June 6, 2003 – Gov. Charles W. Turnbull struck back at the Senate Friday afternoon in a lively press conference at Government House on St. Thomas where he made clear his displeasure with the first branch of government.
The lawmakers got under the governor's skin Thursday in more ways than one.
First, the Senate Finance Committee sent his financial team packing early in the afternoon, refusing to hear more testimony until he answered a letter the full Senate had sent him on Monday demanding that he rescind hefty raises given last year to exempt and unclassified employees.
Thursday evening, the committee eviscerated the governor's package to address the territory's fiscal deficit, killing more than $80 million of his $95 million in proposals.
Having accomplished that, the committee then voted not to send the governor's $235 million bond issue bill to the floor for Monday's full Senate session, but to hold it in committee for further study. Senate President David Jones said Thursday the body would not authorize the bond issue until Turnbull answered their letter.
The governor did on Friday.
He wrote Jones, in part, that while appreciating the senators' concerns, "I, however, must take umbrage at the Legislature attempting to give the executive branch an ultimatum complete with date and hour." Nowhere in the Organic Act, Turnbull said, is the Legislature given that authority.
Turnbull said the Legislature's call for him to roll back the raises he approved last year by executive order "falls far short of the mark." He said it would result in savings of no more than $2.2 million through Sept. 30, the end of the 2003 fiscal year.
Nonetheless, Turnbull said, he would take the letter "under advisement." He stopped short, in responding to media questions later, of saying when and how he would respond.
The governor offered some ideas of his own on cost-cutting measures the Legislature "may consider." Among them:
"- A part-time Legislature, which he said is the case with most states and other jurisdictions and municipalities.
– Cutting the Legislature's budget by an additional 15 percent beyond the 14 percent reduction already instituted.
– A mirroring of the executive branch initiative to control the abuse of government vehicles, cellular phones and unnecessary travel.
– Curtailment of the Legislature's practice of over-appropriating funds — via amendments attached to so-called "Christmas tree" bills — and "the subsequent override of the vetoes of these bills."
Legislature's call: If not taxes, then what?
With the air all but taken out of his tax plans, leaving an $80 million dollar or so hole, Turnbull said the Senate would have to find other ways to shore up the deficit, if not by taxes. "It is now the duty" of the Legislature, he said, "to formulate the legislative plan so that as a territorial government of checks and balances, we can move ahead and serve the people."
In his letter, he told Jones: "If the Legislature does not act promptly, massive layoffs of workers, payless paydays and the curtailment of vital services and other serious consequences lie ahead."
In answer to questions from reporters about his relationship with the Legislature, the governor stressed that the two branches of government must work together to solve the financial dilemma. He noted that friction between the two entities is not uncommon.
Asked if he would submit legislation to create a part-time lawmaking body, Turnbull smiled. "I wouldn't draft that," he said. "It was just a suggestion." He said he reserved his personal feelings about the 24th Legislature's refusal to reduce its own makeup to nine members from 15, a proposal approved by voters in a 2000 referendum but voted down by the senators.
If the Senate doesn't allow the $235 million bond issue, Turnbull and several members of his financial team with him at the press conference said, the territory will be in dire fiscal straits, facing a projected $29 million shortfall by the end of June and a projected $144 million deficit less than four months from now at the end of FY 2003.
The Finance Committee's decision to remove $80 million in anticipated revenues by gutting measures to add or increase taxes leaves the government in "serious imbalance," Turnbull said. Unless the Legislature restores the taxes or comes up with similar measures, he said, "the government will have to take the Draconian actions we have attempted to avoid, including employee layoffs, salary reductions, payless paydays and the elimination of vital services."
Since the writing on the wall had been clear that the Senate would likely vote down the tax additions and increases, Turnbull was asked if he had any other fallback plan besides "massive layoffs."
Administration's fallback: There are other plans
Nathan Simmonds, director of the governor's Office of Fiscal Recovery and Economic Implementation, answered. He said the administration does, indeed, have contingency plans, but it will not reveal them until the appropriate time — after Monday's full Senate session.
The governor said the irony was not lost on him of the Finance Committee's action in increasing unemployment insurance benefits to 80 percent of the V.I. average weekly wage from the current 50 percent. "While the federal government is trying to move workers from welfare to work, the Finance Committee appears to want to move our workers from work to welfare," he said.
Turnbull also said the Finance Committee's decision to cut 14 percent of the government's total budget for personal services and fringe benefits "does not fix the problem." Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, reiterated what he had said on Thursday at the Finance meeting: "The personal services cost has not changed substantially. In FY 1999 it was $271.4 million. In FY 2002 it was $277.7 million."
On Thursday, however, Mills had pointed out that the cost had been reduced substantially in FY 2000 and FY 2001, down to about $243 million.
Turnbull defended the administration's plan repeatedly, saying it would balance the budget. He reiterated information Simmonds had presented to the senators on Thursday. (See "Little sign of support for governor's bills".)
Responding to questions, the governor also defended recent hirings which were publicized. He said most of them were to fill vacancies in existing positions. He said the one new position filled, that of protocol officer, was "necessary" in order to care properly for visiting dignitaries. Karen Andrews, the governor's chief negotiator, said the salary for the position is $50,000, not $80,000, which she said had been reported in the press.
Turnbull did not overlook the Finance Committee's dismissal of his financial team Thursday. "I am disappointed that, at a time when we should all be working together … some member of the Legislature prefer to grandstand or issue meaningless ultimatums," he said, terming the dismissal "an apparent show of one-upmanship."
The governor cautioned the Legislature: "Piecemeal solutions are unacceptable. It is the responsibility of the Legislature either to pass my plan intact or to modify my plan, provided that it fully closes the projected $144 million deficit."
The governor and Simmonds urged the Legislature to act "post haste" to avoid a payless payday at the end of June.
Turnbull concluded his letter to Jones: "Mr. President, as you and all the other members of the 25th Legislature know full well, we are all together in this tempest-tossed boat. If we work together, we can make it to the sunny shore of fiscal recovery. If we choose to fight among ourselves,
the boat will hit the rugged rocks of financial insolvency."
The "tempest-tossed boat" will dock at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall at 10 a.m. Monday when the Senate convenes in full session to act on the governor's bills, except for the bond-issue measure, and its own. How sunny the "shore of fiscal recovery" will be by the end of the session remains to be seen.
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