Citing the need to pass a fiscal year 2010 budget that forces department and agency heads to better manage their money, senators approved a spending plan Tuesday expected to shave about $12.2 million off the revised General Fund budget recently submitted by the governor.
The final tally isn’t definite, however. A FY 2010 budget appropriation for the Legislature wasn’t included in the stack of bills approved Tuesday by the Appropriations and Budget Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, said that number should be revealed Thursday, when the Rules Committee is scheduled to consider the bills before they move on to the full Senate.
The governor’s original budget proposal included $62.9 million to be split between the legislative and judicial branches. Another budget bill passed by senators Tuesday sets the budget of the judicial branch at about $43.6 million, including nearly $3.9 million for the Office of the Public Defender, $300,000 for the V.I. Judicial Council, $32.5 million for the V.I. Superior Court and $6.9 million for the V.I. Superior Court.
Members of the Legislature’s Post Audit staff said the Senate’s total proposed FY 2010 budget is expected to fall somewhere in the neighborhood of $847.9 million, to include appropriations for the Legislature, courts, University of the Virgin Islands and WTJX Channel 12, along with the central government departments and agencies.
The FY 2010 budget handed down by Gov. John deJongh Jr. at the end of June totaled $854.4 million, and was recently revised to $860.1 million, but senators said Tuesday they didn’t think that amount could be supported by the current revenue projections. Instead, they said the plan was to cut department and agency budgets across the board and send to Government House a more "frugal" budget that could be revised once revenues start to take a turn upward.
It took all day Tuesday for the Senate’s budget proposal — an amendment in the nature of a substitute to the governor’s original budget bill — to come down, but when it finally did around 8:30 p.m., it only took a few minutes to pass, with senators hailing it as "conservative" and "responsible."
"What we’re going to do here is we’re going to try our best to maintain where we are," said Senate Majority Leader Neville James. "Hopefully the economy will turn around."
Some departments, such as Planning and Natural Resources and the V.I. Elections System, were spared a big blow, while others, such as the V.I. Waste Management Authority and University of the Virgin Islands, have seen their budgets drop by hundreds of thousands or more.
In several cases, however, senators kept the governor’s FY 2010 recommendations, leaving the budgets of the Office of the Governor, Office of Management and Budget, the Personnel Division, the V.I. Territorial Management Agency, V.I. Fire Services, Bureau of Information Technology, Office of the Adjutant General, Office of Veterans Affairs, the Inspector General’s Office, the Motor Vehicle Bureau, the Finance Department, Human Services, Tourism and Housing, Parks and Recreation intact.
Budget recommendations made for governing boards of the territory’s two hospitals were also unchanged, with senators saying that they had earmarked $80,000 for each facility to conduct advertising and marketing campaigns for the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute on St. Thomas and the new Cardiac Center on St. Croix.
Senators also earmarked funds to allow the V.I. Board of Education to relocate their St. Thomas office to Crown Bay, which is more handicap accessible, and for the Bureau of Corrections to cover career incentive payments to officers.
Other than that, however, the entire budget is lump-sum, with department and agency heads being given free rein on how they spend their cash. The plea for a lump-sum budget has been made for years, with government officials saying that it would give them more wiggle room to pay for goods and services without having to come back to the Senate for a reprogramming or appropriation transfer.
Senators have generally held off, preferring to clearly delineate each agency’s expense categories and how much can be spent within them.
Not this time, however. Senators said Tuesday that the current economic climate has changed the rules of the game. But they made it clear that the money isn’t to be spent carte blanche — commissioners and directors have to really start tightening their belts.
"Now we’re going to see who can really manage," Dowe said during the hearing.
Voting in favor of amendment in the nature of a substitute were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Dowe, Louis P. Hill, Wayne James, Sammuel Sanes and Patrick Simeon Sprauve.
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson — the lone representative of the Senate’s minority caucus — abstained, saying he needed more time to look over the proposal, which was given to him a few minutes before the vote.
Nelson lauded the majority members for coming forth with a pared-down budget while reminding them that the Senate also has to be aware of where they money is going.
"We can’t be funding all the pet projects and jumping up every session with more money and still expect for the budget to stay balanced," he cautioned. "Everybody has to tighten up. If we’re talking about being fiscally strapped, we also have to consider how we appropriate this money and how we can be as efficient as we can be."
The majority of the other budget bills passed by senators Tuesday and sent on to Rules make appropriations to departments and agencies or contributions to the General Fund from other government funds.
Present during Tuesday’s meeting were Sens. Barshinger, Dowe, Hill, Neville James, Wayne James, Nelson, Sanes and Sprauve and Michael Thurland.
The Legislature’s proposed FY 2010 General Fund budget appropriations for the various departments and agencies are:
- University of the Virgin Islands – $32.3 million (down from the recommended $34.5 million)
- WTJX Channel 12 – nearly $4.8 million
- Justice Department- $14.5 million (down from the governor’s FY 2010 budget recommendation of $15.3 million)
- Bureau of Corrections – $27.5 million (down from $29.2 million)
- Office of the Governor – a little more than $10 million
- Office of Management and Budget – $2.6 million
- Personnel Division – $4.1 million
- VITEMA – nearly $5.4 million
- Fire Services – $20.3 million
- Bureau of Information Technology – $2.9 million
- Office of the Adjutant General – $1.4 million
- Office of Veterans Affairs – $455,729
- Office of the Lieutenant Governor – $8.3 million (down from a recommended $8.5 million)
- V.I. Election System – $1.3 million
- St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections – $102,126 (down from $102,698)
- St. Croix Board of Elections – $110,090 (down from a recommended $110,836)
- Board of Education – $2.5 million (down from a recommended $2.6 million)
- Internal Revenue Bureau – $13.7 million (up from a recommended $11.2 million)
- V.I. Inspector General’s Office – $1.7 million
- Motor Vehicle Bureau – $2.4 million
- Labor Department – $6.2 million (down from the nearly $6.3 million recommendation)
- Licensing and Consumer Affairs – $3.5 million (down from a recommended $3.6 million)
- Finance Department – nearly $7.1 million
- Education Department – $197 million (down from a recommended $197.6 million)
- V.I. Police Department – $65.7 million
- Property and Procurement – $5.9 million (down from a recommended $6.2 million)
- Public Works – $28.1 million (down from a recommended $28.7 million)
- V.I. Waste Management Authority – $29.8 million (down from a recommended $30.4 million)
- Health Department – $34.7 million (down from a recommended $35.1 million)
- Schneider Regional Medical Center – nearly $29.9 million
- Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital – $25.8 million
- Human Services – $56.5 million
- Planning and Natural Resources – $8.6 million
- Agriculture Department – $3.4 million (up from the recommended $3.3 million)
- Housing, Parks and Recreation – nearly $8.3 million
- Tourism Department – $3.7 million
- Miscellaneous section – $113.1 million (down from the recommended $114.4 million).
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story posted on the Source cited an incorrect figure for the amount the budget was reduced. A revised General Fund budget was sent down by the governor late last month. The figures in the story are now correct.