or not, something Turnbull avoided altogether in his package of bills to address the fiscal deficit. Cutting back on personnel costs is "the most important means of reducing deficits" in some 38 states right now, she said, challenging the governor to "tell us your plan for personnel reduction now!"
And, she added, the place to begin is by setting an example "within the senior, highly paid layers of government."
At the same time, she rejected Turnbull's suggestion for reducing costs by cutting the Legislature's budget by another 15 percent on top of a 14 percent reduction for all branches of government already in place.
The executive branch, she said, "consumes well over 85 percent of the government's resources, and thus "it is the branch of government that must make the most sacrifices."
A member of the minority in the 24th Legislature, Berry also took her majority colleagues in that body to task. Two years ago, she wrote, "in a very bizarre political move, Gov. Turnbull and a group of senators in the 24th Legislature took the so-called $100 million surplus, and in the blink of an eye they spent it on pay increases and other pet projects."
She agreed with Turnbull's call for the Senate to stop over-appropriating funds but added that he "must practice what he is preaching."
She called the administration's proposal to impose a tax of 20 cents a barrel on crude oil imported by Hovensa not only illegal but "suicidal if not simply absurdity." And she charged that imposing or increasing taxes on food, shipping containers and gross receipts would "cause the Virgin Islands to explode."
And as for further borrowing, Berry recalled that she supported a $300 million bond issue in 1999 "on the condition that fiscal controls would be put in place to develop an austerity budget." But she said Turnbull "has not implemented" many of the fiscal measures that the 23rd Legislature passed or many of the recommendations of the Five-Year Operating and Strategic Financial Plan developed at his request.
Finally, she told the governor that the Legislature expects him "to speak to us as your allies not enemies, for surely you know who remains on any ship when it sinks — the captain. Everyone else is expected and will get on the lifeboat."
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