Senate Rules Committee Waves Through Budget Bills

Sen. Novelle Francis, chairman of the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee, at Thursday’s hearing (V.I. Legislature photo)

The Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee breezed through the approval of 28 budget bills Thursday, bringing those bills one step shy of final approval by the full Senate body.

The Rules and Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Novelle Francis, was the final step for the budget bills before they are reviewed by the Senate in their next session. On Thursday, the committee opted to waive much of the debate time, and all present committee members voted to move the bills forward.

The 28 budget bills were a mixture of appropriations to executive agencies and semi-autonomous agencies, as well as re-appropriations from various funds to individual agencies or to the V.I. Government’s General Fund. With the Senate Finance Committee having done much of the heavy-lifting in the budget review process that began in May, Thursday’s hearing saw all the bills on the agenda approved and removed the need for lawmakers to meet again on Friday.

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The V.I. Government’s total Fiscal Year 2019 budget stood at $1.28 billion when Gov. Kenneth Mapp submitted it in May. That amount included more than $851 million in local funds and more than $238 million in federal funds. This reflected a $6.5 million increase over last year’s budget, which totaled $1.22 billion: $1.03 billion in local funds and $196.5 million in federal funds.

The Rules Committee did not discuss recently enacted government pay raises Thursday. According to Sen. Marvin Blyden, member of the Senate Finance Committee, the salary increases that have taken effect are already reflected in the personnel and fringe sections of the budgets of impacted agencies, notably the Department of Education and the Virgin Islands Police Department. Only the pay raises that are still on the negotiating table with various unions, such as pay hikes for seasoned teachers or police officers affected by large increases in entry-level salaries, are not included in the marked-up budget, according to Blyden.

Lawmakers received criticism for doing a line-by-line markup of the budget away from public view on Monday. At Thursday’s hearing, Francis addressed the need for transparency, but said it is most important at the tail end of budget management: how agencies spend the money.

“The expenditures of the funding should be placed on a website and made available to the public,” said Francis. “I implore the community to be patient as we build a mechanism that we all can appreciate. We will continue to build transparency and accountability.”

While lawmakers were generally in favor of all the budget measures, they took the opportunity to air concerns about specific agencies. Sen. Myron Jackson’s concern over the appropriation of  monies from the Anti-Litter and Beautification Fund to the V.I. Waste Management Authority was echoed by his colleagues.

“This a sore area for many of us,” said Jackson, citing inadequate garbage bins and trash on the roadways that contribute to the decrease in the value of properties in certain neighborhoods.

“Especially with my district, St. Thomas and St. John,” Jackson added. “When I travel to St. Croix, I don’t see the kind of litter and over-spill on a daily basis than I see on St. Thomas. The St. Thomas dynamic is a little different.”

Sen. Janelle Sarauw agreed, saying she has “issues with WMA because there are waste feces and garbage throughout Garden Street.”

Sen. Sammuel Sanes also raised concerns about the recent decision of the Juan F. Luis Hospital Board not to renew the contracts for JFL Chief Executive Officer Wanda Ruben and Chief Financial Officer Deepak Bansal, and what it means for the stability of hospital management.

Among the bills approved on Wednesday was a $19 million lump sum for the Government Employees Retirement System to help pay off the government’s outstanding debt in employer contributions. The V.I. Board of Education scholarship programs will also receive an additional $200,000, while the V.I. History Textbook Project, which funds books written by Virgin Islands historians, received an additional $300,000 in awards.

Present at the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Building on St. Thomas and voting to advance the budget bills were Francis, Sarauw, Jackson, Sanes, and Sen. Jean Forde. Sen. Janette Millin Young was absent. Sen. Positive T.A. Nelson was excused, having sent correspondence that he was preparing for the coming inclement weather.

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