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DeJongh Tightens Fiscal Belt With Line-Item Vetoes

Jan. 9, 2009 — Citing the need for the government to conserve revenues in the face of a “global economic slowdown,” Gov. John deJongh Jr. signed four bills into law Friday but line-itemed vetoed several sections that would pull more money from the General Fund.
One of the bills, passed by senators during last month’s final session, originally sought to pay off $15,000 owed by Public Works to ESA Management and Engineering Consultants. But amendments tacked on by senators during the December session also appropriated about $2.6 million from the General Fund in FY 2009 to pay for the Fifth Constitutional Convention's operating expenses, the settlement in a government court case from 1992, transportation and extracurricular activities for two St. Thomas high schools, the Economic Development Authority's Transportation program, and to send the USVI Marching Stars to the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. (See "Senators Approve Bills, Nominees as 27th Legislature Closes.")
The governor left intact sections appropriating another $150,000 to the Fifth Constitutional Convention for operating expenses, $200,000 to the Education Department for the USVI Marching Stars to travel and perform at the upcoming presidential inauguration and $350,000 to the V.I. Council on the Arts as a local match for a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, but he line-item vetoed other sections:
— calling for the Government Employees’ Retirement System to set up a retroactive wage commission tasked with compiling a list of all retirees owned annuity payments and appropriates $500,000 to cover the commission’s expenses (in a letter sent Friday to Senate President Usie R. Richards, the governor said the establishment of such a commission would usurp some of the retirement system’s powers, such as determining how and when any retroactive annuities “would be paid and to whom”);
— appropriating $323,700 to the Department of Human Services to buy equipment and fund new employee positions in both districts;
— appropriating $1.5 million to the Economic Development Authority to fund the EDA transportation program;
— appropriating $200,000 to the Education Department for the JROTC programs at both Charlotte Amalie and Ivanna Eudora Kean high schools; and
–appropriating $150,000 to the V.I. Apiculture Association Inc to help develop, promote, organize, research, and educate public high school students about the local beekeeping industry.
Several sections of the bill also attempted to make sweeping policy changes. DeJongh line-item vetoed those sections that:
–removes the requirement for residents appealing their property-tax bills to pay their previous year's tax bill plus 50 percent of the increase factored into their current property-tax bill ( there is a “misconception,” the governor said Friday, that real property tax owners are being penalized for filing appeals. But the law — which in fact calls for residents to post the prior year’s tax amount plus 50 percent of the difference between the prior year’s tax and the amount being appealed — is not “designed to operate as a penalty and should not be viewed as such,” deJongh wrote);
— make sure that no votes can be cast by government board and commission members during closed sessions;
— allow retired public librarians and archivists to come back into public service if they choose;
— grant veterans who moved off-island for health reasons access to local veterans' burial benefits;
— appropriate $800,000 from the Land Bank Fund (stamp-tax revenues) to the V.I. Housing Authority to purchase property for housing communities in Estates White Lady and White Bay on St. Croix.
DeJongh did sign into law other sections of the bill calling for the Department of Property and Procurement to ratify an agreement between the V.I. Board of Elections and Sunny Isles LLC for $52,500 worth of services already provided in preparation for this year's primary election, and granting the Thoroughbred Horse Owners Association access to money previously appropriated by the Legislature.
While applauding the intent of the bill, the governor also vetoed another measure calling for all surplus money in the Transportation Trust Fund to go directly to Public Works for road repairs – a move he said would have a “devastating impact on the operations of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the General Fund.”
“The registration fees and other items collected…which are a part of the Transportation Trust Fund, presently flow, by law, to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to fund its operations,” the governor wrote in his Friday letter to Richards. “In addition, a portion of any surplus funds in this fund are transferred to the General Fund. Interference with these revenue streams, particularly in the current atmosphere of shrinking resources, would unduly hinder the operation of the BMV and the government as a whole. Rather than transfer the entire amounts within the Transportation Trust Fund to Public Works, I will explore the feasibility of transferring a portion of that fund to DPW earmarked specifically for road maintenance, and ensuring that other funds which are set aside for this purpose, such as the 7 percent tax on gasoline and 2 percent of real property tax collections, are actually used for this purpose.”
Closing out the final set of bills on a more positive note, the governor did sign into law:
— a bill that exempts non-profit groups such as rescue organizations from paying road tax (the bill also cleans up language in the law that severs the Bureau of Motor Vehicles from the V.I. Police Department; allows for vehicles previously licensed in the territory to be eligible for a temporary license plate; increases the expiration date for drivers' licenses from three to five years; and gives the newly revamped Taxi Commission the power to abolish the current moratorium on the issuance of taxi medallions through its rules and regulations);
— a bill limiting civil liability for people involved in specific equestrian activities; and
— a bill posthumously honoring Major General Jean Augustine Romney for his contributions to the local community.
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