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Senate Majority Attaches Multiple Amendments to Block Grant Funding Bill

July 19, 2007 — As is customary in most legislative sessions, senators spent more than three hours Thursday preparing a set of amendments to attach to a bill distributing about $1.7 in community development block grant (CDBG) funds to various community organizations, projects and programs.
Continuing to follow the pattern of sessions past, minority senators who were not involved in the drafting process spent some time voicing concerns about the fact that the amendment — which includes an additional $1.5 million in new appropriations — was getting passed without their input.
"This is clearly another Christmas-tree bill designed to hold an enormous amount of appropriations," said Sen. Louis P. Hill. "And while there are some provisions in here that I support, it would have been nice to put some of these things through the committee process."
At the end of the day, however, the bill as amended passed by almost unanimous vote, with only Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson abstaining. Absent were Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone, Basil Ottley Jr. and Ronald E. Russell.
Prior to the bill's approval, Senate President Usie R. Richards initially said the amendment was simply intended to fix various errors that were present in the CDBG bill when it came down from Government House. When the amendment hit the floor, however, it also included several sections appropriating more money from the General Fund and provisions that enacted various changes in the V.I. Code.
Adding to the confusion, two amendments to the amendment were also passed. One, sponsored by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., reduced or increased appropriations outlined in four sections of the CDBG bill. The other, sponsored by Hill, seeks to limit the number of individuals needed to approve documents drafted during the upcoming Constitutional Convention.
"The law states that 27 people would be needed for approval," Hill said. "The delegates have said that they may not be able to meet that threshold, so they've asked us to make it a little easier for them to move the process forward by changing that figure to two-thirds (of the 30-member delegation)."
Other major sections of the amended bill:
— make changes to another CDBG bill recently signed into law by Gov. John deJongh Jr. that redirects money from previously approved projects to the Legislature and the V.I. Housing Finance Authority. (According to Richards, the changes are intended to fix errors found in the original draft bill.);
— appropriate an additional $2 million from the Transportation Trust Fund as a one-time cost-of-living bonus to government employees who retired after 1990. (While funding for these bonuses had been signed into law during the 26th Legislature, senators have continuously tried to increase the appropriation to cover the full cost of both unionized and non-unionized employees.); and
— establish a six-month amnesty period for residents owing outstanding gross-receipts taxes. (During the amnesty period, all interest and penalties on the taxes are waived.)
The majority of the amendment, however, appropriates an additional $1.5 million from the General Fund in fiscal year 2007 for various school repairs, youth sporting events and other community programs.
At previous Senate hearings, members of the governor's financial team have discouraged senators from continuing to appropriate money on an impromptu basis, citing a projected FY 2007 budget shortfall of about $46.5 million.
The beginning of Thursday's session was less contentious, however, as senators voted unanimously to confirm Claudette J. Watson-Anderson as the territory's new Finance Commissioner.
Commending the commissioner-designee on her academic background and professional experience, senators said that Watson-Anderson was a "perfect fit" for the job, having furthered her accounting career in both the public and private sectors. Most recently, Watson-Anderson served as the Legislature's post auditor, responsible for keeping tabs on records and other information relative to the government's finances and accounts.
"This lady came into this institution with a great sense of accomplishing and changing things," Hill said. "She didn't come here as many of the other employees do, with a sense of political patronage … she came into the institution as a professional."
While voicing their support for Watson-Anderson, senators also took the opportunity to offer some suggestions, asking the nominee to maintain her "sense of integrity" while on the job.
"Ms. Watson, you came in here with outstanding credentials, and demonstrated, through your background, that you could really do the job,” White said. “Now professionalize the Department of Finance the way I know you can.”
After approving Watson-Anderson's nomination, senators also passed a resolution honoring the contributions of Edith Laurencia deJongh Woods and a bill regulating the sale of unhealthy snacks and drinks in local public schools. (See "Senate Committee Calls for School Snack Crackdown.")
While Hill attempted to special order another measure to the floor calling for the establishment of a National Guard Youth Challenge Program on St. Croix, many senators said the bill — which has languished in the Rules and Judiciary Committee for the past month — still needs to be streamlined. (See "Senate Minority Rallies to Support Proposed School for At-Risk Youth.")
Putting a halt to a few rounds of heated debate, Sen. Liston Davis said the Senate's Committee on Education, Youth and Culture would consider the bill Aug. 22.
Present during Thursday's session was Davis, along with Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Nelson, Ottley, Usie R. Richards, James Weber III, Carmen M. Wesselhoft, White and Alvin L. Williams.
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