June 18, 2003 – In the second day of its full session Wednesday, the Senate got down to the nitty gritty, coming up with measures intended to reduce, if not bridge, the gap between revenues and expenditures for the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2003.
According to Senate projections, a property tax amendment which will allow the territory to send out about $45 million in bills, and a transitional "environmental user fee" instead of a tax, as proposed by the governor will bring in $8 million before October.
Senate President David Jones said work will be ongoing "the jury is still out" to deal with the larger $152 million annual deficit currently predicted by the administration.
Wednesday's deliberations, which began at 9 a.m. and were still going on at 10 p.m., were punctuated by long recesses and seemingly incessant verbal sparring. None of the senators agreed on all of the measures in each bill, and each made a point of saying so. However, they conceded that only by compromise could they arrive at anything.
None of the minority amendments offered in Tuesday's session were approved. However, several initiatives from the minority's revenue-generating suggestions submitted to the governor earlier have been incorporated into the Senate's overall fiscal recovery plan, including a prepaid parking system, real estate stamp-tax increases, increased marriage license fees and a tire tax.
Sen. Carlton Dowe was still smarting Wednesday from the failure of an amendment he offered Tuesday to fund elementary school summer repairs. He proposed appropriating $623,000 to the Education Department from dividends paid to the Public Finance Authority by The West Indian Co. $500,000 to expand the cafeteria/auditorium and install central air-conditioning at Ulla Muller School and $123,000 to renovate bathrooms, provide disabled access and build a new classroom at Joseph Sibilly School.
Dowe said on Wednesday that he couldn't support the majority's proposed 14 percent overall budget reduction, saying it would "send people home."
Sen. Lorraine Berry said she was "amazed" at Dowe's statement. She reminded Dowe that he signed the minority's cost-reduction proposals, also submitted to the governor earlier. That proposal, she said, included rolling back salary increases given to non-unionized and exempt government employees and suggested the immediate furlough all individuals hired to fill exempt and non-classified positions since Nov. 1, 2002.
Berry said the governor already has cut the executive branch budget by $45 million. All the Senate is doing is adding another $9 million and a cut to all unnecessary operating expenses, she said. The Senate is estimating a savings of $22 million by the end of FY 2003 on Sept. 30.
"There is no senator who agrees with all these measures," Berry said. "We have to develop an austerity budget in FY 2004. We have to start in FY 2003 so there will be a fixed ceiling in 2004."
Tax decisions as damage control
She continued: "Some issue are more important to some than others. We have removed the gross receipts, hotel taxes, excise tax on foodstuffs and others we felt were more damaging to the overall economy." Her reference was to items among those proposed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in the six fiscal recovery bills he sent to the Legislature.
"We have set up fees and other policies," Berry said. "We have put back a hiring freeze. We can't compromise with the attrition program; we put it back with certain exemptions in specific departments including Human Services, firefighters, Education and Police."
She said the increase in marriage license fees from $25 to $50 will be lucrative: "There is a large wedding industry here in the V.I., not local people. We can generate an estimated $54,000 in the balance of the fourth quarter."
Although Jones had insisted that he would not tolerate non-germane issues, senators nonetheless worked in pet grievances and unrelated amendments. The chamber timekeeper had her hands full as the lawmakers worked their allotted time to the last possible second, giving one minute or 20 seconds to a colleague as suited their whims, and stretching the afternoon immeasurably.
A radical call for total recall
One senator at one point called for kicking out all government officials, himself presumably included, and starting anew. Another expressed deep misgivings about the decorum, or lack of it, as the session wore on.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who on Tuesday had motioned to reduce senators' salaries by 10 percent, left that notion in the dust Wednesday as he suggested getting rid of the entire government. He was incensed by the marriage licence fee increase and a $1,000 fine for not using seat belts, calling the measures "an attack on the family."
"I suggest we issue a recall of every elected official in this territory and get back to scratch," Baptiste. "Get a new governor and a new lieutenant governor and nine new senators, and put new people in charge." He charged, with regard to the fiscal crisis, that government officials knew what was coming when Banc of America "warned you." There was no way officials "didn't see it coming no way, Jose," he said.
Jones thanked Baptiste for his "enlightening discourse."
Sen. Louis Hill said at one point: "I've been sitting here listening to the level of debate, and I wonder if a video camera was recording this day for the people who elected us to this august body what our actions would be and how they would feel about how we express ourselves."
He continued: "I am extremely disappointed with this evening, and I would think we would respect this office more than we have this afternoon. People talk about reducing our salaries to $25,000 or reducing our numbers, and we give them every reason to think that about us by the level of debate and our behavior on this floor."
Hill noted that he had not "seen anyone make a resolution to reduce his (or her) salaries. I haven't seen anyone step up and say 'I want to reduce my salary.' I want to say that I should reduce my salary by $5,000, and it should be given to the Junior Statesmen by the end of the year." Although the freshman senator did not mention it, he took a pay cut to become a member of the 25th Legislature from $80,000 as St. Thomas-Water Island administrator to $65,000 as senator.
There was quiet after Hill's statement, but it didn't last long. Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. stepped up to interpret Hill's action as reaction to legislation proposed by Baptiste which had just passed to exempt new St. Croix businesses from business license fees. White and Sen. Roosevelt David had voted against the measure because St. Thomas businesses weren't included.
"Hill is against us because we said that's not fair," White said. "He needs to get mad at the majority and not us."
Jones finally brought some order to the chamber, which had been growing ever more raucous, with one senator overcome by a fit of giggles that almost prevented him utilizing his comment time.
A tax by another name may be more palatable
In the morning, the Senate passed the bill which seemed likely to create the best of all possible worlds. It creates an "environmental infrastructure users fee" which will protect the environment while bringing money into the government coffers.
The measure was proposed by the governor as a tax. Now renamed a "user fee," it still will consist of an assessment of 2 cents per pound imposed on all items produced in or brought into the territory for business purposes. It would exempt equipment imported on a lease basis for a period of not more than 180 days. Also exempted are molasses for rum production and agriculture uses, animal feeds and ferti
lizers, certain construction items, and articles disposed of in the course of trade by exporters and V.I. manufacturers selling items to off-island purchasers.
"Our environment is deteriorating — our waters, our coral reefs, our health," Jones said. "So, by imposing a user fee to pay for environmental infrastructure, it is fair. It cuts across the board. When people see it is for a specific purpose, they won't have many qualms with it."
Hill noted the number of trailers that are transported on a daily basis to St. John for construction projects. "There are multimillion-dollar projects," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in tax free. The government is not collecting a single dime, because they are exempt."
Legal counsel Yvonne Tharpes put some senators' concerns at rest, assuring them the user fee will not affect Hovensa. The governor had proposed a separate environmental tax of 20 cents a barrel on crude oil imported by the refinery an idea many rejected as illegal.
As of 10 p.m., the Senate had yet to dispose of four other bills on its agenda. The senators had been hedging throughout the day on whether they would approve any further government borrowing. David has said unequivocally that he will approve the $235 million bond issue submitted by the governor. Other senators have indicated they won't approve borrowing without certain conditions. The issue had not been formally addressed as of that hour.
All lawmakers attended the session except Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards, the minority leader, who is in Mexico with the V.I. Senior Men's Basketball team competing in the 2003 Centro Basketball Tournament. Richards is president of the V.I. Basketball Federation.
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