Nov. 24, 2003 – It was 'round midnight Monday night that the Senate passed the 2004 Omnibus Bill, 10-5 along majority-minority lines, and minutes after that, the body adjourned, having done what it would with the fiscal year 2004 budget.
By 10:30 p.m., in a session reconvened from an abrupt recess after brief deliberations on Friday, most of the budget bills had been approved. Senate President David Jones was still Senate President David Jones. An amendment giving a 90 percent tax break to tobacco importers was gone. Among major bones of contention, only the majority's Omnibus Bill remained to be taken up.
The $545 million executive branch budget, covering all departments and agencies, was approved. Union officials who had once again sat in the chambers awaiting action on a $12 million appropriation for their raises included in the bill were rewarded with an amendment stipulating the increases must come through within 90 days of the bill's passage.
Also passed were the Legislature's own $16.5 million budget, $25.3 million for the University of the Virgin Islands, $23.9 for Territorial Court, and $2.4 for the Public Defender's Office.
The massive and much-amended Omnibus Bill includes the majority's measures to generate $70 million in new revenues — $40 million from a tax anticipatory note tied to plans to collect two years' worth of property taxes within FY 2004 and $30 million from a letter of credit backed by the Insurance Guaranty Fund. Details of the bill's final form will be published on Tuesday morning.
Sen. Carlton Dowe railed against the property-tax measure throughout the day, backed by his minority colleagues. He had vowed early Monday to do his best to defeat the measure.
It was a long and at first rather anxious day in which rumors of a move to remove Jones as president, fueled by Sen. Roosevelt David on his Saturday program on WVWI Radio, proved untrue.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, arriving a bit late for Monday's proceedings, relieved some of the evident tension when told Jones: "I'm glad to see you're here, indomitable as ever." Aside from a few oblique remarks by a few other senators, the matter was not discussed on the floor Monday.
Implications of over-appropriation
What was discussed were numerous amendments added to the budget which would alter the bottom line. It was not clear late Monday what the final figure would be. But if the budget is over-appropriated, the Office of Management and Budget will have the final say in what gets funded out of the available revenues.
Sen. Ronald Russell reminded his colleagues that "if you over-appropriate and don't give them [the administration] a balanced budget, then you give the authority to OMB."
Sen. Lorraine Berry said she was "reluctantly" supporting the majority's budget. "We still continue to give money to agencies not accounted for," she said.
Berry said Congressman Tom Feeney, a Republican from Florida, recently spoke on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives criticizing the Virgin Islands for what he described as irresponsible handling of $30 million in federal health grants.
It was an incident also cited by Delegate Donna M. Christensen on Friday in announcing that she had filed legislation in Congress to create a new position of chief financial officer for the territory and to establish an integrated financial management system to keep track of the territory's fiscal affairs. (See "Financial OK sought for CFO, financial system".)
Like Christensen, Berry stressed that the territory must change its way of doing business. "We don't have control," she said, reiterating previous remarks. "With this budget, we will have to revisit it in three months."
Berry has pointed out that the majority's $70 million in projected revenues — based on a tax anticipation note and a letter of credit — are just that: projected revenues. The budget's revenue base is dependent on the administration's implementation of the proposals.
However, Berry — joined by Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd and other colleagues — was sharply critical of Christensen's proposal for the creation of a CFO position. As outlined by the delegate, the chief financial officer would be appointed by the governor with confirmation by the Legislature. Nonetheless, she warned that Congress is watching to see how the territory handles the FY 2004 budget.
Liburd agreed. "This is very serious," he said. "We're being watched. Congress is looking at what we are doing."
Berry successfully moved an amendment to assist the Internal Revenue Bureau in collecting delinquent taxes. The amendment appropriates $1.3 million from the General Fund to hire technical assistance, purchase supplies and equipment, and "adjust the totals under the IRB budget and the executive budget accordingly."
Tobacco tax break up in smoke; tourism board on hold
Dowe successfully struck the 90 per cent excise tax break for tobacco importers from the executive budget bill to which it was attached. Jones had said on Sunday that he would withdraw the controversial amendment. (See "Jones: Tobacco tax breaks off the table".)
At the same time, Dowe added a section providing for students caught bringing weapons to school to be expelled for not less than one year. The commissioner of Education would have discretion to modify the period of expulsion on a case-by-case basis.
Sen. Usie Richards questioned the amendment's language. "It should just say that 'any student in possession of a gun is expelled,'" he said. Dowe and others pointed out that the wording of the bill reflects that of federal legislation and said it should be consistent. While several police union representatives in the audience agreed with Richards, the original language went unchanged.
Berry withdrew her bill creating a V.I. Tourism Board bill from consideration on Monday. She said she had heard that the governor would not approve the measure, even though it had been modified to conform to his wishes. "We changed it from an authority to a board, "she said. "We changed the composition."
She continued: "I don't know what the governor's objections are, but I will write to him and ask him. There may be something I have missed." And she said she would take Turnbull's reply into consideration before again having the bill placed on the Senate agenda.
All 15 senators attended the legislative session.
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