Aug. 15, 2003 – Beginning with testimony from the Election System of the Virgin Islands, the Senate Finance Committee's budget hearings on Thursday also covered the Fiscal Year 2004 funding requests of the V.I. Council on the Arts, Law Revision Commission, Commission on Uniform State Laws and V.I. Labor Management Committee.
Election System/Boards of Elections
Requesting just under $1.1 million for the territory's two Boards of Elections and the Election System of the V.I., John Abramson Jr., supervisor of elections, said that while the amount may seem high, it does not provide even "an adequate level of funding for the day-to-day operations of the agency." However, he added, "the Election System is willing to do our part to share the financial burden being experienced, and we will make-work."
Abramson said the system is entitled to receive $4 million in federal funding under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, but "there are costs associated with receiving the money" — a mandatory match of 5 percent, or $200,000. In addition, he said, the act requires the territory to maintain funding for the Election System at its highest funding level, which was $1.4 million in FY 2000.
The act provides federal funding to states and territories to make voting more accessible to all qualified voters in local communities and establishes standards for the administering of elections.
The federal government keeps asking him when the Election System is going to claim the funding, Abramson said, "but I can't take the money; we just don't have the matching funds."
"I want to include for the record," he said, "that the responsibility for providing the necessary finances for the implementation of these statutory mandates rests solely with the Legislature." He said he has a window of 45 days in which to get the $200,000 matching money.
Discussion also focused on the issue of disclosure and limitation of campaign contributions under local law. Abramson noted that "recent political scandals have had some connection with campaign finances, ranging from money politics to alleged bribery attempts."
He added: "More and more citizens feel angry and frustrated with the corruption and lack of transparency in the political processes." Yet, he said, "public funding for the implementation of the campaign disclosure law has been and continues to be a very low-priority item."
And as traditional sources of income become inadequate, he said, "candidates are turning to wealthy individuals and powerful interest groups for contributions. This is the American way of politics."
To remedy the situation, he said, he is embarking on a program to provide territorial offices with Internet access to the Federal Election Commission's Web site in order to review and copy federal campaign finance disclosure reports.
"As a direct result of this association, local public officials can also electronically file local campaign disclosure reports with the Office of the Supervisor of Elections," Abramson said. "This way, the people will be able to see what's going on."
Abramson also said some senators have not submitted their required campaign-disclosure reports. He said he will be filing documents in Territorial Court to compel them to do so. Asked by Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the committee chair, to "name names," he declined to do so.
Council on the Arts
Betty Mahoney, V.I. Council on the Arts acting executive director, requested a budget of $266,170 for FY 2004. She began her testimony by stating that with the committee inundated by requests for funding from every government agency in the midst of a financial crunch, "one might question the wisdom of investing in arts and cultural activities."
However, she said, "young people involved in the arts are much less likely to turn to acts of violence and destruction."
Art and art-related skills are integral parts of careers in fields such as advertising, design, publishing, music and entertainment, she pointed out. Further, she said, there are considerations which have clearly benefitted the territory: "The arts help to encourage tourism and stimulate economic recovery and generate dollars." For example, attendance at a performance at the Reichhold Center for the Arts "also results in spending at beauty salons, restaurants, clothing stores, etc."
The council is the territorial agency which receives federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the regional Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, much of it passed on in the local community as grants to support arts programs and projects and artists.
Arts Council board member Glenn "Kwabena" Davis said that with the Senate's support, "the council can continue what is an uphill battle to bring the arts into the mainstream of social and societal advancement."
Law Revision Commission
Commission for Uniform State Laws
Sharon Peets, executive director of the Law Revision Commission, requested a budget of $170,000 that would cover salaries, payment for publication of session law volumes and funding for research. The commission assists with the preparation and distribution of 75 volumes of session law to government officials and law libraries.
She said the body's appropriation for FY 2003 was $150,000 but that it has received $91,125, with the allotment still pending for the fourth quarter, which began July 1.
After her short presentation, Sen. Ronald Russell expressed concern about the organization's contributions to the Legislature in particular and the community in general.
Under questioning by Russell, Peets said the last time the commission met was in April. "The Senate clearly has to look at the viability of the commission," Russell said.
Peets responded that all of the commission's members have "priorities that keep them very busy … It has been difficult to establish meeting times."
Tom Bolt, chair of the Virgin Islands Uniform Law Commission, made what he termed a "modest" budget request of $25,000. He stated that the purpose of the body is "service to states and territorial governments and improvement of state and territorial law."
Russell expressed the view that the two local agencies should "combine under one umbrella" in order to reduce costs and be more efficient in the utilization of staff and resources.
Labor Management Committee
Thursday's hearings concluded with final testimony from Sylvia Sergeant-Perry, representing the V.I. Labor Management Committee, who submitted a budget request of $146,000.
She stated that funding cutbacks will mean the elimination of dollars for the training of employees and reduced job opportunities, decreasing membership, and indifference on the part of labor and management teams.
Raising the prospect of having to close down the committee, she stressed an increasing need for services and thus for funding from the Legislature.
Committee members present at Thursday's hearings were the chair, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg; and Sens. Roosevelt David. Louis Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell. Senator Norman Jn Baptiste was absent.
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