Jan. 11, 2005 Senate minority leader Roosevelt David, said in Monday's opening session of the 26th Legislature, "I know we are not going to be very popular. We don't have any money, but we have integrity."
Perhaps that was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as later Monday, envelopes delineating the 2005 budgets were distributed to the minority senators by Senate President Lorraine Berry's office. The minority senators receive $150,000, with exceptions for committee chairs and the senator-at-large.
David was irate at the perceived inequity. The $150,000 is reportedly half that of their majority colleagues. And, David said, "We received these after the sessions," adding, "normally they are passed out ahead of that." He said the annual amount was "appalling it's not equality," a reaction shared by two of his minority colleagues.
"What you heard yesterday about compassion was political hypocrisy," David said. "Why didn't they give it before? Because they didn't want us to say anything to the public. I'll challenge them to prove me wrong; I am talking about the real document."
Sens. Louis Hill and Ronald Russell, both second-terms senators and former majority members, expressed their frustration at the financial liability their budget imposes. "It's mean spirited," said Hill. "How are we supposed to operate an office on that budget?"
Russell agreed. "We cannot manage very well on that amount; I think that it's unfair distribution. To fund an entire office, hire staff and get some equipment, it's not adequate," he said. "I think we have to get the information out to the public; I am really disappointed by that decision."
The $150,000 must cover staff salaries, office supplies and equipment, travel and any other expense, such as funding extra research. Traditionally, the majority gets the lion's share of the Legislature budget, which this year is $16 million. However, it is not normally so ill-balanced. David, a member of the 25th Legislature majority said the minority senators were give an operating budget of $224,000, and the majority received $300,000.
It is not known what the 24th Legislature's individual budgets were because former Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd, president of the 24th Legislature, never revealed the individual senators' budgets, though he was regularly queried by the media.
David said, "It means that the $4 million per quarter you can spend (under the Legislature rules), leaves $12 million. Out of that, approximately $5.6 million goes toward the central staff and the rest of it is divvied up for the majority senators. It's fair to say that with only $150,000 for most of the minority senators, the rest belongs to the majority which, on average, would be $500,000 upwards. It's an abomination to marginalize to this point. It's sad."
David said he sticks by his figures. "And I welcome the majority to challenge me," he said. Berry did not return calls Tuesday, nor did Senate vice president Norman Jn Baptiste.
And that's not all, David said. "What's more appalling is that they are not treating Barshinger with the same respect as his predecessor in that seat. His budget is the lowest in recent history."
At-large Sen. Craig Barshinger said Tuesday afternoon, "My budget is $211,000. With that, I'm supposed to run a staff on all three islands," he said. "Hopefully I'll survive. I'll try and pool resources between the islands. I haven't even hired some St. Thomas and St. John candidates because we knew we didn't have an allotment. We have some good candidates. We suspect there might be something like this set up for you to fail."
As it is traditional with legislatures to give the minority members the short end of the financial stick, it is also something of a tradition, though not overtly, to dangle the possibility of better budgets before the minority senators in hopes of increasing majority membership. With a limited amount of funding, a legislator's hands are tied in his or her ability to attract competent staff and research personnel, travel for investigative purposes, or a myriad of other things. With this Legislature's razor-thin majority eight to seven funding is a critical issue.
Barshinger said he would like to see senator's salaries commensurate with their workload. "But, no matter what happens, even if I had no salary, I will continue with the minority, and continue to accomplish what I can."
He has a lot on his agenda. He already has 12 bill requests in to the legal counsel's office, "and we have eight more ready to go," he said.
One of his first priorities, Barshinger said Monday, is a bill to establish rules against sexual harassment. (Berry said Monday that her committee had drafted rules, but she wants the full Senate to peruse them before incorporating them.) However, the 41-page document has already been distributed to Legislature staff members.
Hill and Russell also have committed themselves to carrying out their agendas as best they can on limited budgets. Hill said his first priority remains pushing through Government Employees Retirement System reform, with a bill he has worked on since he took office in 2002. "It is cosponsored by Sen. Jn Baptiste and myself," he said, "and I think the other minority senators will sign on, as well."
Russell, Education Committee chairman last term, said he will pursue getting the newly created Superior Court located in Frederiksted, by amending the current bill creating the institution."It would be good for the economy. There's a sense of activity that follows the establishment of such an august institution," he said, "with hotels, restaurants and shops doing some business." He said he also will continue his efforts in education and election reform.
The two minority senators with committees Sen. Pedro Encarnacion, Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee chairman, and Sen. Neville James, Economic Development, Planning and Environmental Protection Committee chairman each received $66,000 above the $150,000, David said, to run their committees.
James didn't complain about his budget Tuesday. He said, "It's time to go to work now and focus on the matters at hand." James said one of his first concerns is creating a literacy program for skilled laborers on St. Croix. "To try to get our literacy level of the island up to par. There is a diagnostic center on the island where people can be tested to find out where they are in terms of literacy."
James said skilled laborers are brought in from other locations, who have better literacy skills. "Everybody wants to enhance the economy, so we have to focus on our investment, giving the laborer requisite literacy skills."
It was not possible to reach Encarnacion for comment Tuesday afternoon.
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