April 12, 2004 Sen. Lorraine Berry reacted vigorously Monday to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's veto of her legislation creating a territorial tourism board.
Turnbull announced Saturday in a five-page letter to Senate President David Jones that he had vetoed the tourism legislation and another bill granting peace-officer status to investigators in the Office of the Inspector General. (See "Governor vetoes two prominent bills".)
"I am extremely displeased," Berry said on her Monday morning WVWI-Radio One political broadcast. "Even though it is meant to be a collective effort between the private and public sectors, the board is being mischaracterized as some sneaky attempt to allow private-sector dominance in tourism, after we compromised with the administration to have the majority of members from the public sector."
In Saturday's letter, Turnbull said in part, "… if any proposed bill renders the Department of Tourism virtually powerless, I will not approve it. I am dismayed to see that the … board will receive more money and have access to and control over more funds than the Tourism Department has."
"I am alarmed by the governor's thinking," Berry said. "Implicit in the governor's veto is an opposition to institutional change or adaptation. Where is the powerlessness in the bill?"
Turnbull, in his Saturday announcement, was likely smarting that there was no pubic outcry over Berry's legislation, which calls for a 2-percent increase in the hotel occupancy tax, when his own earlier proposal had met with much vocal opposition.
Berry explained, "Today, there would be no need for any 'outcry' by the private sector, if it has a meaningful voice in the decision-making process of public policy."
She stressed the tax would be used to fund a semiautonomous institution that would work in partnership with the private and public sectors.
Also, Berry said, "The governor failed to include that the outcry did not fall out of the sky."
She then added that the tax was included in an economic package the governor submitted last July, which included numerous taxes, surcharges and fees to balance the fiscal year 2004 budget.
Berry said, "In St. Thomas, where hotel occupancy rates were averaging a decent 65 percent, hoteliers indicated that new tax would be problematic."
Berry continued: "In St. Croix, where the occupancy barely exceeds 40 percent, the 2 percent would be devastating. In fact, the St. Croix hotel association led the charge in opposing the tax, and rightly so, if it would be used to bridge a budgetary problem. As you know, bonds were later floated to mask the issue, instead of solving it."
Berry then enumerated the five tourism commissioners appointed since the Schneider-Mapp administration created the Tourism Department, from Wiley Whisonant to the present Pamela Richards.
"There is no stability in our number-one industry," she said.
Berry also criticized the manner in which some politicians have treated the tourism revolving fund as a "Christmas tree revolving fund."
Berry said that by ignoring the honest input of the private sector, "Some elected officials made gross errors."
In Berry's legislation there would be no revolving fund, but instead a tourism trust fund, which could not be dipped into by the Legislature.
"I have seen a wanton disregard for consistent and unconditional support of the marketing of the V.I. by a vocal minority of senators, and even within Government House," Berry said.
"Frankly, we cannot have it both ways," Berry said. "Either we are unconditionally seeking to expand our market share and are willing to partner with the private sector, or not …. If we say today the present Department of Tourism is acceptable, we are telling the private sector that we are not partners, but rivals."
Berry continued: "The present system allows the full weight of decision making to fall on a Commissioner of Tourism, and it precludes a much wider base of creative thought and private-interest articulation. Ironically, just about every stakeholder supports the tourism board, except the governor, the commissioner of tourism and the governor's apologists."
Berry said, "If you review the five-year plan and the territory's joint agreement with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Ship Association, they both call for a tourism board."
In August 1999, Turnbull appointed a 25-member Economic Recovery Task Force. Recommendations made in the task force's five-year plan have rarely been implemented. (See "1999 financial recovery plan largely ignored".)
Berry concluded, "I ask: If not a Tourism Board, then what? If not now, when? If it is the status quo, we are doomed."
Later Monday morning Berry said she was not surprised at the governor's action. "No matter what we did, he came with another excuse. There will never be something he can agree to. The Legislature has to set the policy, because the governor will never agree to a private partnership."
She referred to a letter she wrote the governor last month, offering compromises on issues to which Turnbull might object. "You shall note in the spirit of compromise and in response to issues you raised, the bill has been substantially amended," she wrote.
Berry suggested that should Turnbull approve the measure with reservations, he submit amendments such as he did recently when he approved the Waste Management Authority.
"These shall have prompt attention and consideration," she said. "You have my word on this."
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