Dec. 29, 2002 – Sen. Lorraine Berry, vice president of the incoming 25th Legislature and, going into her 11th term, the longest-serving member of the Senate, said on Sunday she would serve at $65,000, $75,000 or the newly enacted Senate salary, proposed by the governor, of $85,000, and she has no apologies.
Now, the senators will have to prove their mettle, Berry said. "It will give us an opportunity to prove our productivity," she said. "I am a committed public servant."
She added, echoing the words of Sen. Roosevelt David on his Saturday radio broadcast on WVWI: "Nobody supports raises for elected officials. Twelve years ago everyone was against it when our salaries were raised to $65,000."
That was the last time the senators got a raise, when Gov. Alexander A. Farrelly handed out the increases.
Berry added: "As you may well surmise, my phone has been ringing more than usual with people's puzzlement over my vote. When Roy Schneider was governor, he said it was 'outrageous, a rank injustice' that department heads made more than the governor. What the governor proposes, I will go along with, because I am a team player; I am part of the Democratic team."
David and Berry, both members of the Senate's new Democratic Party majority, defended their vote last Monday to increase senators' pay to $85,000, a raise of more than 30 percent over the current $65,000. The increase was in legislation sent to the Senate by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull that also raises the governor's salary to $135,000, from $80,000 and the lieutenant governor's, to $115,000 from $75,000.
A groundswell of public disdain for the raises gathered strength throughout the week, with Berry taking a lot of criticism because of her record of fiscal responsibility. People are expressing outrage especially in light of statements by administration financial officials that the territory is facing a "fiscal crisis."
According to the Saturday Avis, a protest against the raises is planned for Monday on St. Croix. Terrence Nelson, leader of Our Virgin Islands Labor Union, has called a meeting of labor, church and other community leaders at 10:30 a.m. in the union headquarters at Watapana Mall to plan a protest.
In conversations while standing in line at the supermarket or post office, and on various talk shows, the raises are an unrelenting topic. Not many people seem to support the move. On David's show on Saturday, two callers said the pay hikes were justified; three others, including David Cover of St. Croix and talk show regular Wayne "Facts Man" Adams of St. Thomas, were vehemently opposed.
According to Cover, "The dichotomy in the V.I. today is the prevalence of poverty among so many, and the absence of hunger in the mentality of the people who run these islands." With a downturn in the local and global economies, he said, this is the wrong time for such raises. "These are uncertain times," he warned.
Adams said, "The pay raises are not fair when the economy is stagnant."
David disagreed, citing several proposed development projects including the Enighed Pond commercial port on St. John. He touted $600 million he said has been circulated in the local economy from Hovensa since 1999. "In the next year, $650 million will be invested," he said. David also cited the proposed convention center for St. Croix as a revenue source. Cover countered: "These are projections; they are not here yet."
Another caller said Senator-elect Shawn-Michael Malone had the "right idea." Malone, according to a published report, has said he will seek a repeal of the raises when the 15th Legislature takes office. Malone said the time is not right for the raises, with the economy suffering.
David said he was surprised none of Turnbull's commissioners had come to the governor's defense after the generous raises he had granted them, and for which they had clamored.
Both David and Berry said the salaries of other jurisdictions is not a fair comparison. VI. Lawmakers, if Turnbull signs the legislation, will be the third-highest paid under the American flag, after California and the District of Columbia. (See "Senate gives itself $20K, governor $55K pay hikes".)
The territory is "unique," Berry said in her justification. "Every other jurisdiction has other levels of government," she said. "Even Puerto Rico and Guam have mayors. Here, we do everything ourselves. The commissioners go home at 5 p.m., but we are on call every day."
Berry said she is going to form a Select Committee for Legislative Reform. "We are a unique society," she said. "We are a metropolitan area with rural demands. We don't have a city council, a mayor or an ombudsman … People come to us every day for everything, including contributions to everything. In the future, this system will have to change."
Berry called the vote to approve the raises "a compromise." The minority senators had voted against an increase earlier this year proposed by majority leader Celestino A. White Sr. as an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2002 Omnibus Bill. White's proposal was to link senators' pay to the salary of the highest-paid commissioner. Turnbull vetoed the Omnibus Act provision, and the Legislature made no move to override the veto.
"We voted against White's amendment because it would have put our salaries at $97,000," Berry said on Sunday. David said the same thing on his radio show on Saturday. "The $85,000 was a compromise between the $65,000 and $97,000," Berry said.
She said the additional pay will come out of the Legislature's 2003 budget. "The raises don't change our budget, so we will have to cut back in other areas to accommodate it," she said.
"I am sure there are people making $97,000 in the executive branch, but I don't have those figures," Berry said. Neither do the news media or the public. The governor by executive order raised the cap on commissioners' salaries to $97,000, but Government House has never announced specific raises.
The 24th Legislature had held virtually no meetings since early October until an explosive full Senate session on Monday. Then, in addition to approving the raises, the lawmakers approved highly controversial video lottery operations in the St. Thomas-St. John district. (See "Senate overrides third video lottery veto".)
Berry said she saw no conflict in having video lottery terminals now, since the Caribbean Lottery terminals are all over the islands. St. Croix Sen. Emmett Hansen II expressed the same thought last Monday.
Berry said she will address the raises on her regular radio show at 7:30 a.m. Monday on WVWI. She said Sunday: "I have been up front on this issue. I have a clear conscience."
She also reiterated: "Never in my 20 y ears in the Legislature has there been any popular support for raises for elected officials. I cannot speak for the other senators, but I appreciate the concern the people have. I will work to be productive."
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