DeJongh's address ignored key issues senators say

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ST. THOMAS - Senators were unimpressed by what they described as a lackluster State of the Territory Address on Monday evening by Gov. John deJongh Jr.

"Overall, it was really nothing new," Sen. Sammuel Sanes said.

Almost all of the senators said that they wanted something more from the address - some of them asking for more talk of health care, others asking for more talk of crime, and others interested in hearing more about energy.

The address, heavy with review of deJongh's eight years as governor, lacked any element of surprise, senators said.

"I'm glad it was his last one," Sen. Terrence Nelson said, noting that he never has been in sync with the governor's policies or train of thought.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens called the address a "recap," wishing to have heard more about the consent decree with the V.I. Bureau of Corrections.

"He spoke of a settlement with the ACLU which I'm not aware of," Gittens, the president of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety, said about deJongh's comments regarding a federal consent decree with the V.I. Corrections Bureau.

Other senators were more receptive of some of deJongh's points of discussion.

"This is a time when leaders need to work together," said Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone, who said the relationship between the executive and legislative branches has been strained during deJongh's tenure.

The Senate has made an effort to collaborate with the deJongh administration, he said, though the effort was not always reciprocated.

"We didn't get the same cooperation in return," he said.

Still, the elephant in the room was the territory's $70 million deficit, about half of which is the result of the Interior Department's delay in giving the territory the rum cover-over funds.

The rum subsidy was mentioned repeatedly, as many of the senators and Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen are optimistic the money will come through.

Senators theorized on what solutions best could relieve the remainder of the deficit.

"A lot of the small things combined - they could be big," Sen. Judi Buckley said. There are enough unnecessary budget items that could be done away with in the government's long list of expenditures, including some of the Legislature's spending, she said.

Sen. Clifford Graham, president of the Senate Finance Committee, said he also feels that little cuts could amount to a substantial reduction, such as the government's use of vehicles and cellphones.

"There's a lot of items the governor can do to get dollars into the coffers rather than bleed the same people over and over again," Graham said.

He mentioned that senators also are working on legislation to increase vehicle registration fees and make changes in the regulation of the marine industry, both of which could bring in more revenue.

Graham also said Internet gambling, which the governor did not mention, and the need for the governor to implement it sooner rather than later, which was a point echoed by other senators.

However, several senators applauded the governor's proclamation that the government plans to more aggressively pursue tax evaders, particularly those who are bypassing the Gross Receipts Tax by using foreign or out-of-state banks.

"Millions of dollars leave us every day," said Sen. Alicia Hansen. "That in itself would wipe out our deficit, and we would have a surplus."

Sen. Donald Cole also expressed his support of more aggressively pursuing tax evaders, even suggesting creating new positions at the V.I. Bureau of Internal Revenue for that purpose.

"We need to know, though, how much is collectable," Cole said.

Sen. Craig Barshinger said deJongh has rejected almost all of the Senate's proposals and has not moved on items such as Internet gambling and collecting hotel taxes on private villas and rental units.

"So many ideas we've given him, he's rejected," Barshinger said.

Nelson also spoke of government restructuring, noting that he already submitted a proposal to do exactly that. The plan suggests that the territorial government seek a bail-out loan from the federal government.

The territory might be able to bail itself out in time, but it would take a long time, Nelson said. The territory would be better off if they sought help from the federal government now, and used that money to infuse itself with the infrastructure repair that it needs, he said.

"We are at a critical mass right now," Nelson said.

Nelson also was disappointed that deJongh did not address the $490,000 that he said he would repay to the government after a federal report found that he misspent government funds to build a security fence for his home in Estate Mafolie.

Sanes said he was happy to hear about the planned development of Paul E. Joseph Stadium on St. Croix, but the governor failed to mention a $3 million earmark in the last bond issue to build a permanent stage at the new Paul E. Joseph stadium for music festivals and events.

"That would be a revenue generator for the island," he said.

Many of the senators said that they opposed another 8 percent cut to government employees' salaries.

"I think there are other avenues we can look at before we start entertaining the idea of another 8 percent cut or the income tax surcharge," Sen. Diane Capehart said.

Sen. Myron Jackson said he looks forward to meeting with the governor to address the budget gap.

"We have to get to the table, roll up our sleeves and get to work," he said. "It requires pain, it will require sacrifice, but it's not unattainable."

Sen. Tregenza Roach objected to the governor's statements about the Government Employees' Retirement System and the pressure he put on the Senate to pass the task force recommendations submitted in May.

It's the Legislature's job to question the recommendations and make sure they are fair for everyone, and there is also a legal concern about changing retirees' benefits after retirement, he said.

About deJongh's idea to sit down and work on the budget deficit, Roach said the Senate has always demonstrated its willingness to work with the administration.

"But we still have to be concerned with being an independent branch of the government," Roach said.

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