Minority senators upset by size of funding allotments
Published: January 17, 2013
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ST. CROIX - Some tensions started to surface Wednesday at an activity that was part of the events surrounding the 30th Legislature taking office.
During a ceremony at the Legislature building in Frederiksted on Wednesday afternoon, returning senators who are not members of the majority alluded to - or spoke directly about - the small size of their annual allotment and what they may be forced to do.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly said that she may be forced to cut staff hours - or possibly terminate someone.
"I really had a hard time sleeping last night, thinking about who I will send home," she said.
Rivera-O'Reilly also contended that the issue will affect St. Croix disproportionately, because only three of the island's seven senators are in the Democrat majority. She urged members of the majority to reconsider the allotment amount given to St. Croix senators.
The end to HOVENSA's refining operations last year - and the loss of jobs it entailed - has sent the island's economy spinning.
"Unfortunately for St. Croix, the majority of the majority lives on St. Thomas," Rivera-O'Reilly said.
The Senate president and the majority leader, though, say they are simply following the law.
Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone said that all senators are working with less money this year because of a $2 million cut to the Senate budget.
An allotment is the money that a senator receives to staff and run his or her office.
While the base allotment amount that every senator receives is set by law as a percentage of the Legislature's overall budget, majority senators traditionally head committees, which allows them additional funds to hire staff and perform the functions of a committee chairperson.
Sen. Alicia Hansen, a minority senator, spoke on Wednesday of an allotment of only $166,000 to staff her office, and said "old-time politics is back."
Sen. Terrence Nelson, the other returning St. Croix senator who is not part of the majority, said he understood the frustrations - and "would have preferred the majority to be more responsible."
Senate majority leader Donald Cole, though, responded by spending his time at the podium reading from the 2005 law that sets base allotments for each senator at 2 percent of the total Senate budget - and contending that the majority simply followed the law.
For Fiscal Year 2013, the Senate cut its budget by $2 million to $17.8 million, significantly lowering the base allotment that every senator receives.
The law allows the Senate president to receive as much as an additional 1 percent and committee chairpersons as much as an extra 0.5 percent. Each member of the majority heads a committee.
The law also allows the senator at-large to receive additional funding to staff offices on all islands. Senator At-large Craig Barshinger's total senatorial allotment is $445,000, plus an additional $80,000 for being a committee chairman.
"Being in the majority does allow you to get more, but you've got more to do," Malone said.
Before the law was passed, the majority simply decided what the allotments would be.
On Wednesday, freshman senator Judi Buckley, also from St. Croix, said she has enough to hire staff. As this is her first term, she had no existing staff.
Rivera-O'Reilly also said Wednesday that items that had been part of the Legislature's central budget in the past - such as the cost of fringe benefits for senators - are now being charged to the senator's allotment instead, lowering the funding available for other things. The fringe benefits are $30,600 per senator.
"They've changed the entire formula around," she said.
The base allotment this year is $356,000, from which $75,000 of the senator's $85,000 salary is paid. The remaining $10,000 is charged to the central budget. The rest of the base allotment breakdown is: $30,600 for the senator's fringe benefits, $166,000 for staff salaries, $59,760 for staff fringe benefits and $24,640 for office operations.
Rivera-O'Reilly also raised the issue of the Legislature's central staff - and the jobs that the majority caucus typically gets to fill.
Malone, though, said that this majority intends to do things differently.
The practice in the past has been "mass layoffs" of central staff members who don't have four years on the job when a new Legislature comes in, Malone said. Each of the incoming majority senators then typically would get to fill a certain number of jobs.
That will not be happening this year, he said.
The majority intends to fill existing job openings that occurred because of retirements and resignations, Malone said. It also intends to evaluate all of the other central staff positions before making decisions on them.
Although the majority will do the hiring and choose who will go into what position, Malone said it would do so based primarily on qualifications.
"It's not going to be done the way it was in the past," he said. "We're being fair to people. We're trying to give them an opportunity to work."
Malone, who said that he also has been in the minority, said the Senate has to manage its money very carefully this year and that senators who manage their allotments very carefully will see the savings returned to them.
"We don't have any ax to grind," Malone said. The institution also doesn't have time for infighting because of the critical issues facing the territory, he said.
"We have to work as a team to get these issues addressed," he said.
Malone also said he does not wish to marginalize anyone.
"We would love to give them all more money," he said. "We just don't have it."
- Contact reporter Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.