Jan. 19, 2004 – Sen. Lorraine Berry is trying a radically new tack to get support for her proposal to put the territory's financial operations under both greater scrutiny and stronger controls.
In a release issued on Friday evening, Berry said that she has reworked and retitled the legislation she introduced early last year to create a "financial control board," and that the bill now has been assigned to the Government Operations Committee.
Her proposal now is for a "financial review board" to be appointed by the governor. And, she stated twice in the one-page release, she sees it as putting her and Delegate Donna M. Christensen "on the same page." It calls for development by the governor and the board of a "five-year financial plan." It makes no reference to the Five Year Operating and Strategic Financial Plan submitted to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in April 2000 by the Economic Recovery Task Force he had appointed a year earlier — a plan which has largely gone ignored.
With one exception, the board Berry now envisions would be limited to fact finding and making recommendations "to all branches of the government concerning their fiscal affairs." The exception would be its power to "disapprove" the government's five-year financial plan, in which case the governor would have to submit a revised plan.
The board would begin its work in the current fiscal year, to remain in existence until Oct. 1, 2008, "unless otherwise extended or sooner repealed by the Legislature."
On Monday, speaking on St. Thomas at a meeting of the League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands, Christensen supplied details of her proposal introduced in Congress in November to create a five-year position of chief financial officer for the territory. (See "CFO wouldn't set priorities, delegate says".)
Berry attended that meeting but did not comment on the delegate's presentation. However, the senator did bring with her copies of her 17-page revised bill, which she described in her Friday release as "the only viable alternative for a complete fiscal breakdown." Further, she said in the release, "The congresswoman and I are in actuality on the same page. Our differences are on the strategy developed and the way the proposals have been marketed."
That perspective appears to be a significant departure from Berry's vote last Dec. 17, in the Legislature's last session of 2003, to approve a resolution condemning Christensen's introduction of the CFO legislation in Congress. (See "Delegate calls Senate criticism 'a waste of time'".)
Berry's revised bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Luther Renee and Ronald Russell, states as its premise that "the Legislature declares that the inability of the government to provide adequate, essential services to its citizens as a result of fiscal emergencies adversely impacts not only the health, safety and welfare or the citizens, but also the health, safety and welfare of visitors to the territory."
It calls for a board of seven members, all to "have had experience in finance or management," to be appointed by the governor subject to legislative approval. Board members could not seek or hold public office or political party office while serving on the board or run for office for a year after leaving it. There would be two ex-officio, non-voting members — the Finance commissioner and the director of the Office of Management and Budget — and a paid executive director. The bill is not clear as to whether the two ex-official members would be part of the seven, or if they would bring the board membership to nine.
"Through the implementation of stringent spending controls," the proposed board would "enable the government to avoid default on existing obligations and chronic cash shortages" and "foster sound financial planning and budgetary practices that will address the underlying problems that result in such deficits."
It would "charge the government" with responsibility for:
– Increased managerial accountability.
– Consolidation or elimination of inefficient government programs.
– Recertification of tax-exempt properties.
– Privatization of appropriate government services.
– Improvement of procurement practices, including competitive bidding procedures.
– Review of compensation and benefits of government employees.
The board's authority would be to "investigate, study and evaluate the financial affairs and transactions of every department, agency and instrumentality," with subpoena powers, and then to "make recommendations to all branches of the government concerning their budgetary and fiscal affairs," including bond issues.
The board would have the power to "review, approve and disapprove" the proposed five-year balanced-budget plan "and make recommendations to the Legislature concerning the plan," which would be extended year to year so that projections continued to be over a five-year period.
Approval would be indicated if the board determined that the plan projected balanced budgets for each year and that the operating and capital budgets were consistent with the plan. The board would submit the approved plan and any recommendations concerning same to the Legislature.
Should the board reject the five-year plan, the governor would have 15 days in which to submit "a revised plan that eliminates the budget imbalance."
While stating that contracts and collective bargaining agreements should comply with the plan, the bill also provides where such pacts are not in compliance, the government would have to submit to the board a revision demonstrating compliance or "that revenues sufficient to pay the costs of the contract or collective bargaining agreement will be available in the affected fiscal years of the plan."
In Friday's release, Berry said that despite disagreements with Christensen and "some members of the 25th Legislature and Gov. Charles Turnbull," she is "willing to make concessions and compromises" on her review board proposal. And she insisted that her plan and the delegate's go hand in hand: "The concept of a chief financial officer is dependent on the larger context of a financial review board. Both are tied together. If the delegate's comments are based on the Washington, D.C., model and her ideas are founded on its experience, we are actually on the same page."
While Berry did not comment at the League of Women Voters meeting where Christensen spoke on Monday, neither did the delegate make any reference there to the senator's release issued on Friday.
On Dec. 17, Sen. Emmett Hansen II special-ordered a resolution to the floor condemning the delegate's action and calling on Congress to reject the idea of a CFO for the territory. All of the 10 Senate Democrats endorsed the resolution directed against Christensen, a fellow Democrat, except for Russell, who abstained. Also voting against the measure were minority Sens. Usie Richards and Celestino A. White Sr.
After Russell objected to the word "condemn" in the resolution, arguing that "we should say we 'object to and strongly oppose' the action," Berry offered an amendment to substitute "object strongly" for "condemn," but the motion failed.
Berry also used that occasion to bring up her own then-existing plan, for which she had found virtually no support within the Democratic leadership. "If the governor vetoes any part of the budget, I hope you will consider a financial control board," she told her colleague then. "I will put it on the agenda."
On Dec. 23, the governor, who also vehemently opposes Christensen
's CFO proposal, vetoed the entire fiscal year 2004 budget.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name, and the city and state/country or island where you reside.
Publisher's note : Like the St. John Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.