Aug. 28, 2003 – Senators were sharply divided Thursday about their invitations from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to attend "an overview presentation" of the administration's proposed Fiscal Year 2004 budget at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Government House on St. Thomas.
The invitations, individually addressed to each senator, are dated Aug. 26 — the day after the Finance Committee chair, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, wrote to the governor saying he would grant Turnbull's request to postpone the final budget overview meetings that had been scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.
The governor wrote Donastorg on Aug. 22 asking that the overview presentations by top administration financial officials be delayed until after Aug. 31 — by which time, Turnbull said, his budget would be in the hands of the Senate.
Donastorg in his Aug. 25 response acquiesced to Turnbull's request "with a great deal of trepidation," chiding the governor for the "unacceptable" three-month delay in submitting the budget, which by law was due on May 31.
For some senators, that is enough of a reason to say "no thanks" to the governor's invitation. For others, the stumbling block is that the meeting is to take place at the same time that the Senate Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee has a hearing scheduled on St. Croix.
An aide to Sen. Luther Renee, who chairs the committee, said on Thursday that the hearing will proceed as scheduled.
Donastorg said on Thursday that he won't be at Government House on Friday because "I am not participating in a meeting which might give the appearance of an effort to circumvent the [budget] process. It could easily give the appearance of an effort to rubber-stamp."
He added: "I believe in transparency, so I won't be critical of his process. But I anxiously await the submission of the budget."
Nor will Sens. Usie Richards, Norman Jn Baptiste and Celestino A. White Sr. be there. The three minority senators jointly wrote Turnbull on Wednesday spelling out their reasons for declining his invitation.
Noting that the legislative overview meetings were postponed at the governor's request, they said: "While we acknowledge the right of the executive branch to justify its proposals through whatever approach it deems necessary, we intend to preserve the integrity of the Legislature … and its ability to conduct budget hearings and overviews in an uncompromised manner."
Senate President David Jones and Vice President Lorraine Berry both said they will attend the meeting.
"I don't think it is circumventing the process," Jones said.. "The governor had the courtesy to invite us to participate. No decisions are going to be made. I am going to listen and advise him as to his rationale." He added: "I don't know what the agenda is."
And at any rate, Jones said, after Aug. 31, "there will be a full-blown hearing on the budget."
Berry said she believes the governor called the meeting "because this is a very serious situation. He hasn't called us in a long time. Because he has invited us, it means what I've been saying all along: The governor is challenged with balancing the budget when the operating expenses are higher than the revenues coming in."
Berry, who over two decades has a near-perfect record of attending Senate sessions and meetings of the committees on which she serves, said she has asked in writing to be excused from Friday's hearing on St. Croix. Berry is the panel's vice chair.
Sen. Louis Hill said that he would have attended the Government House meeting but he had already committed to attending Renee's hearing. Although he is not a member of the committee, he said the hearing — on the disparity in gasoline prices between the two districts and on the Water and Power Authority's plans for reliable power and economic development — "has some important issues for me." Hill chairs the Senate's Planning and Environmental Protection Committee.
The governor's meeting is "a good thing," Hill said. "I believe there should have been some sort of collaboration on the budget," he added. "He has information the Legislature doesn't have access to; it would be nice to gather the knowledge."
But Hill said he wishes the governor had contacted the Legislature to find a mutually acceptable date that didn't conflict with a committee meeting.
Renee's hearing is to begin at 10 a.m. WAPA's executive director, Alberto Bruno-Vega, has confirmed his presence. The committee members in addition to Renee and Berry are Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Roosevelt David, Emmett Hansen II, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and White.
Sens. Canton, Carlton Dowe,Hansen and Liburd were off-island on Thursday. Sens. David, Shawn-Michael Malone and Ronald Russell also were not reached to learn whether they would attend the governor's meeting.
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