Jan. 14, 2003 – Although Gov. Charles W. Turnbull presented a positive take on the territory's finances in his State of the Territory address Monday night, senators and others who listened to him in the Senate chambers had questions afterward not only about the money, but about several areas he did not address in the almost hour-and-a-half long speech, and at least one other area that he did.
The governor said a Fiscal Year 2002 financial audit issued last week shows the government ended the year with a General Fund surplus of some $35 million. Some senators said it would take more than words to convince them, given that the governor's Finance commissioner had announced in December that the territory was in "fiscal crisis."
In his address, Turnbull also said that "it is important to understand that a cash-flow problem is not the same as a full-blown fiscal crisis."
Sen. Lorraine Berry said: "He painted a rosy picture. I will be happy if the $35 million is true. If one month ago we were in financial crisis, I'm happy to hear that's not true. We need credibility — we need to grind all those figures together. The public has to believe that two weeks ago we had a crisis, and now we have a surplus."
Several Senate colleagues echoed her skepticism. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, incoming Finance Committee chair, said: "It's welcome news to hear the administration claim that there's a surplus, but how do you define a surplus when you consider that there's a $1 billion debt?"
Donastorg and others wondered at the lack of mention of any revenue-generating programs in Turnbull's address. "You cannot continue to spend money without creating new revenue-producing programs. I didn't hear him outline any new programs," Donastorg said.
Freshman Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone agreed. He said he had hoped to hear mention of government programs to build small businesses, a plan Malone has been working on since his days on the St. Thomas staff of Delegate Donna Christensen. "I'm pleased with the speech and his plans for the immediate future," Malone said, "but what about long-term goals?"
He said small businesses are the "backbone of the economy," and while larger firms granted Economic Development Commission benefits pay minimum taxes, "small businesses run by locals are a sustainable source of revenue."
However, in another area, Malone was ecstatic. "I am so happy I can't even describe it to hear him mention convening a constitutional convention," he said. The topic is one that seems to come up again and again before the Legislature, only to fade away. The territory had four such conventions in the 1970s and '80s, none of which produced agreement on a constitution.
Malone elbowed his way over to his former boss to hear her remarks. Christensen said Turnbull's address was "well done, but the devil is in the details." She said she heard no mention of two issues which concern her: a land and water use plan and crime prevention initiatives.
Freshman Sen. Louis Hill, who will chair the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, also noted the governor's failure to call for a land and water use plan. "I was disappointed not to hear him mention it," he said. "We need to create the right environment for growth."
Turnbull said in his speech that a new constitution could give the territory, among many other things, an appellate court system with a Virgin Islands Supreme Court so that cases would not need to go to the federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. And, he said, it could also bring about election reform.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II criticized the governor's timing in announcing the $35 million surplus. "The public should have known about this a long time ago, and a lot of the angst these raises brought about could have been avoided," he said, referring to the controversial pay hikes the 24th Legislature approved for top elected officials that prompted public protests and, on Friday, Turnbull's veto of the measure.
"I wish, too, that St. Croix could get money for capital projects with the same speed that St. Thomas does," Hansen said.
With the exception of Berry, the senators who voted for the raises weren't commenting on the issue. Most simply dismissed it as the "governor's call." Berry, in tears, publicly regretted her vote for the increases at the 25th Legislature's opening session earlier Monday.
Laverne Ragster, president of the University of the Virgin Islands, was interested first and foremost in what the governor had to say about education. "He covered all the bases, and it was well written," she said of his speech, "but I was especially happy to hear him include UVI in his remarks about the territory's education. We are part of it."
Turnbull had said he wanted to increase collaborative efforts with UVI to "ensure training and availability of highly qualified teachers."
Party unity lacking over video lottery
The governor is a Democrat and the 25th Legislature has a 10-member Democratic majority. But there clearly will be times when all is not sweetness and light — beginning with the video lottery issue that is looming like a dark cloud right now.
Turnbull said in his address that he will be sending the Senate legislation to repeal the enactment by the 24th Legislature, via a veto override, of a bill allowing video lottery terminals on St. Thomas and St. John. Sens. Berry, Donastorg, Hansen and David Jones — who is now the Senate president — all voted to override the governor's third veto of VLT enabling legislation in the lame duck session, and none of them has publicly indicated a change of mind.
Their views, in addition to conflicting with those of the governor, run contrary to that of the Democratic Party Territorial Committee, which over the weekend adopted a resolution calling for repeal of the VLT legislation. See "Democratic Party comes out against VLT's".
Jones took issue with the governor's views Monday night. "I have vowed to work closely with the governor, but I am against legislation repealing the VLT's," he said. Jones has supported the lottery machines since the issue first came up.
Jeffrey Moorhead, an attorney for the $540 million Seven Hills Beach Resort and Casino planned for Robin Bay on St. Croix, has said the developers will abandon their plans if video lotteries are legalized in the territory. Asked about that, Jones said he would have to see a feasibility study.
"The governor's argument is flawed," Jones said. "We need the revenue, and the VLT's would bring in $15 million a year from tourist-related areas."
Berry, also a Democrat, said she had not heard a legitimate reason to repeal the video lottery legislation.
Donastorg questioned Turnbull's approving of computerized Caribbean Lottery operations in the territory while disapproving of VLT's and said he would have to study the matter further.
Meanwhile, a release from the Legislature on Tuesday afternoon quoted Jones at length as saying under his leadership the Senate "will work collaboratively with the administration" to address problems facing the territory, particularly in the areas of education, public safety, health and environmental protection. "The 25th Legislature will work with the Turnbull administration in a spirit of trust" to address critical issues, it stated.
In the release, Jones agreed with Turnbull that education is the No. 1 priority, expressed commitment to improving the V.I. hospitals and health-care system and the territory's economy, particularly that of St. Croix, and expressed support of the governor's call for a new constitutional convention. He also pledged that when admin
istration officials come before bodies of the 25th Legislature, they will be treated "with dignity and respect."
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