April 25, 2005 Well into the fourth month of her 12th term, Senate President Lorraine Berry has yet to reveal the budget allotments for senators of the 26th Legislature.
One of the hallmarks of Berry's 22 years in the Senate has been her call for transparency in government. She has issued subpoenas to officials who don't turn up with the information she requests.
The Source hand-delivered to Berry's office on Jan. 13 a request for the budget figures. The letter cited the V.I. Freedom of Information Act, VIC Title 3, Chapter 33, also known as the Sunshine Act.
Since that time, numerous messages have been left with James Francis, Berry's chief of staff, but no calls have been returned. Berry, reached at home Saturday morning, said she would return a call to the Source, but did not.
On Jan. 10, letters were distributed to the minority senators by Berry's office,stating that the minority senators would receive a $150,000 budget, with exceptions for committee chairs and the senator-at-large, who will receive $211,000.
The silence over the majority budget allotments is not sitting well with the minority senators.
Sen. Roosevelt David, minority leader, said Monday, "This is not transparent government. This is hypocrisy. This is a double standard, and I am appalled at all this happening. This is very troubling to me."
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 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.
Asked about reports that the majority senators may be getting more than twice that of their minority colleagues, David said, "That could very well be. Until they produce the figures, speculation can go anywhere. Why not be realistic and stop the speculation?"
Craig Barshinger, senator-at-large, is especially upset, since he has to staff all three islands.
He said Monday, "If we were going to embark on an austerity campaign and give $6 million of our $16 million budget back to the people, I would rise to the challenge of doing more with less, but I won't accept a $150,000 scenario with the majority getting over twice that amount."
Barshinger expressed himself Friday about his staffing problems created by his budget. (See "Senate Minority Says Majority Is Trashing Them").
Berry responded with a letter to him Monday, copied to media, that said his remarks bordered on slander.
She wrote, "Back in November 2004, when there were negotiations around the organization of the Legislature, a group of people who proclaimed their allegiance to the Democratic Party miscalculated on the means to organize the 26th Legislature. Individuals, including yourself, attempted to outmaneuver fellow Democrats, pander to a "St. Croix only" sentiment, and play petty politics. At the end, your schemes did not work."
Sen. Ronald Russell, also a member of the minority, said Monday, "It's not as simple as the budget allotment. The president is the certifying officer. If she doesn't sign a release from the business office, you don't get the money."
He added, "If she doesn't approve an item, even within the budget, you don't get it. She is micro-managing. It's worse than you think. She is being unfair. Something as simple as a printer, she won't approve. If I say I want to give some money to a non-profit group, she will say no."
He concluded his remarks, "We will bring it up tomorrow because we are approaching May and I don't even have a printer."
Tuesday the Senate is meeting in Committee of the Whole to take testimony on the service contract for the designs, construction and operation of wastewater treatment facilities on St. Croix.
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