Senate lays groundwork to pass budget but delays bulk of work to Monday
Published: September 28, 2013
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ST. CROIX - The 30th Legislature on Friday started moving bills that lay the groundwork for the territory's Fiscal Year 2014 budget - but postponed until Monday consideration of the legislation that appropriates funds to most government agencies and departments.
A number of the budget bills that were approved Friday moved money among different government funds so that it can be used to make the appropriations that comprise the budget.
Some of the bills contained the budget for a few government entities, including the University of the Virgin Islands, the Waste Management Authority, the Public Services Commission and the Public Employees Relations Board.
UVI will receive a $28,869,749 appropriation for its operating expenses and various programs for FY 2014. Another bill provides a $22.6 million appropriation from the General Fund for Waste Management for operating expenses. Waste Management receives money from different funds for its budget.
Senators on Friday expressed frustration with the FY 2014 budget situation, with some pointing out that the bills they were asked to act on had not been vetted in committee - or noting that they have no idea what the balance is in some of the funds involved in the transfers.
"We are not given the truth about our finances. We're not. It's always a fight for information," Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone said of the Legislature's relationship with the executive branch.
The budget bills stalled last week in the Senate Finance Committee on news that the territory would have less money in its coffers than anticipated at the start of FY 2014, the result of the territory receiving a lower advance from the U.S. Department of Interior on rum cover-overs than it had requested.
Senators held the bills in committee at that point. The lower advance was the last in a series of projected shortfalls and financial issues that senators said they had to deal with to bring the FY 2014 budget together.
They have not yet released the specifics of how they plan to make up those budget gaps and balance the budget - although there was talk of a bill that contains some measures aimed at generating revenue.
The legislative session has been extended to a third day, and senators will consider that bill, along with most of the bills laying out appropriations - to the executive branch agencies, to the Legislature and to the judicial branch - on Monday.
The budget bills that were considered Friday - more than 20 of them - were special ordered to the floor.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly said that senators needed more than five minutes to debate that many bills.
She said that no matter how much money is involved in transfers and appropriations, it is taxpayer money and she feels each bill needs to be thoroughly vetted and debated.
Sen. Alicia Hansen agreed that the bills had not been properly vetted and opted not to vote on many of the measures. Rivera-O'Reilly and Sen. Judi Buckley - who spoke about being in the minority and excluded from the budget process - voted no on most of the budget bills that were considered Friday.
Sen. Clifford Graham outlined the challenges that senators faced to balance the budget, including its late arrival from Government House.
He said the budget senators received wasn't balanced - there was an estimated $28.4 million shortfall - and senators were told that they had to find $14.2 million in revenue and $14.2 million in cuts to balance it.
"The governor's responsibility is to submit a balanced budget," Graham said.
When the Finance Committee was doing the budget wrap-up after a summer of budget hearings, the governor's financial team submitted $11.6 million in supplemental requests, Graham said, adding that Waste Management also needs another $18 million to deal with consent decrees.
Then, when the news came about the cover-over advance being less than the governor requested, Graham said senators opted to hold the bills in Finance Committee.
He told senators they need to move forward now with the bills to get a budget in place.
Senators passed 21 of the 22 budget-related bills that were before them on Friday, and they intend to deal with alternative funding for the one that did not pass - a bill that would have made appropriations to the Public Works Department and V.I. Waste Management Authority from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund - on Monday.
- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@ dailynews.vi.